On August 12, I started writing this post.
Carlos Zambrano had just lost his cool against the Braves, been ejected, and then walked out on his teammates. He told clubhouse staff he was retiring, and then-GM Jim Hendry immediately told the world that the Cubs were accepting Z’s retirement. I didn’t think Z would actually “retire” at that time, but I certainly thought he’d thrown his last pitch as a Cub. So I wrote.
But then Hendry was fired, Zambrano was squirreled away on the disqualified list, and this post sat in the can as a draft for almost five months. I knew I’d need it eventually.
I knew it in the same way that you knew it. We knew this day would come. Sure, there was talk of yet another return to the team – there’s a new man in charge, after all – and a reconciliation following a protracted process of regaining everyone’s trust. But that was merely a method of ensuring that this day, by way of a trade, would come. If you’re honest with yourself, you knew it all along.
For a long time, I loved Carlos Zambrano.
Perhaps my favorite Zambrano moment came in a summer game back in 2004, when he twice plunked St. Louis Cardinals’ outfielder Jim Edmonds, ostensibly because he thought Edmonds was showing him up. Zambrano was summarily tossed. Screw you, Edmonds. I love me some Big Z. Maybe it was kind of bush for Z to throw at you twice … but, whatever. It was great drama.
That was my relationship with Big Z for so many years. He did something reckless, hostile, or stupid, and I applauded him for it.
Beats the crap out of Michael Barrett? Well, that was Barrett’s fault, and the Cubs proved it by shipping Barrett out a couple weeks later (and giving Zambrano an extension). Z is so strong! Don’t mess with Z!
Angry outburst with an umpire? Z is so fiery! And funny! He just ejected the umpire!
Breaks his bat over his knee? Destroys a Gatorade machine? Sure, it’s destructive and dangerous, but Z is a bull! El Toro Loco!
Hurts his wrist typing too much on AIM? That’s so silly! Z is just like people!
Rips the team and says, “We stinks”? Well, the Cubs did stinks!
Engages in a very public fight with one of the best teammates ever, Derrek Lee? Well, Z just needs a little anger management. And, see? He came back better than ever!
Goes out to dinner with Ozzie Guillen after being sent home for the fight? Just Z being Z.
Repeatedly shows up his teammates while on the mound? But Z is so much fun! Look! He’s got a mustache!
It seems the Cubs and I were willing to accept all of those things – even excuse or defend them – so long as Zambrano was pitching well. Allow me to apologize now for my intellectual inconsistency, and my blind spots. Zambrano deserved far more criticism and admonishment than he received, at least from me.
There were unqualified good moments, too. The no-hitter, all the homers, his generosity in the community, his unbelievable athleticism.
Zambrano was a very good pitcher for the Cubs for a very long time. To ignore that fact today would be as irrational as our belief that his post-August dominance in 2010 was anything more than an aberration.
Outside of that statistical blip, Zambrano has been in deep decline for a half decade. His ERA and H/9 have been slowly creeping up, his WHIP and ERA+ slowly creeping down. Zambrano, the pitcher, is no longer what he once was.
Never was the decline more apparent than last year when his velocity dropped, his once dominant stuff fell off a cliff, and he became eminently hittable. It produced the worst season of his career, and there was reason to fear that things would only get worse next year.
For the past day and a half, I’ve discussed the Zambrano trade almost solely from the baseball perspective – which, given the aforementioned decline, makes some sense. I’ve tried very hard to separate the baseball reasons for the trade – money, performance, years under control, future projections – from the clubhouse and off-field impact. It’s usually fair to do that. But, with Zambrano, it probably isn’t. You can’t separate Z’s pitching from his antics. When you talk about wanting to see what Zambrano could do in 2012, are you so sure about that? You might want to see what he does when throwing the ball, but you might not want to see what he does at all other times. These are things I should have thought years ago.
You don’t get to keep Zambrano the baseball player without keeping Zambrano the repeatedly combustible, inexplicably immature, potentially detrimental teammate. There is no such thing as fairly evaluating this trade “from the baseball perspective.” I say, without a touch of glib bombast: Zambrano had to be traded.
Still, most of the time, Carlos Zambrano was so much fun to watch.
Like that time he threw at Jim Edmonds. Twice.
So I guess it’s fitting that, at the end of his days with the Cubs, it was a couple pitches thrown at an opposing player after Z was taken deep that set the ball unraveling.
And I see now what I should have seen many times before: Carlos Zambrano, as a baseball player, is a talented, unstable, petulant, man-child. Worse, he’s a bad teammate. I’m not one for affirmative chemistry, but I do suspect there’s some meat to the suggestion that a few bad apples can negatively impact the performance of the other players on the team – and the performance of the bad apples, themselves, if the situation gets ugly enough. The Cubs are probably better with Chris Volstad in the fold than Zambrano.
Maybe things really will turn around, both emotionally and physically, for Zambrano in Miami with his good friend Ozzie Guillen. How could I not wish him well, even after everything? I do. I hope he fares better there than he did here.
I can’t say I’ll miss Zambrano. But there will be many days that I miss watching him.
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