Carlos Zambrano: Thanks For The Memories, But It Was Time For You To Go

Carlos Zambrano of the Chicago Cubs argues with home plate umpire Mark Carlson after a play at the plate with Zambrano and Nyjer Morgan of the Pittsburgh Pirates at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Despite what I've written here many times about Carlos Zambrano and my feeling that the Cubs should have gotten rid of him, I really do wish he could have been a Cub for his entire career, and that I could write, about eight years from now, that he'd be retiring as the greatest pitcher in Cubs history.

That's what Big Z's promise always was, tantalizingly so, as he'd be dominant for stretches (as he was after he returned from his 2010 exile to the bullpen and stay on the restricted list. Or the excitement he brought to a Miller Park full of Cubs fans (myself included) when he threw his no-hitter in Milwaukee against the Astros in 2008.

But too many times, I had to write about yet another Zambrano cataclysm, subsequent apology and promise never to do it again (even at one point citing his own kids as a reason he wouldn't). That would inevitably be followed by yet another incident that resulted in Cubs fans having to learn what the restricted list and the disqualified list are -- lists that are very rarely used for major league players. And so instead of remembering his pitching first and foremost, one of the primary images we are left with to remember him by is the one shown in the photo above -- Z yelling at an umpire in anger, veins bulging in his neck.

It's sad that a man with this much talent and clear passion for baseball and winning could not harness that into his on-field performance instead of the sideshows. I have no doubt that when Z told Theo Epstein in their lunch meeting last fall that he wanted to retire as a Cub, that he meant it.

But the reason Big Z was traded to the Marlins (pending, of course, physicals) for Chris Volstad, a young pitcher with a mediocre record but (we hope) upside, with the Cubs eating most of the $18 million owed, is summed up perfectly by David Kaplan at CSNChicago.com:

Several players have confirmed to me that Zambrano would have to change dramatically to be welcomed back on the team because of the number of incidents that he has had during his Cubs career, many of which alienated his teammates. As one Cubs veteran told me recently, "if this was a one time thing we would welcome him back and do all we could to make it work. However, this is the fifth or sixth time he has had an incident and at some point you have to cut ties and move on."

That's really it in the proverbial nutshell. Zambrano had multiple last chances and blew all of them. And with new management, Z no longer had the backing of Jim Hendry, who was responsible for signing him out of Venezuela when he was farm director in 1997, and who was the only big league GM he ever knew; Hendry was fired a week after Z's meltdown in Atlanta. New management has clearly wanted to make a break from the past in many ways, and this trade seemed inevitable even with Theo's statement that Z could work his way back to the team.

"Fifth or sixth time"? Let us count the ways.

The multiple incidents seem to have gotten worse as time went on.

Here's the game thread from June 1, 2007, the game when Z and Michael Barrett fought in the dugout and clubhouse. Check out some of the comments in that thread after the fighting was revealed.

In the recap to that game, I called Z's antics "indefensible":

Lou said in his postgame news conference that both players were "sent home", and that the club would "deal with it" on Saturday, and further, that there had been more fighting between the two after they had been sent to the clubhouse.

Well, that's not enough. I know much of the brass is in Arizona getting ready for next week's draft, but Jim Hendry's not leaving for Mesa until Monday.

Jim -- if you're reading this, it's time to make a bold move, time to shake things up, time to tell every single player and coach on this ballclub that "business as usual" (and five losses in a row is NOT good business, is it?) will not be tolerated.

Please disregard the fact that I suggested the Cubs should trade Z for Aaron Heilman and Mike Pelfrey, although Pelfrey might have been a useful addition. The next day, I repeated my call to trade Zambrano:

More info: the comments made by Carlos Zambrano on the Score today (regarding some "family problems" he had had over the last couple of weeks) confirm some information I had heard a while back, but did not want to post here because it was uncorroborated. And frankly, I am sorry that Z has had this sort of trouble (supposedly, something regarding his brother in Venezuela, with whom he is very close) -- but you simply cannot bring this sort of thing to the ballpark, or indeed, extrapolating this, NO ONE should bring these sorts of troubles to their workplace, if it is going to affect their work. Both Zambrano and Barrett were fined for yesterday's outburst, but not suspended -- frankly, the team can't afford to suspend them. But I do think, despite this from the above-linked article:

Zambrano and Barrett have expiring contracts, and both emphasized their loyalty to the organization. When asked if he wants to remain a Cub, Zambrano said, "Of course." Barrett added: "I love this organization from top to bottom."


... that Jim Hendry must, must, MUST begin to investigate trading both of them, and sooner rather than later.

Hendry did part of that, at least; Barrett was sent to the Padres just a couple of weeks later. Z remained. He was great the rest of 2007, and of course, threw the no-hitter in 2008 -- only to get hit hard in the start after the no-hitter, and showing up his manager:

Carlos Zambrano, coming off his no-hitter, started throwing a "no-outer", letting the first four batters reach base and then giving up a grand slam to Adam Kennedy. In so doing, Kennedy doubled his HR total to date this season in over 300 at-bats. It was wind-aided, but it didn't matter. Z was just as bad in the second inning, allowing two more hits and eventually three more runs (one of which scored after Sean Marshall relieved him), and Lou was, according to his remarks at the postgame news conference, irritated with Z for leaving the mound before he came to get him; Lou told him to go back there, and I think that's the least you can do to show some respect to your manager.

On May 27, 2009 -- that's when the argument shown in the photo at the top of this post took place -- Z was ejected after arguing a close call at the plate (replays showed Z was probably wrong) and I wrote this in the game recap:

But really, Z -- it's time to grow up. You will be 28 years old on Monday. Your ranting and raving today is probably going to cost you a start -- replays clearly showed contact between you and plate umpire Mark Carlson, although it also appeared that Carlson deliberately advanced toward Z, almost as if he wanted to make contact himself so as to get another suspension to his credit -- and then, your histrionics in throwing the ball almost to the LF wall and your glove toward the dugout has to worry your manager. After throwing 114 pitches, you heave the ball 300 feet? Better have your shoulder looked at, too.

Did he grow up after that? No, it got worse the following year, when Z and Derrek Lee had words in the dugout at the Cell after Zambrano apparently thought D-Lee didn't make enough effort going after a hard shot down the 1B line:

I was thinking all the way home about exactly how to approach Carlos Zambrano's tantrum -- and that's what it was, stomping around the dugout like a four-year-old who had his baseball taken away -- apparently because he didn't feel Derrek Lee either tried hard enough to stop Juan Pierre's ground ball double down the line leading off the game, or didn't argue that it was foul (it looked fair to me, and I was sitting directly down the RF line in the outfield; just saw the replay and that also confirmed it was a fair ball).

Z tossed a Gatorade cooler around during the incident; Lou Piniella took him out of the game after just one inning and sent him home; as he left the Cell, there was an occurrence tweeted by Carrie Muskat:

#Cubs Carlos Zambrano has reportedly left US Cellular but not without shouting obscenities at Chicago TV camera crews

Zambrano was subsequently suspended by the team and got sent to anger management counseling followed by a trip to the restricted list. That inspired me to write this post about "passion and fire" in baseball:

Though the Cubs have looked, many times this year, like a team that can't hit, can't pitch and can't field, I have no doubt that they care. Throwing a tantrum in the dugout and screaming and yelling at one of the most respected players in the game doesn't indicate "fire", it indicates that you have psychological problems that need to be addressed, and better addressed, perhaps, in another zip code.

And finally, there was Z's walkout on the team and "retirement" after getting hit hard and throwing at Chipper Jones in Atlanta last August. In my recap of that game, I wound up recapping all the posts I've linked above:

When he's had his past meltdowns, I've said his behavior was "indefensible" and the Cubs should trade him immediately (June 2007), that his antics were "childish" and he needed to "grow up" (May 2009) and that he "had to go" after an "epic meltdown" (June 2010).

Now, it's just sad. Sad that a pitcher with the talent that Big Z has can't harness that and focus on the job he has to do, sad that he'd run out on his team, sad that his obvious passion for winning has resulted in him taking actions detrimental to both himself and his teammates.

Sadness was the overwhelming emotion at the time for me, which brings me back to how I began this post. It is truly sad that Carlos Zambrano couldn't have been one of the most beloved Cubs of all time, among fans, writers, broadcasters, management and his teammates. There's no question that he was, and is, what broadcasters call a "competitor" -- he competed, and hard, and for lack of a better word, with passion. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to control his emotions, too many times.

And so he moves on, and he and Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen are close friends -- in fact, there was some controversy when Z and Ozzie had a pre-planned dinner out on the day he was ejected at the Cell in 2010. Maybe Ozzie can keep under control what no one associated with the Cubs could.

I wish Carlos Zambrano well. Since the Cubs' last pennant in 1945, only four pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins (347), Rick Reuschel (343), Greg Maddux (298) and Bob Rush (292) have started more games in a Cubs uniform than Z (282). Instead of finishing his career as a conquering hero in Chicago, perhaps leading the Cubs to that elusive World Series title, he'll be pitching for one year, not more (since his contract likely expires after 2012 unless he satisfies conditions for vesting his 2013 option that he's unlikely to meet) in the garish new multicolored cap and jersey of the Marlins.

It's just sad. Good luck, Z, except when you're facing the Cubs.

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