May 2010 Jill Ewert
Ben Zobrist has one of those stories. The ones that make kids play harder, dream bigger and aim higher. The ones that inspire even the most improbable of visions. The ones that seem to spotlight the magnitude and sovereignty of God. Undrafted and unscholarshipped out of high school, Zobrist thought his baseball days were over when he finished his senior season at Eureka High School in Eureka, Ill. Like a typical senior, he weighed his career options and college choices, and even looked into a Bible college in Kansas City. But midway through the summer, he still didn’t know where to go or what to do.
Only one thing was clear in Zobrist’s mind. After accepting Christ as his Savior as a 5-year-old under the direction of his Christian parents and then fully surrendering to Him as Lord of his life in high school, Zobrist knew he wanted his life to make a difference for the Kingdom of God. The rest was all just a little
“I did a lot of questioning that year and trying to figure out where I was going in life,” said Zobrist, sitting down for a preseason interview with STV at the Tampa Bay Rays’ spring training facility in Port Charlotte, Fla. “I had a lot of anxiety that I had to release to the Lord. Finally I just said, ‘You know what? I don’t need any of this. I’d rather have peace. I’d rather trust God and let Him take care of it all.’ And that’s when everything started opening up.”
Still undecided about where to go to college at the end of June, Zobrist took one last shot at baseball by participating in a nearby skills showcase for coaches and scouts. One of the coaches on hand was NAIA legend Elliot Johnson from Olivet Nazarene University (Ill.). In the young Zobrist, Johnson saw potential no one else did. He offered Zobrist a place on the team and reported back to his coaching staff. Soon, they, too, were believers in Zobrist’s ability.
“We could tell he was a good athlete, but we had no idea he was going to be a big-leaguer,” said Chad Gassman, who served on Johnson’s staff at the time and is currently the head coach at Waldorf College (Iowa) and manager of the Cape Cod League’s Hyannis Mets. “But when he walked on campus that first year, you could tell by the way he approached the game that he had the potential to be something special. He was a quality person, a hard worker and a skilled player.”
As a pitcher and infielder at Olivet, Zobrist developed his skills on the field but impressed others by investing equal if not greater effort into his spiritual growth. He led the campus FCA Huddle, contributed to the team’s spiritual development, and even made an impact on his superiors.
“I almost hate to say it, but even as a coach he kept me accountable,” Gassman said with a laugh. “He made everyone around him—his teammates and coaches—stronger. Whenever you’re with Ben, iron truly sharpens iron.”
While Zobrist’s spiritual leadership and maturity spilled over onto those in the clubhouse, the young infielder was himself learning valuable lessons about the God he’d come to know.
Prior to attending the skills showcase that had sent him to Olivet Nazarene, Zobrist had asked God for clarity regarding his future. When God delivered so obviously by giving him streamlined direction, Zobrist began to consider God’s sovereignty in a new way.
“I’d asked for clarity, and clarity came,” Zobrist said. “Coming through that was a ding factor for me. I thought if God did that for college, then maybe He would do that for my spouse. Maybe He would do that for my career someday. Maybe He would make all these things happen in such a way that I wouldn’t have to question—I would just trust. That was essentially what started happening in my life.”
Ben Zobrist – #18
Born: . . . . . . . . . . . . . May 26, 1981
Hometown: . . . . . . . . Eureka, Ill.
Height/Weight: . . . . . 6-3/200
Position: . . . . . . . . . . .OF
MLB Debut: . . . . . . . . Aug. 1, 2006
•Member of the 2008 AL Champion Tampa Bay Rays
•2009 MLB All-Star
Throughout his time at Olivet, Zobrist continued asking for clarity. After a quality career with the Tigers, Zobrist prayed about and made the decision to transfer to Division-I Dallas Baptist University for his senior year. It was another God-ordained, prayed-up decision that paid off, as Zobrist was noticed and selected by the Houston Astros in the 2004 MLB Draft.
Unlike many major leaguers, Zobrist didn’t have to spend much time in the minors. Midway through the 2006 season, the Astros traded him to the Tampa Bay Rays, and he immediately took over as the team’s big-league shortstop. He endured two up-and-down years but altered his swing prior to the start of the 2008 season and returned to the team with a powerful bat—one that helped the Rays to their first World Series appearance in franchise history.
Zobrist continued his individual success in 2009, earning his first MLB All-Star nod and ranking among the American League’s top 25 in six major categories. And as his on-the-field stock has risen, so has his fame.
“I feel really humbled by the fact that I have a platform,” said Zobrist, who maximizes his status by speaking at faith-promoting events. “We have a passion to use where God has placed us in order to help kids pursue a relationship with Christ. The fruit we need to bear should be in multiplying believers, and we want to help them focus on the gospel and help generate a passion for Christ inside of them.”
The “we” Zobrist mentions is where his story takes a deeper spiritual turn.
