As a video package showed highlights from the first nine seasons of his big-league career, Ben Zobrist stood a few feet behind home plate at Tropicana Field and felt the tug of dueling poles, his past and his present jousting for his attention hours before a 3-2 Royals victory.
In the dugout to his left stood his new teammates, the Kansas City Royals, the team which rescued him from an unhappy sojourn in Oakland and thrust him into a World Series chase. To his right stood his former teammates from Tampa Bay, the organization that acquired him nearly a decade ago, developed him into a two-time All-Star and ultimately dealt him to the Athletics last winter.
"The feel of this place, it just feels like home to us," Zobrist said. "Just walking into the building -- it'll always feel that way to us."
Straight ahead, in the middle of the diamond, was the position Zobrist will occupy for the duration of his stay with the Royals. Zobrist played second base on Friday night. When Alex Gordon returns from the disabled list in the coming days, Zobrist will continue to "mostly" play there for Kansas City, manager Ned Yost revealed before Friday's game.
The decision means Omar Infante, one of the highest-paid Royals and a player still due $17.75 million through 2017, will head to the bench. The organization views Infante as a relaible defender, but his .539 on-base plus slugging percentage ranked last among the 155 hitters qualified for the batting title heading into Friday's games.
Asked if he felt like the team had given Infante every opportunity to arrest his downward slide, Yost nodded. "We have," he said. "We have."
Zobrist may never win a Gold Glove at second base, but Royals officials vouch for his defense. The more appealing aspect of his game is his bat. Zobrist smacked two hits on Friday, including a third-inning double, after which he came around to score on a two-run homer off a catwalk by Kendrys Morales.
The victory moved the Royals, 79-49, to 30 games above .500. It is the first time a Royals group has achieved that mark since the 1980 team finished 32 games above .500. At 22-11, the Royals own the best record in baseball in one-run games.
Kendrys Morales powers Royals over Rays
Edinson Volquez earned the win in a 3-2 victory.
"I knew that they were a very special group of guys," Yost said. "What's exceeded my expectations is the way that they're able to sustain their energy, every single day, every single pitch, every inning of every game. That's hard to do over the grind of 162 games. That's been very, very impressive to me."
Paulo Orlando contributed an RBI single in the first, but also allowed a run when he dropped a pop-up in left field in the third. Edinson Volquez recovered to last 6 2/3 innings without giving up a third run.
Through 27 starts in 2015, Volquez is 12-7 with a 3.27 ERA in 165 1/3 innings. Through 27 starts in 2014, James Shields went 12-6 with a 3.28 ERA in 178 1/3 innings. Volquez collected a victory for the first time since Aug. 7.
"Before tonight, I haven't felt like I won a game in two months," Volquez said. "I was like, 'Come on, boys. Pick me up. Win the game for me.' And they did."
Tampa Bay opened its arms to Zobrist on Friday. His wife, Julianna, sang The National Anthem. The crowd greeted him with a series of standing ovations. After the highlights played, the right-field scoreboard displayed a message, "THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BEN."
Despite the welcome, the homecoming caused discomfort for Zobrist. He called the day "bittersweet." He loved his time as a Ray. Every day he checks his phone for updates from their games.
Before Friday's contest, he visited his friends in the home clubhouse. He met with the team chaplain. He hugged local reporters. The only annoyance was the eventuality of that night's competition.
"I'm so pumped and excited to see people," Zobrist said. "But I'm not looking forward to getting into the box and facing my former team tonight."
Houston drafted Zobrist, a college shortstop, in the sixth round in 2004. Two years later, the Astros shipped him to Tampa Bay as part of a package for outfielder Aubrey Huff. The Rays envisioned Zobrist as something other than a shortstop. He became a super-utility player, capable of playing second base one night, right field the next and third base on the third day.
The transition was not always easy. Zobrist benefited because the Rays took the long view. The organization allowed him the opportunity to develop at the highest level. He appreciated the patience showed him by manager Joe Maddon.
"Thankfully, Joe saw something more in me," Zobrist said. "I remember in my first year, in '06, being on a road trip and feeling like I'm sinking a little bit. And Joe just being like, 'Just relax. You're going to be in this league for 10 years.'
"I was like, 'Easy for you to say!'"
Maddon was right. Zobrist found a niche on the Rays' World Series team in 2008. He pounded 27 homers and made his first All-Star team in 2009. As Tampa Bay's highlight package proclaimed before Friday's game, he led all position players in FanGraphs' version of wins above replacement from 2009-12. A small-market team vying against financial Goliaths in Boston and New York, Tampa Bay made the playoffs four times in Zobrist's tenure.
The band broke up last winter. After general manager Andrew Friedman left to run the Dodgers, Maddon opted out of his contract and drove his RV to Chicago's North Side to manage the Cubs. In the previous years, Tampa Bay had already traded franchise pillars like Shields and David Price. This time they flipped Zobrist and infielder Yunel Escobar to Oakland for designated hitter John Jaso and two minor-leaguers.
Zobrist compared the trade to a shot of adrenaline. The thrill faded quickly. Zobrist underwent knee surgery to repair his meniscus in April and missed a month. When the Athletics visited Tropicana Field in late May, Zobrist did not make the trip. His team stumbled out of the playoff race, which meant Zobrist welcomed the opportunity to come to Kansas City, a club with championship aspirations and a double-digit lead in the American League Central.
"I couldn't have asked to be put in a better situation, as far as where as team is at that point in the season," Zobrist said. "I don't know what the exact amount of games that we're up by right now. But no pressure. Just coming in, these guys here have already been a winning ballclub this year, done really well.
"For me to just try to fit seamlessly into that lineup, and do what I know that I'm capable of doing, has been easy as I think it could be."
As Zobrist spoke to a roomful of reporters, a Royals official reminded him that Kansas City's division lead before Friday was 13 games.
"OK," Zobrist said. "Good."
Zobrist will become a free agent after this season. He has expressed interest in returning to Kansas City, but the Royals are expected to prioritize re-signing Gordon.
Zobrist admitted he has considered the possibilities of free agency. But he has other priorities in the present. Julianna is pregnant with their third child. Zobrist does not know if it will be a girl or a boy. The parents are waiting to be surprised.
"Right now, we're thinking about playoffs and baby," Zobrist said. "That's what we're thinking about, really. We're trying to just keep it that far ahead, and not get too much further than that. But a lot could happen in the next three, four months for us."