I’ve had a day or so to think about this and figured I should put some words to internet.
By now everyone knows about the trade that sent oft-maligned Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano to the
Florida Miami Marlins in exchange for piece-of-crap reclamation project Chris Volstad. It was time to cut ties with Big Z, unfortunately, and now he has a chance to either salvage his career or ride off into the sunset. Others have already talked about how good Z was as a pitcher, even with his decline over the past few seasons. What follows are my memories and some opinions on Z and another of my all-time favorite Cubs, Sammy Sosa. Sorry if I ramble a bit, but better to get it off the ol’ chest.
Before we get started…
There are a couple things I need to get off my chest.
1. This was all over the news and I missed it because I was busy and distracted, but apparently some jackasses in Philadelphia decided to beat up visiting New York Rangers fans after the Winter Classic. As a public service announcement from World Series Dreaming, we would like all fans to realize that it’s one thing to be passionate about your team, and it’s quite another to be an idiot. I have friends and colleagues who are from Philadelphia and they are not jackasses. You should try not to be jackasses either. Root for your team, but show good sportsmanship and good judgment while doing it. If what you’re thinking of doing in “support” of your team is going to get you arrested, maybe you shouldn’t do it.
We all have friends, family and acquaintances who root for other teams. Friendly ribbing is cool and all, but common sense should tell you where the line is between clever trash-talk and stupidity.
2. A lot of talk has been made of certain players being “clubhouse cancers” and I’m guilty of it as well. Sometimes I guess these jokes hit too close to home though. One of our Facebook followers was upset with the use of the term to describe something that in the grand scheme of things really doesn’t matter. Real cancer does matter because it affects the ones we love.
I study cancer biology as a PhD student at the University of Chicago. One of the reasons I do this is because I would like to contribute to an eventual cure or at least better treatments of the disease. Cancer is an unfortunate reminder of our own mortality and it strikes indiscriminately, affecting children, adults, folks of both genders and all ethnicities. It affects folks like Cardinals coach Dave Duncan, who has to take a leave of absence to tend to his ailing wife. It even affected myself and my wife as she lost her aunt to breast cancer a couple years ago.
When a baseball player is a bad teammate or clubhouse presence, his teammates will grouse about it and probably bad-mouth him to the media or at least to their manager or GM. It’s relatively easy to get rid of someone like that if the team is willing to just eat the money. A real cancer is a mutated cell that grows out of control and starts taking over other organs if it’s not treated in time. Even if treated a cancer can still escape detection and continue its spread. If it were easy to get rid of a real cancer, especially an invasive cancer that has spread to the lungs, the brain, or the bones, I wouldn’t be in graduate school trying to figure this shit out. So from now on, I’m not going to use the “cancer” term to describe anything but this horrible disease. You should think about that too. Besides, it seems like the so-called “clubhouse cancers” and other narratives only pop up when the team sucks. Maybe something else is causing the team to suck and not that person. Like the part where they’re not that talented?
Anyway, back to the blog…
The reason a lot of us are Cubs fans…
I know everyone has their favorite player(s). Some folks like the old-time Cubs like Fergie, Mr. Cub, Santo or Billy Williams. Others like more modern Cubs heroes such as Ryno or Andre Dawson. When I first started paying lots of attention to baseball, Derek Jeter was my favorite player (he was pretty good at baseball by the way). Then 1998 happened. I liked the great home run chase as Mark McGwire, who was traded to the Cardinals from my hometown Oakland A’s, kept crushing homers with reckless abandon and one of the purest, sweetest swings I’d ever seen. His opponent was some guy I’d never heard of named Sammy Sosa. While I had a rooting interest in McGwire, Sammy was a lot more fun to watch because he had that kind of swing that looked like he was going to murder the ball every time he connected, and because he looked like he was actually having fun. It was because of Sammy that I learned about the Cubs’ megafail that had reached 90 years at that point, and I really wanted them to win that season when they made the playoffs.
For the next several years, Sammy Sosa was the reason I watched the Cubs. I think at one point he was the only player on the team worth a damn besides Kerry Wood and an aging Mark Grace. Sammy made the Cubs relevant again.
The hop was fun. The fact that he made an otherwise sucky team fun to watch was great for me. 2003 was a blast until you-know-what happened. Sammy was the only Cub in goodness knows how long to walk more than 100 times in a season until Carlos Pena achieved that feat last season. The man gave fans 545 souvenirs and basically was the Cubs offense. He probably won’t make the Hall of Fame but I think he’d have been on the cusp even with the steroid cloud over his head.
And then, just like that, Sammy Sosa was exiled from Wrigley Field and the Cubs. I don’t even remember what happened in 2004. He was obviously in decline and he still hit 35 homers, but there was an incident where he left Wrigley Field early and the camera footage was leaked out because they wanted to get rid of him or something. So they traded him for former Cub legends Jerry Hairston Jr. and Mike Fontenot. Not exactly the way you’d expect a perennial fan favorite and the guy who propped up the franchise almost single-handedly to be treated.