Rewind back through his baseball career to his freshman year at Olivet when one of Zobrist’s teammates—a senior who was already married—introduced Zobrist to his wife’s sister via e-mail, thinking the two might hit it off.
Only a junior at Iowa City High School, though, young Julianna Gilmore was focused on a future that included more performing and singing than dating.
“Sure, I liked boys, but I was pretty career-focused on music,” said Julianna, now an independent Christian recording artist whose first release The Tree was widely praised in the media for its unique spin on Christian music. “I knew I was heading to Belmont University in Tennessee, so Ben and I talked on the phone, but we both knew it wasn’t really the right time.”
After a casual dialogue, Zobrist and Julianna decided to postpone communication indefinitely knowing that, if God wanted something to develop in the future, He’d make a way. The two parted ways on friendly terms and left it all up to divine circumstances.
It didn’t take long for God’s hand to move. A few months later, Zobrist was traveling with his team to Florida for spring games when he spotted a familiar face walking into the lobby of his Daytona Beach hotel. It was Julianna, whose family was also staying there.
“That was crazy,” Julianna said. “I was from Iowa; he was from Illinois, and we saw each other totally randomly.”
Added Zobrist: “It was obvious that God was bringing her back into my life. It was just a little glimpse. Nothing had changed circumstantially, so we didn’t start communicating immediately again, but from then on I just couldn’t get her out of my heart.”
“Christ didn’t come just to make us better people. He came to die for us and to let us know that He was the better person. I want people to know that everything good in me comes from Him and not my own effort.”
Unable to forget about her, Zobrist eventually decided to take action by sending Julianna a casual e-mail. Little did he know how interesting his timing would be.
She had just ended a rough relationship and was frustrated with men. So, when Julianna received Zobrist’s e-mail, she felt more confused than ever.
“I just started bawling to my best friend, ranting that he was just this guy who was kind of in my life, but kind of not,” Julianna said, chuckling at the memory. “I told her that, from that day on, I was going to pray that God would either put him in my life or take him out, because I was tired of being teased by the idea of a mature, godly man.”
In Julianna’s eyes, Zobrist had already earned respect based on their previous interaction. She’d seen his maturity in the Lord and noticed a difference in how he treated her. Both her father and brother, who had gotten to know Zobrist through baseball, loved him—a small miracle in itself considering their protective nature. Now, it was time for something to change. It was time to either go for it or cut it off.
Refusing to take the lead in the relationship or try to control what would happen between them, Julianna went to the Lord with her own intentional prayers for clarification. Just two weeks later, she received her surprising answer: Ben Zobrist standing on her Tennessee doorstep.
By this time, Zobrist was a senior at Dallas Baptist and a teammate of Julianna’s brother. On a whim, the two boys had driven up to surprise Julianna on her birthday.
Talk about a birthday gift. Instead of flowers or candy, Zobrist knew what he would offer Julianna: a Christ-centered, intentional relationship.
“She was just this awesome, godly woman, and I’d kind of had her on a pedestal for a while,” Zobrist said. “I just decided to put myself out there and see if she had any interest.”
She did. But, according to Julianna, it was the result of divine intervention.
“It was just so clear that God was the One who wanted us together,” she said. “I’d been praying intentionally, and Ben had felt an urgency to know if I felt anything for him. I was finally like, ‘OK, Lord, I get it.’ We started dating that night.”
After a year and four months of dating, the Zobrists were engaged. They married on Dec. 17, 2005; Julianna’s senior year.
“Ben is very dedicated to everything he puts his mind to,” Julianna said. “That goes for his job, for the way he dated me and pursued me, the way he’s been my husband, and now the way he’s been a father to our son. He is just constantly talking with the Lord and trying to learn more about being the man God wants him to be. He has this amazing leadership strength from God through the Holy Spirit, and I respect him so much.”
For Zobrist, the love and respect is reciprocated. After four years of marriage, he has seen the blessings of his godly wife and counts it a privilege to be her husband, especially considering the path she could have taken.
A standout performer and singer at Belmont, Julianna had options for a full-time career in music. Even now, producers say she has not only the talent but also the charisma to make it big in the industry.
“I always tell people that Julianna is way more talented than I am,” Zobrist said with a proud smile regarding his wife and the mother of their one-year-old son, Zion. “She could be a very out-in-front-ofeverybody musician if she wasn’t willing to stay with me all year long and to be at home with our son. She sacrificed a lot of her career to be able to be a wife and mother first. But our family roles are important to us.”
“Ben is very dedicated to everything he puts his mind to… He has this amazing leadership strength from God through the Holy Spirit...”
– Julianna Zobrist
Instead of pursuing her music career, Julianna first pursues the family that God gave her. She remains active in the music industry, but only if it allows her to travel with her husband. Not willing to waste her talents, either, she exercises them creatively by scheduling shows that coordinate with her husband’s travel schedule.
