Kirk Wessler: Zobrist, Rays 'just having fun'

Kirk Wessler

To play baseball in the major leagues, you have to be able to hit and run and catch and throw better than most people on the planet. But when you win a playoff series, a new skill set is required.

"You twist off the wire, then you loosen up the cork," Ben Zobrist shouted, trying to be heard above the happy bedlam in the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse Monday night. "Then ...

"Ahhhhhhhhhh!" Zobrist screamed, as two full bottles of champagne were poured upon his head by teammates on a sneak attack from his rear flank. "Wow! That's cold!"

After a shudder and a laugh, Zobrist resumed the loud lesson: "Then you shake up the bottle, you put your thumb over the cork, and you're ready to go when the cork pops off!"

Pop! Pop! Pop!

Corks were flying all over the room, rainbows of champagne arcing behind like jet trails.

You wonder how this mayhem might go over back in Zobrist's hometown of Eureka, Ill., which ended 150 years of prohibition and granted its first liquor licenses just two years ago.

"I don't know," Zobrist said, "but I'm not drinking it -- I'm just taking a bath in it!"

Quite a sweet one, too. The Rays are authoring a last-to-first tale that could go down in baseball lore as an all-timer. They already became the first club not named the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox to win the AL East title since 1997. Now they're trying to become to 2008 what the Miracle Mets were to 1969 and the Florida Marlins to 1997: World Series champions in their first trip to the postseason.

The Rays are among the half-dozen youngest teams in baseball and the youngest in the playoffs. Zobrist, at 27 years and 135 days old, is right on the club's average age. Until this season, he has been a shortstop. Now he's a utility player, having taken the field at second and third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions this season. Even though he was named AL Player of the Week for hitting .455 with four home runs the last seven days of the regular season, he did not see action against the Chicago White Sox in the playoffs.

If you think that bothered him, you should have seen him darting around the clubhouse, firing bubbly at every living thing.

"It's like when you're a kid, playing in the sprinkler," Zobrist said. "We're just having fun getting wet."

Who knew this guy had a wild side? He even got one of the team's trademark Mohawk haircuts earlier this season. But that took some prodding. Liquor might have been taboo to sell in Eureka, but people could drive a few miles out of town and bring it into their homes. Mohawk haircuts in the town where Ronald Reagan went to college?

"I resisted til I knew it was inevitable," Zobrist said. "My wife was all about it, though. Then Joe (Maddon, the Rays manager) got one. Over two-thirds of the team had done it. If it was an individual thing, I wouldn't have done it because I wouldn't want to stand out. But it was a team thing."

So he shaved both sides of his head to the skin and left a thick bush down the middle.

Fair to say the Rays are enjoying the start of this playoff ride. They're young and fearless and talented. A good combination.

On the other side of The Cell, Jim Thome remembered what that was like. Now 38 and the White Sox designated hitter, Thome was 25 when he made his first playoffs, with a young and powerful Cleveland Indians club.

"The first postseason was kind of a blur, it went by so quick," Thome said. "But it was very emotional, and I remember going home after it and feeling very proud of what the club had accomplished."

Thome remembers the veterans on that Cleveland ballclub advising him to savor the moment, because a ballplayer never knows when he'll get another championship shot. But the Indians kept going back.

They advanced five years in a row and six times in Thome's 12 seasons with them, reaching the World Series twice, and it got easier to forget the sage wisdom. Thome said he never took the postseason for granted, but he didn't expect after 2001, when he was in his prime, that it would be seven years before he tasted playoff baseball again.

Thome has exercised his contract option and will return to the White Sox for one more season, in 2009. He professes confidence in general manager Kenny Williams to make the necessary offseason moves to strengthen the team. And this playoff experience has Thome stoked about making another run next season.

"Any time you make the postseason, you need to stop and truly soak it all in," he said.

On the losing side, that soaking makes you yearn even more to win it all.

On the winning side, at least for one night, it just means you're happy and wet.

Kirk Wessler is the Peoria Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached