NOTE: I posted this early Friday, and then... well, there was quite a bit of other news Friday so this post got quickly buried and not heavily commented. I thought, since it's quieter on Monday, I'd move this back to the top of the page, in case you missed it on Friday.
Carlos Zambrano played 11 seasons for the Cubs. Not many players in recent years have had that many years in blue pinstripes -- since 1980, apart from Big Z only Ryne Sandberg, Shawon Dunston, Kerry Wood, Sammy Sosa and Mark Grace have played for the Cubs for that long or longer -- and that long a tenure has to create at least some positive memorable moments. Since I detailed the reasons yesterday why new Cubs management felt they had to send him to the Marlins and move on, it seems only right that we recall the good things about Big Z, the things that made us feel good about him, the things that made him a popular player for a long time.
I first saw Carlos Zambrano pitch in spring training in 2001; it was a game against the Oakland Athletics, as I recall, though there aren't any spring box score links going back that far and I can't remember exactly what he did that day. I do remember thinking that this tall, skinny (yes, he was quite thin), not-yet-20-year-old kid wearing No. 67 might someday make a good closer.
You know, even in hindsight and knowing what Z did all these years, that might not have been a bad idea. Consider guys like Jose Valverde, who often show antics on the field that fans of opposing teams don't really care for. Z might have been a closer like that; throwing one inning at a time wouldn't have given him the long days on the mound that eventually led to his blowups. I have no doubt that if he'd been made a setup man, then closer, out of the minor leagues, that he'd have been a good one. On August 20, 2001 he became the first player born in the 1980s to make a major league appearance when he started the second game of a doubleheader against the Brewers at Wrigley Field. He got hit hard and gave up seven runs in four innings. I was at that game, but truth be told, I don't recall much about what he did that day other than noting how young he was. In the expansion era (since 1961), Z is the youngest Cubs pitcher to make his MLB debut as a starter.
2003 was the first year Z was in the rotation full time and he made the most of the chance, leading the NL in HR rate (0.4) and giving up just nine homers in 214 innings. He had his best games when his hard sinker was working; I wish he'd have stuck with that instead of trying to become a strikeout pitcher. It seems that management, both the front office and field managers, wanted Cubs pitchers to be "hard throwers" and Z's walk and HR totals started going up beginning in 2005. He led the NL in walks in both 2006 and 2007, but also led the league in wins in 2006 for a really bad Cubs team, and finished fifth in Cy Young voting in both seasons.
This was also around the time that everyone became aware of how good a hitter he was. In 2005, he hit .300 with a .463 SLG (six doubles, two triples and a home run). The home run was a monstrous shot in Minute Maid Park off Roy Oswalt that helped the Cubs win this game 4-2. A year later he hit only .151, but with six HR, tying the Cubs' team record set by Fergie Jenkins in 1971.
Overall with the Cubs, in 708 plate appearances -- about one season's worth for a leadoff hitter -- Z hit .241/.251/.395 with 26 doubles, three triples, 23 home runs, 69 RBI and 72 runs scored. In fact, those numbers would look even better if his managers hadn't insisted on using him as a pinch-hitter, something he wasn't very good at (3-for-29 lifetime with 14 strikeouts). Take out those AB and Z's career triple-slash line is .248/.258/.408. His 23 HR lead all active pitchers and if he hits two this year, he will pass Bob Gibson and Walter Johnson on the all-time pitcher home run list.
The hitting, I will miss. Watching Big Z take one of those gargantuan swings, trying to smash a 900-foot homer into Lake Michigan, was always entertaining, and when he connected, even more fun.
On October 3, 2007, it appeared that Z would finally make his mark in the postseason. In Game 1 of the NLDS against the Diamondbacks he had an outstanding outing -- six innings, three hits, one run, eight strikeouts. But Lou Piniella, in one of his worst managerial moves, pulled him after only 85 pitches, ostensibly "saving" him for Game 4. The game was tied 1-1 and Z was cruising. Lou should have left him in; Carlos Marmol, then a setup man, blew the game and there never was a Game 4.
Then there was Z's no-hitter on Sept. 14, 2008, one of the most exciting times I've ever spent at a ballpark. You all know the details; here's what I wrote about how Z performed in that day's game recap:
He was focused, didn't engage in mound histrionics, and kept his pitch count down (110 pitches, 73 strikes, and if that doesn't sound like "down", remember that we have seen Z throw 100 pitches in five innings at times in the past). Give Geovany Soto some credit for this -- I think he has been a real calming influence on Z ever since his recall, and deserves all the props he can get for handling the entire pitching staff all year like a veteran. Z also singled and scored -- thankfully, the relay throw was bobbled when Z was rounding third, because the last thing any of us wanted to see was Z having to slide into the plate.
It's the only no-hitter thrown by a Cubs pitcher in the last 39 years. I feel privileged to have seen it in person. It will always be one of my best baseball memories.
And a year later, on Sept. 25, 2009, he threw a game that some think was nearly as good as his no-hitter. He outpitched the Giants' Tim Lincecum at AT&T Park and threw a two-hit shutout (both singles) with eight strikeouts. The Cubs won three of four in that series and that game helped knock the Giants out of the wild card race.
Time has a way of making bad memories fade and keeping the good memories up front. When Ron Santo was traded away from the Cubs after 1973, a lot of fans, tired of Santo's strikeouts and the fact that teams he starred on never won anything, said "Good riddance." Yet here we are, about to celebrate Santo's induction into the Hall of Fame as one of the most beloved figures in team history.
I'm not saying Zambrano will be a Hall of Famer -- most likely, not -- only that in spite of the bad behavior that pushed Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to send him away almost at any cost, there are still many good memories we all share of Carlos Zambrano's 11 seasons in a Cubs uniform, three of which wound up as playoff years, even though the Cubs were eliminated in each of those postseasons. Like it was for Santo at the time he left, now is the time for Z to go, for various reasons.
I do wish Z well, except when he's facing the Cubs. And I hope Chris Volstad is at least a serviceable major league starter. It's a new dawn and a new era for the Cubs, and we'll eventually find new heroes.
Until then, for a moment at least, forget the bad behavior and keep the memorable good times in mind.