ST. PETERSBURG -- Midway through Ben Zobrist's visit to Bay Point Middle School on Wednesday, the second-year shortstop paused during one of his speeches to a geography class and math class.
As Zobrist was scanning the group of 40 students seated at different tables in the school's media center, he smiled, pointed towards a student sitting at one of the back tables and said, "Hey! I didn't know you were going to be here. How's it going?"
It turns out the student, seventh-grader Adam Peterson, is one of the more dedicated fans of the Devil Rays and attends close to every game with his family, which has season tickets. After the Rays' home games, Peterson and his family have become fixtures outside Tropicana Field to greet the players as they leave the stadium.
"This is really cool to have him here today," said Peterson. "We go to all the games, unless I'm playing in one, so it was neat that he recognized me and said, 'Hi.'"
The connection is a reflection of how the Devil Rays organization is committed to bridging and maintaining the relationship in the community. The surprise celebrity substitute teacher appearance by Zobrist as a part of the ongoing Raytheon MathMovesU initiative, builds on the number of programs the Rays are involved in.
Zobrist, who was joined by his wife, Julianna, spent over two hours moving between four different classrooms and the media center. At each class, the Dallas Baptist College graduate emphasized the need for hard work, and said his opportunity as a professional athlete developed through being successful in school.
"I'm happy to come out and interact with kids in settings like this because it allows me to stress the fundamentals of working hard," said Zobrist. "I'm glad that I can offer some advice that hopefully will make them better students and people. The biggest thing I try to stress is trying to do the best you can in everything you do, no matter if it's sports, school or whatever they are involved in."
As a part of the MathMovesU program, Zobrist also discussed the importance of math and used examples in baseball to explain its use in the real world. The 25-year-old Illinois native illustrated how averages and percentages are compiled on a daily basis to break down pitchers and batters, which the coaching staff shares with players in helping them understand the opponent's tendencies.
Several students wore MathMovesU T-shirts that highlighted the school's involvement in the web-based program, which features weekly prizes for solving math problems linked to today's teen-favorite celebrities. Zobrist's visit was the culmination to a school year that began with a 1,300-student kickoff rally in August 2006 that included Scott Kazmir as the celebrity speaker.
"This is an excellent way for kids to connect with math," said Mitch Lee, vice president of Raytheon's International Borders and Infrastructure business. "We're promoting math to kids and hope to make math cool because, as they get older, hopefully they will stay involved with the field. We have more and more jobs leaving the country, so it's important to help them realize now how valuable math is. And having athletes, who are celebrities to them, come and speak with them is a major way to connect with them."
Entering its second year, the MathMovesU program is one of two partnership's that Raytheon shares with the Devil Rays. Lee serves on the board of directors for the Pinellas Education Foundation, an organization devoted to enhancing educational opportunities for students and educators, with Matt Silverman, as well. Raytheon has also teamed up with the Rays in helping sponsor the McDill-ville section in Tropicana Field, located in the first row just behind the Devil Rays bullpen along the first-base line. The section of 24 seats is reserved to recognize and reward military personnel and their family members.
During Zobrist's appearance, he answered several questions from students that revealed what it's like to be a professional baseball player, including what his favorite cities to play in are (New York and Boston), what's the biggest difference between the Major and Minor Leagues (the pitchers and the speed of the play), and if it's tough to communicate with players who don't speak the language, like Akinori Iwamura (no, because players like Aki can understand English pretty well).
But the most eye-opening question and answer came during Zobrist's last stop on the celebrity substitute teacher tour in Elizabeth Wright's math class, when an intrigued student asked what it's like playing with Carl Crawford.
Zobrist paused, laughed and said, "Whew, sometimes you can't help but stop and watch he's so good. You have to remember that you're in the game as well."
Chris Girandola is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.