Carlos Zambrano has been to the mountaintop and back.
He has braved the treacherous climb, studied with the celebrated Dharma bums in the Himalayas, found inner peace with the spirit of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and even spent a few months in the swamps of Dagobah under Jedi master Yoda.
He is ready.
Of course, Luke Skywalker also thought he was ready and then hurried off only to have his hand cut off by his asthma-bound father Darth Vader at Cloud City. While I’m pretty sure Zambrano’s appendages are safe, he still controls much of the Chicago Cubs’ density—I mean, destiny—this season.
Sure, he may do as much damage to the dynamic of the Chicago Cubs this season as Anakin Skywalker did when he basically killed all the Jedi Knights once he joined the "Dark Side,” but he could also do as much good as the Skywalker family eventually did for the freedom of the galaxy. You see, the problem with Zambrano is that too much can be a bad thing but—and hear me out on this—too little may also.
Zambrano was the only semblance of passion in last year’s lifeless, heartless and pathetic Cubs campaign. Derrek “6-4-3 inning-ending double play” Lee deserved plenty of guff for his lack of obvious concern. Aramis Ramirez couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat at the time, Alfonso Soriano looked like Wyle E. Coyote in left field and Kosuke Fukudome did more spinning in the batter’s box than the late DJ AM ever did in the booth.
The whole season lacked anything special, and the entire roster looked as if it was joining manager Lou Piniella in his impending retirement.
Heck, even the hot dog vendor deserved a little bit of the fury. It was THAT bad. Honestly, Zambrano’s outburst in late June was not the worst thing to happen and, as usual, Jim Hendry blindly threw him under the bus to maintain appearances and the status quo. The same GM who hired Piniella—a manager that had thrown more temper tantrums than all of the ‘Real Housewives of Atlanta’ put together—now was condemning a MUCH younger man for doing the same thing.
While I don’t condone showing your teammates up, I do support players calling a spade a spade when calling out an entire team that hadn’t shown positive life since their brilliant general manager thought adding clubhouse great Milton Bradley was a good idea. Zambrano hit the boiling point many Cubs fans had been at all season, yet he was entirely at fault according to Cubs brass and the Chicago media machine, but they all failed to see that he was calling himself out as well.
Hendry, as usual, missed a real opportunity to call out his cast of wayward (and overpriced) toys, but—just like he did when he failed to handle the Ryne Sandberg managerial situation professionally—he showed he lacked the stones to lead. Having the guts to gamble is not the same as having the intestinal fortitude to be a leader. Hendry unfortunately lacks this, which is why he couldn’t bring himself to hire a manager who just might challenge him on how he ran the ballclub.
Mike Quade is a good man, and a solid coach, but make no mistakes about it: He is a “yes” man from head to toe. Zambrano, on the other hand, is not. He speaks from the gut, which can be misinterpreted in the sound bite world we live in these days, especially in Chicago, where the media calls fall and winter "QB Hunting Season" and the summer becomes a hot mess of pessimism.
The awfully negative Chicago media loves to give stupid nicknames like “Old Z” and “New Z,” or “Good Rex (Grossman)” and “Bad Rex,” but here’s a little secret for you: He’s the same guy no matter if you change his name to “Good Z,” “New Z,” or even Pee-Wee Herman. The Cubs have spent four years trying to reign in a wild horse and it obviously isn’t working.
If memory serves, the last major blowup Zambrano had was in 2007 when he gave catcher Michael Barrett a judo chop to the grill. The result? Piniella blew his fuse a few games later and the Cubs went on a magical run to the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Don’t let the media fool you: Emotion and getting in a teammate's face can work magic when the gauge is on empty. It’s the "crawling into a hole and quietly fading" that gets me worked up, and Zambrano’s emotion doesn’t tolerate that. He wants to win that bad, and if you don’t want it at the same level, then you better take some self-defense classes because you deserve anything Zambrano brings to you.
After 102 years without a World Series, I’m sure plenty of Cubs fans would agree that enough is enough. You’ve got to want it as bad as he does, or this isn’t going to work.
I’d love, for once, to see the Cubs and their management give Zambrano all the slack he needs to be himself. It’s not a coincidence that his performance has gone down since they began worrying about his psyche. The minute you tell someone to not be themselves, you’ll also see their performance resemble someone else as well.
You can’t have both.
In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker had the greatest potential as a Jedi Knight but he gave into his anger and emotion too much, which led to his destructive nature and him becoming Darth Vader. But when given unconditional love regardless thanks to his son, who believed in him, it was Anakin (as Darth Vader) who eventually defeated the Emperor by throwing him down the reactor shaft.
Unconditional love and support throughout the early part of his career fostered in the golden age of Carlos Zambrano. Perhaps a little freedom, some support and some emotional space might bring him back to the days when he mowed down opponents like defenseless Ewoks and gave a team in contention the emotional boost it needed down the stretch.
Too much of anything is a bad thing, and that goes for restraint as well.
Me, personally, I’d rather not see “New Z” or “Old Z.” I just want to see Carlos Zambrano, the pitcher who has shown electric brilliance more than a few times and still has plenty left to showcase. If you bottle that up with the right mix, you’ve got something sweeter than Yoo-Hoo and more potent than any ginger root west of the Great Wall of China.
If you don’t, all you’ll have is a regretful son of a Jedi staring at a two-starred sunset, wondering what might have been had he left Tatooine with the old hermit, Ben Kenobi.