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I love to tell the story. It was January of 2007, and as usual, several thousand Cubs fans had gathered at the Chicago Hilton and Towers to concelebrate the annual Cubs Convention.
Zambrano was prepared for a season that could have been his last in a Cubs uniform, as he was under contract only through the end of that season. He had the following credentials at the time:
- Four consecutive top 10 finishes in ERA among NL pitchers (he was in the top eight in each year for pitchers' WAR)
- Four consecutive years of 200-plus innings pitched and 31 or more starts
- Two All-Star selections
- Two fifth-place finishes in Cy Young voting
- One Silver Slugger
- One league walks title, with 115 in 2006
He deserved an extension, but the signs of erosion were already there, and Hendry probably well knew that the team had taxed Zambrano's arm too heavily when he was young.
But the faction in favor of Zambrano was tenacious. At the opening ceremonies, Zambrano's highlight reel got the loudest ovations. Throughout the weekend, his was the name on everyone's lips. And one outspoken fellow seemed to pop up at every live radio broadcast and question-and-answer session with the same verbal petition to management: "Give Carlos whatever he wants!"
In that context, in that time and place, when Hendry had just spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a 2007 team designed to erase 2006 from the collective memory of that hotel's patrons, it became inevitable that Zambrano would get overpaid.
On August 17, it happened. That day, the Cubs moved into first place in the NL Central with a huge win at home over the St. Louis Cardinals. Zambrano celebrated the occasion by agreeing to receive $91.5 million over the five successive seasons.
The agreement, come to think of it, had probably been made weeks earlier, but the organization used the moment (an arduous comeback effort coming to realization, the city in rapture) as cover for the announcement of what they may have known, even then, was an inefficient signing.
Since then, though, Zambrano and Hendry have worn the same heavy yoke. Without inviting expectations in any voluntary way, Zambrano made himself a target just by taking Hendry's money. Anyone would have done it; Zambrano was the unlucky son of a gun who did. Ever since, though he still has not completed a season with an ERA north of 4.00, fans have considered him a disappointment.
Hendry made the mistake; Zambrano will pay for it. That well sums up the duo's relationship, especially now that Hendry's handling of the latest crisis seems to have garnered him extended favor from the Ricketts family.