By Scott A. Rowan
Mediocrity was never a part of Carlos Zambrano’s game. His highs and lows were always superlative in either their grandeur or their despicability. But what he did on the night of September 14, 2008, was a first in baseball history unlikely to be equaled any time soon.
It’s unfortunate for Zambrano’s legacy that most baseball fans remember him for his fights with other players more than his pitching ability. While fighting has always been a part of baseball, Zambrano tended to throw down against his own teammates rather than opponents. First, there was his dugout fight with catcher Michael Barrett in 2007. Then in 2010, he and first baseman Derrek Lee went nose-to-nose in the dugout before teammates separated the two.
After the second incident, Cubs manager Lou Piniella sent Zambrano home. The Venezuela native was absent from the team for weeks attending anger management therapy. It was hardly what the Cubs had expected when they handed him a five-year, $91-million contract in 2007, giving him one of the top five player salaries in the game at the time.
But nothing about Zambrano was normal or average. He was the modern day reincarnation of Fergie Jenkins, only better. A home run–hitting, fastball- throwing pitcher who could win a major league game both as a pitcher and a hitter, Zambrano stood 6’4″, weighed 275 pounds, and was built more like a football player than a baseball man. (By comparison, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher was 6’4″ and 260 pounds and Bears defensive end Julius Peppers was 6’6″ and 280 pounds.)
Zambrano beat Jenkins’ record of 13 home runs by a Cubs pitcher, hitting 23 during his 11 seasons with the Cubs. He won the Silver Slugger Award (given annually to the best hitter at his position) three times, in 2006, 2008, and 2009. When he won the award in 2008, Zambrano became the first player in MLB history to win the Silver Slugger and throw a no-hitter in the same season.
It was that no-hitter on September 14, 2008, that put Zambrano’s name in the record books. That was because his blanketing of the Houston Astros happened in Milwaukee’s Miller Park, the first time in baseball history that a no-hitter was thrown at a neutral site. Hurricane Ike forced MLB officials to relocate two games from Houston to Milwaukee that year. Playing the games at Wrigley Field would have given Chicago an obvious advantage, but playing in Milwaukee proved to be little different in the long run. It was the 13th no-hitter in Cubs history and the first since Milt Pappas’ in 1972, which was one walk shy of a perfect game. It was also the first no-hitter at Miller Park—even though no Brewers players were on the field.
Zambrano was coming off a rotator cuff injury when he led the Cubs to a 5–0 win in front of 23,441 fans at Miller Park. While the game was officially a neutral site, it was certainly not a bipartisan crowd. Cubs fans so overwhelmed the stadium that according to the Associated Press, “a fan wearing a Brewers jersey was booed when he appeared on the video board in center field.”
Given the rarity of neutral site games, Zambrano’s no-hitter will likely remain the only one of its kind for years to come. According to records on the Cubs Website, the Cubs played 29 neutral-site games between 1885 and 2013.
The good times didn’t last long, however, as Zambrano soon went back to his petulant ways, bumping officials and getting in a screaming match with Lee later in the season. The end of Zambrano’s Cubs career came about in a way very similar to Sammy Sosa’s quiet exit. On August 12, 2011, Zambrano surrendered back-to-back home runs in the fifth inning, giving the Braves an 8–1 lead. Angry and seeking retaliation, Zambrano threw at Chipper Jones, but missed the Braves icon. Zambrano was still ejected. He cleaned out his locker and claimed he was going to retire. Nobody took him seriously, however, in part because of his history of histrionics, but mostly because he was still due $18 million from the $91-million contract he had signed in 2007. Predictably, a contrite Zambrano apologized to his teammates days later, but Cubs management wasn’t listening and suspended him for the rest of the season. On January 4, 2012, the Cubs traded Zambrano to the Miami Marlins for pitcher Chris Volstad, who went 3–12 in his one season with the Cubs before being waived.
Zambrano went 7–10 and hit one home run during his only season in Miami. As part of the trade, Chicago agreed to pay roughly $15.5 million of Zambrano’s $18-million salary. Miami made no attempt to sign Zambrano to a new contract, making the Marlins the second team unwilling to put up with his antics. No other team showed interest in signing Zambrano until the Philadelphia Phillies signed him to a minor league deal six weeks into the 2013 season, but the organization released him two months later.
Author’s note: I feel obligated to state for the record that I worked with Zambrano for months on his 2007 autobiography “Como Llego A Ser Grande Carlos Zambrano” (the English title was “The Big Z: The Carlos Zambrano Story”), and enjoyed his company despite what others have had to say about him. Working with Alderman Daniel Solis and the City of Chicago, we were able to have October 10, 2007, declared as Carlos Zambrano Day in the neighborhood of Pilsen. You have to understand Chicago geography to appreciate the weight of such an undertaking. Pilsen, a Hispanic community, is located in White Sox territory on the South Side of Chicago, miles from the Friendly Confines. But with Solis’ approval, we were able to get the city to shut down 18th Street in Pilsen so local television shows could broadcast what proved to be the largest Spanish- language book signing in Chicago’s history. With the area closed to traffic, nearly 1,000 fans filled the streets. Zambrano joked often, his eyes squinted tight, his mouth open wide in a loud, toothy laugh, his head bobbing back and forth. Even if you didn’t get the joke (I usually didn’t, since he spoke too quickly for my Spanish), you could not help but laugh along with him because he seemed to be having such fun. When he wasn’t cracking jokes, his other two topics of serious interest were politics and home-cooked Venezuelan dishes. While there’s no denying he was a problem for the Cubs, I enjoyed working with Big Z.
Chris Jenkins, “Neutral site, Cubbie crowd: Big-Z no-hits Astros,” USA Today, September 15, 2008, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2008-09-15-2915802103_x.htm.
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