Commentary

Lay off Big Z

Originally Published: May 8, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

I wanted to write this column a few days ago, but I suffered a workplace injury. I sliced my left forefinger, my leadoff typing digit, when I got a nasty paper cut flipping through media guides, trying to do some research.

There I am, trying to compile some stats, just working to make a good story a little better, and BOOM! My finger is bleeding worse than Michael Barrett's lip. Dr. Nick said I should stay away from glossy edges and keyboards for two to three weeks, but I'm a quick healer. So I took a few days to recover, and here we are. Sure, ESPNChicago.com lost some page views in my absence (ESPN tried to call up another writer to take my place, someone a notch below my standards, but that J.D. Salinger is just so shy), but it's a long summer.

Angered by my short absence, my loyal readership peppered my e-mail inbox with angry bromides.

"Why are you doing your own research? You know your finger is valuable."

"It's early in ESPN Chicago's season. What if it takes two weeks for the finger to get back to its pecking speed?"

"Why do you have to turn pages with such a flourish? Such a showboat!"

But I enjoy doing research. If I get resurrected one day, I hope to come back as a 19th century librarian or perhaps a member of the Society of American Baseball Research.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinCarlos Zambrano

The past 239 words are completely made up. I didn't hurt my finger, and readers don't send me e-mails, unless you count my mom. But if any of that nonsense were true, one Cub could relate: Carlos Zambrano.

Zambrano, as you probably know, is on the 15-day disabled list after straining one of his massive hamstrings while trying to beat out a bunt earlier this week. And if you listened to some of the backseat managing from media, fans and the obsessive compulsives who wait two hours to give their takes on sports talk radio, you would have thought Zambrano injured himself kickboxing kangaroos or through excessive paddleboating in Lincoln Park.

But no, Zambrano hurt himself making a spontaneous, athletic baseball play, one that forced him to actually exert himself off the mound. Imagine that -- a pitcher running hard to first.

One baseball columnist, showing an acute amount of discretion, suggested the incident was proof positive that the National League needs a designated hitter. To that, I say, "No, Ted Lilly's hacky swing is examples A through Z of why the NL needs a designated hitter."

The blowup, however brief, over the Big Hammy, can be attributed to two intersecting occurrences: the Cubs' sordid recent history with injuries to front-line starters, most notably ones with the surnames Wood and Prior, and the influx of necessary immediacy in our news cycles.

The Cubs' erstwhile aces, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, through little to no fault of their own, did more to damage the collective psyches of Cubs fans than any black cat, overeager fan or Leon Durham's five-hole. When it comes to the thought of prospective injuries, Cubs fans are more sensitive than Kent Mercker.

The years of confusion, official mistruths and constant disappointment have given every reporter rabbit ears (remember when Todd Hollandsworth was day-to-day for three months in 2004?) and every Cubs fan another reason to join Mark Grace for that soothing Marlboro Red out back.

Now, Zambrano has had some minor, and weird, injury history himself. The Cubs thought he had carpal tunnel syndrome in 2005 from too much e-mailing. He had cramping problems, off and on, until the Cubs started force-feeding him bananas. (The team was thisclose to parlaying that into the "Chiquita I'm Bananas for Baseball Bullpen.") And let's not forget the time he beat up his own catcher -- twice -- during a game.

In September 2005, he really skirted trouble (sarcasm intended) by playing the Beautiful Game during a Mediocre Season. As the White Sox were sweating out a playoff berth, I watched Zambrano play soccer in a Chicago Fire media scrimmage. He was supposed to just "coach" from the sidelines, but instead, he played the whole game, switching from forward to goalkeeper. He took a half-dozen shots and made a handful of saves.

"I didn't get injured; I didn't do nothing wrong," he said at the time. "I play just for fun."

He didn't tell the Cubs he planned on playing, because in reality, it wasn't dangerous.

As Lou Piniella crabbily noted after Z's hamstring injury, "How about if I got run over by a car on the way to the ballpark?" That's a little excessive, but Piniella's point is valid. Life is not about taking it easy, from standing in the batter's box to dodging traffic on Clark Street with Matt Sinatro.

Zambrano is paid big bucks to start every five days and win games. He's a pitcher first -- that's obvious enough -- but he's still an athlete, regardless of what John Kruk once apocryphally told an old lady at a game. When he's in the batter's box, he owes the fans, his team and the game Tony La Russa invented to give it his best effort.

"I know a lot of people say, 'Why did he bunt?'" Piniella told reporters. "Well, if he had hit a ball off the wall and hurt it trying to go into second with a double, [would they say] he shouldn't have hit a double?

"When you're too cautious at times, you're going to get hurt. When you play the game and throw a little bit of caution to the wind, usually nothing happens. You're always taking chances."

The incessant questioning, while valid in a free society, probably makes Piniella wish he were managing in Moscow.

But we live in a world in which information is released, and often lazily disseminated, by the minute, rather than the day. The news cycle has been around the clock for most of my adult life, but with the advent of blogs, Twitter and Facebook, quick is the new correct. So everyone rushes to judgment, creates mock arguments and yearns to uncover the hidden truths behind it all.

But really, it's just a game, and sometimes things like this just happen. Sports officials change rules every year because of minor incidents. Mostly it's just overreactions.

Dropping a bunt in early May -- that's what I like about Zambrano. Yes, he takes it seriously (just ask the aforementioned Barrett), but he's having fun out there, and that's why he's one of the few athletes I'll pay to watch.

I, for one, hope Big Z lays down a dribbler the day he returns, maybe a nice drag bunt or a chop down the third-base line. I hope he tries to stretch a double by belly flopping into third, like I saw him do a few years ago. I hope he breaks up a double-play in late September, spikes high at second, just to show he means business.

So don't change, Carlos. If you strike out, break a bat over your knee. If anyone gives you lip, feel free to pop them one. And if the mood strikes you, feel free to point out to the bleachers and swing as hard as you can, because what the hell, right? It's just baseball.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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