In striking this kind of family balance, both Ben and Julianna hope to set a positive example not only for other married couples but also for their son as he grows.
“Zion needs a father figure; he needs to see Dad on the job working hard and Mom working hard to allow us to stay together,” Julianna said. “Ben is always saying that I sacrificed being a rock star to be his wife and a mom, and I told him the other day, ‘Heck yes I did! And I would never want it any other way.’ I would never want Zion to grow up and hear a reporter say that I could have done this or that. If that happened, I’d say, ‘Yes, I could have, but praise God I didn’t. And I wouldn’t change a moment.’ I want to be his mom, and I want to be Ben’s wife.”
Through their commitment to staying together on the road and at home, Ben and Julianna Zobrist have also developed a unique ministry. It’s not rare to see a flier advertising an event that features the testimony of the MLB All-Star and the special music of his wife.
Churches, specifically, are an important target for the Zobrists. While they understand that God has given them a platform to share their faith among both believers and non-believers, they have a specific desire to reach out to and build up fellow Christians.
“So many of us in the church need to be evangelized, too,” Zobrist said. “It’s important to make sure the gospel keeps going forward in our own hearts. We are still learning how to do that, but we know that Christians need to be encouraged, and we want to do that however we can.”
One way Zobrist has been able to reach that audience has been through FCA.
Ben, Julianna and Zion Zobrist at the
2009 FCA banquet in Tampa
Active in the ministry throughout high school and college and even attending FCA Leadership Camp at the ministry’s former National Conference Center in Indiana, Zobrist makes frequent appearances at ministry events.
“Ben is really one of a kind,” said Tampa FCA Multi-Area Director Glen Shamblen, who enlisted the Zobrist speaking/singing duo for his 2009 banquet. “That night Ben just opened his heart and shared what Christ meant in his life. He literally stayed until he and I were the last pair to leave. He signed everything brought to him. Several times, I even saw him go to his knees so he could speak to younger children at their eye-level. Both he and Julianna took time with everyone who wanted it, and they made such an impact.”
Beyond the Tampa banquet, Zobrist also has made several appearances at area high schools through FCA, has spoken at the ministry’s local auction, and has even spent time ministering to groups of regional Huddle Coaches.
For Zobrist, reaching out through FCA is a natural fit.
“I loved my time in FCA as a student-athlete,” he said. “And now it’s been a great organization and a great vehicle for us to reach out to the community and reach the fellow believers who are on our hearts. We love when Christians are reaching into the community and schools and spreading the gospel.”
Through his and Julianna’s appearances in these settings, Zobrist also is able to take a particular stance that sets him apart from many of today’s pro athletes, even those who are Christian, and that is his desire to share the whole truth.
“Even as Christians, everyone wants us to give a message about hard work and character, but the message we carry is an exclusive message—one about Christ and His mystery,” he said. “I know that I’ve glossed over it in the past. I’ve failed to mention sin and what Christ has actually done for me in taking my penalty on Himself. I’ve failed to mention how unworthy I really am, and that that’s why Christ had to die.”
It’s a heavy message, but one that Zobrist feels compelled to tell. He’s heard enough of the “fluff” and knows that the gospel—the full gospel—must be shared in order to make the impact it should.
“The last thing we want people to do is come away from a message about Christ thinking that it’s just about trying to become a better person,” he said. “Christ didn’t come just to make us better people. He came to die for us and to let us know that He was the better person. I want people to know that everything good in me comes from Him and not my own effort.”
“We have a passion to use where God has placed us in order to help kids pursue a relationship with Christ.”
– Ben Zobrist
In a world that glorifies batting averages and Gold Gloves, that message packs a punch, especially when it’s combined with the testimony of a beautiful rock star who loves the Lord just as much.
They’ve heard the statistics—the ones that tell how kids from the millennial generation admire entertainers more than any other public figures. So, Ben and Julianna Zobrist are using their time in the spotlight to redirect all watching eyes and point them to the cross.
“It’s really kind of sobering when we think about the responsibility we’ve been given,” Julianna said, “but it’s such an opportunity to spread the gospel and make disciples, which is why we’re here. We are both trying hard, but we’ve both learned that success only comes when we abide in the Lord and just walk with Him and love Him and the things of Him. When we do that, it will be obvious where we stand.”
“In Scripture, we’re told that if we stay connected to the vine, we are going to bear fruit,” he said. “The way we bear that fruit may not be the way people think, but what God has taught me over the years as He’s kept me in the game is that ministry can happen anywhere—wherever we work; wherever we go—but it has to happen in our own hearts first. Then, He will take our lives and connect them to those around us. It doesn’t matter if it’s a baseball field, a clubhouse, a backyard or a neighborhood. Wherever we go, we will be His vessels.”
Photos Courtesy of Skip Milos/Tampa Bay Rays
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.