Braves' second baseman Dan Uggla, he of the now-dormant 33-game hit streak, started Friday night's game with a homerun, and he may have ended Cubs' starter Carlos Zambrano's career with another.
In between, Zambrano gave up homers to Chipper Jones, Jose Constanza, and Freddie Freeman. It was all too much for the volatile Venezuelan to handle. Following Uggla's second homerun of the night, Zambrano intentionally threw at Jones on consecutive pitches, resulting in his ejection. But this wasn't your run-of-the-mill homerun-induced meltdown. The night got more interesting once Zambrano retreated to the Cubs' clubhouse.
Late Friday night, the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan reported that Zambrano cleared out his locker and told friends he was retiring. If true, it would've been an amazingly bizarre way to end a career that once seemed destined for greatness. It now seems as though Zambrano's "retirement" was just another in a long line of childish tantrums thrown by the now-30-year-old pitcher. Zambrano's agent, Barry Praver, told ESPN's Buster Olney within 2 hours of the end of Friday's game that Zambrano was "definitely" not retiring. It appears the Cubs are no longer interested in his services, anyway. The team placed him on the Disqualified List, meaning Zambrano is suspended without pay for the next 30 days, during which he is not allowed to have contact with the team.
As a 22-year-old in 2003, Zambrano led the Cubs to within a game of the World Series, posting a 3.11 ERA in 214 innings. Over the next 5 seasons, he finished in the top-5 in NL Cy Young voting 3 times, was named to 3 NL All-Star teams, and was expected to serve as the Cubs' ace for the foreseeable future. Too often, unfortunately, his immaturity got in the way of his talented arm.
In 2007, Zambrano fought his own catcher, Michael Barrett, in the dugout after a poor first inning. Later that season, after being booed at home following a poor start, Zambrano said of the Cubs' fans, "They only care about themselves...I don't accept their reaction." In a 2009 game against the Pirates, after being ejected for arguing with the home plate umpire, Zambrano hurled the game ball into left field before putting the team's Gatorade machine on the DL (never a good thing when Milton Bradley is the voice of reason). Zambrano missed the team flight to Atlanta a week later. During the 2010 season, Zambrano got into another altercation in the dugout, this time with highly-regarded Cubs' first baseman Derrek Lee. That outburst led the Cubs to suspend Zambrano indefinitely and send him to anger management. It doesn't appear to have worked. The intra-clubhouse shenanigans continued into 2011, when Zambrano ripped closer Carlos Marmol after Marmol blew a save against the Cardinals. Friday's disgraceful outburst shouldn't have surprised anyone, but it's disappointing nonetheless.
So tired has Zambrano's act (which Fox's Tim McCarver referred to as "pathetic" during Saturday's national broadcast) grown that his own teammates are hesitant to stick up for him. "He's made his own bed, let him sleep in it. It's not like it's something new", quipped fellow Cubs starter Ryan Dempster. Long-time teammate Aramis Ramirez said, "He's got to think a little bit more. He's one man. It's not just one time. A lot of people have tried to help him. He won't let them." Even pitching coach Mark Riggins chimed in, noting, "For a player to leave a team, that's kind of just leaving us out there hanging and it seems like it's about him and it's not about the team...You just can't let your emotions get that far. We're professional people. We're supposed to be able to handle this, whatever comes our way. It's just disappointing." The damning blow may have come from GM Jim Hendry (the man ultimately responsible for deciding whether Zambrano stays or goes), who said, "There's not much worse than running out on your teammates and announcing your retirement."
Whether Zambrano ever pitches for the North Siders again is yet to be determined. The Cubs are on the hook for Zambrano's $18 million salary in 2012, and it's hard to imagine another team being interested in absorbing a high-maintenance headache like Zambrano, even if Chicago is willing to subsidize most of the money owed him. Despite Zambrano's tantalizing talent (2011 will be his first season with an ERA over 4), his unpredictable behavior renders him a problem child who isn't worth the trouble.
Lost in the shuffle of this whole retirement fiasco is how much money Zambrano has likely cost himself in the future. He probably doesn't need it, as 2012 will be the final season of a 5-year, $91 million contract that Zambrano signed in 2008. But the fact remains that the Braves gave Derek Lowe $60 million after a breakout 2008 season that wasn't much better statistically than any of Zambrano's performances from 2001-2010. The Yankees threw $82.5 million at A.J. Burnett coming off a 2008 season in which he posted a 4.07 ERA (Zambrano's career ERA is 3.60). Burnett was a year older then than Zambrano is now. In today's starting pitching-starved MLB, any other workhorse with Zambrano's numbers could command a blank check on the free agent market. Depending on how well Zambrano performs (and, more importantly, behaves) in 2012, he might struggle to find employment afterwards.
A decorated resume like Zambrano's is usually celebrated, then compensated. Sadly, unless he makes some serious and immediate behavioral adjustments, he'll likely be remembered more for his actions off the mound than on it.
Rob Smith is a contributing writer for the Business of Sports Network. He can be reached on Twitter @RobSmithUSF or on his personal blog, http://smithersports.blogspot.com/
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