Except then he didn’t stay a fan favorite. That always boggled my mind. It was like the leaving early and the steroid crap negated everything that he had ever done for the franchise. I for one will never give up those memories. It’s a shame that Cubs fans threw all those good times away for some incident that was blown out of proportion. But that’s just me.
One of the best Cubs pitchers of all time
Carlos Zambrano became my favorite Cubs pitcher after Kerry Wood and Mark Prior basically crashed and burned with injuries. It’s too bad that he couldn’t keep it up at the relatively young age of 30, but he’d also been pitching for 11 MLB seasons and had more mileage on his arm than most pitchers his age. I guess it was bound to happen…eventually everyone loses their skill and talent, and age 30 was it for Z. He can still win Comeback Player of the Year and score a new contract in Miami or elsewhere, but the way he declined, it’s not very likely.
It’s a really sad end for one of my favorite players just as it was for Sosa. Z had talked about retiring as a Cub when his contract was up, and always had that fire about him that showed that he had the passion to perform and help his team win. The fans and media didn’t really like that, but I did. I think that kind of stuff is great to see in a player. It didn’t hurt that he was pretty good at baseball up until a couple seasons ago.
It was fun to see him bat, too. For some reason the media and some fans weren’t too keen on him spending so much time on his hitting. Yet these are oftentimes the same people who despise the designated hitter and want the pitcher to hit, but by “hit” they mean “stand in the box and not look stupid”. Carlos Zambrano wasn’t a patient batter, but he could do some damage when he connected. How can you be mad at something like that? The guy could hit for power from both sides. I was there in person for one of his home runs that turned out to be the difference in the victory, and saw many more on TV.
The pitching wasn’t too shabby either. The no-hitter in 2008 was badass. He could always rear back and get it up to 95 or 96 mph, and was a threat to throw a no-hitter on any given day. That was before his arm started wearing down and he lost a lot of velocity. But he was always entertaining to watch. I made it a point to always try to go to a game that Big Z started, and was lucky enough to see him pitch in person three times. Good stuff. Not so lucky with Sosa…the only chance I got to see him in 2001, he was injured. Bah.
For whatever reason, in 2010 they threw Z into the bullpen and kept jerking him around until he snapped. The way he was handled was exasperating and I don’t actually blame him for freaking out. He did alright in the early part of 2011 but the lack of run support and random Carlos Marmol meltdowns prevented him from racking up extra wins, and then he just lost it. I won’t make excuses for his behavior in Atlanta that ultimately led to him being shipped out of town, but Z took so much abuse from the media, the fans, and ultimately from his own team that I still can’t blame him. I realize that fans are upset with him and even hate him because he quit, but looking from the other side, he took a lot of shit too, and I don’t think much of it was fair. While he didn’t help his own cause, he did enough on the field that you’d think he could have earned at least some respect from the fans and from his teammates.
So what now?
If you’ve gotten this far, thank you for reading. I realize that not everyone will like the same players I do, and that’s fine. All I was saying is that I don’t really understand a lot of the hate and venom that is being thrown at some of my favorite players. Maybe I just like the wrong players, I don’t know…I mean, I like Barry Bonds too and he’s pretty good at baseball. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to be a fan of players who can actually play baseball well–or at the very least, who used to be good at baseball for a very long time. I’m willing to wager that a team made up of my favorite players in their primes (Cubs or otherwise) would regularly defeat a team made up of so-called “fan favorites” but I guess we’ll never know unless we construct the teams thusly and meet on Xbox Live.
While former Cubs GM Jim Hendry didn’t really try to disguise his disdain for Z in the later years before he was fired, new Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at least tried to keep the trade a baseball decision rather than a personal one:
“Best case scenario is that if it did work, [Zambrano would] be leaving as a free agent at the end of the year,” said Epstein to MLB.com’s Carrie Muskat. “Or, if we had to spend that money anyways as a sunk cost, would we rather spend it on a 25-year-old who we can put in our rotation and control for three seasons? That made a lot more sense.”
I really liked that about Theo. He at least gave Z a chance to earn his way back, and while ultimately he decided with the players’ input that the relationship couldn’t be salvaged, he always spoke of Z in diplomatic terms and got him on a team that has a better shot at contending. I’m not going to hold my breath because I know he’s in decline and likely to get worse, but I really do hope he surprises everyone and does well. Besides, the Marlins are due for another random World Series title anyway, even if they’re using taxpayer money and revenue sharing to achieve it for the most part. If you’re Carlos Zambrano, why not go out with a bang? Hopefully it’s the good kind of bang. I also hope nobody tries to skewer Theo and Jed Hoyer because they traded Z to the Marlins and he suddenly becomes a good pitcher again; I mean, it’s what you all wanted, right?
Good luck in Miami, Big Z. I don’t know about anybody else, but I personally will miss you. Now I gotta talk to the wife about trying to get a ticket to one of the Marlins games so I can get his autograph…