Carlos Pena gets high fives in the dugout including pitcher Carlos Zambrano after his 3-run homer in the 6th inning of the Cross Town Classic series pitting the Chicago Cubs at the Chicago White Sox Monday June 20, 2011 at US Cellular Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: June 21, 2011 7:05PM
A public warning of possible seismic activity from Carlos Zambrano was unnecessary Monday night. The citizenry had received enough of an education over the years in Big Z plate tectonics to be braced for an eruption.
Cubs vs. White Sox with Zambrano on the mound in the same ballpark where he went off last year, leading to a suspension and anger-management counseling — what could go wrong?
As it turned out, nothing. And that nothingness, that silence, that calm was something to behold in Zambrano at the Cell.
He gave up a two-run home run to the Sox’ Paul Konerko in the first inning, the type of thing that might have set off last year’s model, as well as any Zambrano model from the previous nine years. But this Big Z straightened his cap, took a deep breath and went back to work. He threw 7 2/3 innings of shutout ball after the homer, helping the Cubs to a 6-3 victory.
That’s called progress. If this keeps up, Zambrano’s a shoo-in for the Anger Manager of the Year award.
“People change,” he said. “Have you ever seen the movie ‘Rocky,’ where he fights I think it was in Russia? He said it good: It’s not too late for people to change.
“Over the years, you make a mistake because you’re human. I’m human. Everybody makes a mistake. Some make big mistakes. Some make insignificant mistakes. We all are human.”
Last year at the Cell, Zambrano was so frustrated by his team’s play that he started screaming at nobody in particular in the Cubs’ dugout. The problem was that somebody in particular, then-teammate Derrek Lee, was in the line of fire. Screaming ensued.
So did a three-game suspension and therapy to rein in Big Z’s temper.
Ozzie erupts this time
Monday arrived and departed with the same steady hum of serenity for the big righty. OK, let’s not get carried away. There was some facial twitching going on. Dirt was kicked, bull-like, on the mound. But he stayed level. Sox manager Ozzie Guillen? Not so self-controlled. He got thrown out of the game in the sixth inning after an argument with home plate umpire James Hoye. Guillen got his money’s worth by kicking the mask of Cubs catcher Geovany Soto.
At least one of Zambrano’s teammates sees a big change in him.
“From when he came back last year to now, I don’t think he gets enough credit for what he’s been able to do since he came back from suspension,” Ryan Dempster said. “A lot of guys kind of go the opposite direction. It’s like you’re always being told when you’re wrong and never being congratulated when you’re doing well.”
Earlier this month, Zambrano broke a bat over his knee after striking out, and it was discussed with the kind of gravity normally reserved for a North Korea military exercise.
“I think people need to give him a little slack every once in a while,” Dempster said. “Anything he does now is looked on as a big deal. He breaks a bat over his knee. Well, he’s always going to break a bat over his knee. He’s big enough and strong enough to do it.
“To be honest with you, I kind of like it. It intimidates the other team a little bit. It kind of makes you think twice about doing some things.”
Dempster is right. Zambrano has been mostly well behaved since last year’s explosion. His loud criticism a few weeks ago, when he called the Cubs an embarrassment, was dead on. Other players and managers have earned applause for similar statements over the years.
But when he criticized closer Carlos Marmol in the same outburst for throwing the wrong pitch and blowing a Zambrano victory, it came across as selfish. That’s because it was selfish.
Media spotlight isn’t easy
“The whole thing was meant well,” Dempster said. “It came from the heart. There was a lot of frustration going around because we weren’t playing the way we were capable of playing, that’s all. It wasn’t that we weren’t capable of winning. We just weren’t giving ourselves a chance to find out because we weren’t playing well.”
Dempster takes a wider view when it comes to Zambrano, a Venezuelan. It’s not one you’re likely to get from columnists and talk-show hosts.
“You know, it’s not an easy thing to be in the spotlight,” he said. “ ... And then being from another country? That’s a hard thing. You look at a guy like Aroldis Chapman in Cincinnati. You’re taking a kid fresh out of Cuba, he doesn’t speak much English at all, and you give him millions of dollars, throw him in the spotlight and say, ‘Here, go get everybody out. You throw hard, you’re supposed to.’
“Sometimes I think we miss that or we don’t see that. We don’t see what goes on on a day-to-day basis, the struggles Carlos had to overcome, whether it’s language or culture or whatever. Even being the top pitcher on the team, those are things I’m sure have taken awhile to learn. He’s probably grown up a lot.’’
When people ask Dempster what Zambrano is really like, the answer comes quickly.
“I say, ‘He’s awesome,’’’ Dempster said.
“I understand him just fine,’’ he said.