Telander: Giving Carlos Zambrano another chance is a bad idea
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com November 15, 2011 8:24PM
Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano breaks his bat over his knee after striking out to end the 5th inning as the Chicago Cubs host the Houston Astros Tuesday May 31, 2011 at Wrigley Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: December 17, 2011 8:37AM
How many times do you send the bad kid in class to the corner before you kick him out of school?
With Carlos Zambrano and the Cubs, it’s kinda like forever. And never.
‘‘I told him we would give him the right to earn his way back to being a Cub,’’ new team president Theo Epstein said Monday of the gigantic, unpredictable, wildly talented, heat-and-tantrum-throwing, loose-screwed, 30-year-old right-handed pitcher.
Zambrano, who has 125 wins in his 11 years as a Cub, was last seen quitting on the team Aug. 12, clearing out his locker and saying he was ‘‘retiring.’’
We all know athletes who are ‘‘retiring’’ are really just ‘‘chillin’.”
But with Z, who has worn the dunce cap for the Cubs for way too many moments, you almost hoped he meant it.
He has a big contract, the status of which is uncertain — though he is technically a free agent with a vesting option — but he has a much bigger hole in his psyche that should take precedence over all.
As it stands, the guy does not have the mental stability and self-control to be a big-league pitcher. Not at all.
You watch him on the mound the way you watch a huge, slowly cranking Jack-in-the-box with a grenade in its mouth.
I spoke recently with a minor-league player from Zambrano’s home country of Venezuela, and he said that Big Z is well known on the baseball circuit down there, where he plays occasionally, and a lot of countrymen consider him an arrogant jerk.
And yet . . . people do change.
With topics like rebirth I always think of Calvin Cordozar Broadus Jr. —aka ‘‘Snoop Dogg’’ — the erstwhile drug dealer, gang member, pimp, rapper and current porn-film director, who somehow has evolved into America’s ghetto sweetie and does endorsements for Orbit gum, Chrysler and Boost Mobile.
Dogg-style could be Z-style, no? Weirder things have happened?
Yeah, I’m thinking this is a big mistake by Epstein and his brain trust.
I know Epstein has never personally sent Zambrano to the corner, but he should have learned from seeing everybody from Lou Piniella to Jim Hendry to Mike Quade do it.
Always Zambrano returns from a smashed water cooler, a teammate slugged, a glove flung in rage, a whole team called out, by saying he has learned his lesson and he will be kinder, gentler, saner.
But it’s in his DNA to go nuts at some unpredictable moment.
Like when he broke a bat over his knee last May after striking out. ‘‘I’d like that not to be a regular occurrence,’’ said Quade, who then added, ‘‘It was somewhat impressive.’’
Of course. But it was nuts.
Tellingly, Zambrano came back from a 2010 suspension for screaming at teammates after pitching poorly June 25 at U.S. Cellular Field and proceeded to go 8-0 to end the season. But it was a season that meant nothing. It was a display signifying little but sheer talent. And who doesn’t know Z has that?
Zambrano had to take anger-management counseling during the off-season, and did anything change?
He came back last spring, told us all down there at the Mesa training facility that —ta-da! — ‘‘I’m cured.’’
I listened and laughed with everybody else.
It was funny, but it was nonsense.
After he quit on the Cubs in Atlanta last August after giving up a quick five home runs to the Braves in a horrible outing, he then apologized a couple of days later.
‘‘I feel much better,’’ he said. ‘‘It was sad what happened. That never should have come out of my mouth.’’
But like a faucet when turned, the Z mouth floweth.
And, I have the sad feeling, it will floweth forever.
And so will the tantrums and occasional violence. It was not an accident that the 6-5, 270-pound Zambrano was named in one poll of major-league players as the man you would least want to get into a fight with.
I remember seeing Z swing and pull a balled-fisted punch at a smallish sportswriter in the dugout before a game — with a sly grin — and thinking, God, the power this man can produce so quickly.
Zambrano will come to spring training and say and do all the right things. Remember, this fellow has the gift.
His arm is a slingshot, and so, as we see, he gets chance after chance.
But he will explode somehow, somewhere, and the team will go down with him.
What about this doesn’t Epstein get?
If Epstein truly plans to break from the Cubs’ chains of the past, then this man can’t be aboard, even ‘‘if he earns his way back under certain conditions.’’ Along with Kerry Wood, Zambrano is the only player left from the 2002 Cubs team, and one from back then is plenty.
I mean, who’s next?
Maybe he’s cured, too.