January 05, 2012
So this is how it ends for Carlos Zambrano in Chicago: Placed aboard a South Beach-bound flight with bags stuffed full of millions and instructions to tell Chris Volstad which train line to take to Wrigley Field.
Unlike his new teammate Mark Buehrle's departure from the other side of town, there will be no fond farewell as Zambrano sets sails for the Miami Marlins. No promise to stay in touch. No implied plans of a post-career reunion followed by a retired number ceremony and an instructor's gig at spring training.
Zambrano will get none of that from the Chicago Cubs, though perhaps the chance to pitch a contract year on a contending team in the proverbial "change of scenery" is a lot more valuable when you're just 30 years old and have already banked almost $100 million in career earnings.
Still, no matter how inevitable this divorce became over Zambrano's past few summers of discontent, there can be no denying that it wasn't supposed to end this way. The beefy right-hander found his way into more Chicago baseball headlines over the past decade than anyone not named Ozzie Guillen (his new manager) and it wasn't just because he had a worse handle on his temper than Lou Piniella, one of the managers he gave plenty of headaches.
No, Zambrano drew plenty of attention because he had the performance and the potential to help offset the punishment he dealt toward Gatorade coolers, home plate umpires and Michael Barrett's face. He was the pitcher's equivalent of Manny Ramirez, a team-changing talent that came with a cost that went past a huge paycheck every two weeks.
As someone who got to watch and cover Zambrano for the past 10 seasons, I agree with Desipio's Andy Dolan and can say that it was mostly a lot of fun. Zambrano burst onto the scene as the No. 3 pitcher behind Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and you didn't have to know much about baseball to know that he might end up being better than both of them. Wood and Prior's litany of injuries unfortunately made that hunch right and it remains unfortunate that we never got more than a season and a half of watching those three pitchers go out and try to best each other every week.
Zambrano won 125 games with the Cubs, notched a 3.60 ERA and found his way onto three All-Star teams. He also wielded enough power as a switch-hitter to hit 23 home runs since 2002, by far the most by any pitcher during that time period. He kept everyone on their toes because there was equal chance that he'd either throw a no-hitter or have a meltdown every time he took the mound. He finally got that no-no in 2008 and, not surprisingly, it came in an odd fashion: At Milwaukee's Miller Park in a game against the Houston Astros in a game that controversially relocated due to Hurricane Ike.
With Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer coming to the North Side this offseason with a plan to change the proverbial "culture," Zambrano's days were numbered. Theo played a good game by pretending that Zambrano still might fit into the plans, but it was all just a ruse to extract the most value from a team willing to take Zambrano and $15.5 million toward his $18 million salary. The Cubs' return will be the 6-foot-8 Volstad, a 25-year-old right-hander who's been a disappointment himself the past few seasons.
Make no mistake: Chicago — or half of it, anyway — really wanted to love Zambrano. He had a square jaw, a tendency to wear his emotions on his sleeve and prodigious talent, all qualities that go a long way in becoming an icon in this town. He pitched in three postseasons, tried to carry the 2004 Cubs down the stretch by himself and started a number of opening day contests. He maybe defined the Cubs more than any other player in the 2000s, but as the franchise went into a swandive, so did the organization's ability to tolerate his never-ending parade of shenanigans. Which is how we got here, with Carlos Zambrano leaving town to a lot of shrugs and not much sadness.
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