Commentary

Time for Big Z to grow up

Originally Published: August 17, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- In the past five years, since becoming the Cubs' de facto ace, Carlos Zambrano has:

• Been ordered to limit his Internet time for his own health

• Been told to raise his potassium level by eating more bananas, which would ease cramping

• Been advised to stop drinking so much Red Bull and coffee before starts

• Admitted to not doing enough sit-ups

• Been warned about taking too much batting practice

• Played a full game of soccer with Chicago Fire coaches, executives and reporters during the baseball season

• Belly-flopped into third base

• Highlighted his hair like a 1990s boy-band singer

• Punched his catcher in the kisser

• Signed a $91.5 million deal

• Earned 69 wins

I might have left a few things out, but it's hard to keep track of Zambrano, the Cubs' ace/joker.

In my time in Chicago, which coincides with his debut as a full-time starter in 2003, I've also seen him hoist a diminutive sportswriter in the clubhouse, run out of the dugout with his pants unbuckled during a fight, injure himself laying down a bunt and do a passable King Lear at the Elgin Community Theater.

OK, that last one's a lie. His King Lear was awesome.

I've seen Carlos hit prodigious, Prince Fielder-like batting practice homers and pitch like his hair was on fire, winning enough games to warrant the big contract, the endorsements and the love from legions of dedicated, frustrated Cubs fans.

[+] EnlargeZambrano
Howard Smith/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano works hard when he's on the mound. But it's his off-the-field work that's a cause for concern.

But the Carlos story that has never been told is one that involves the words "work," "run" or "extra."

Someone affiliated with the Cubs once told "Big Z" he could be a 30-game winner if he applied himself. While Zambrano is the epitome of effort on the mound, off of it he speaks softly and works out sporadically. Let's just say if Zambrano ever decides to write a book, it's not going to rival Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting."

Put on the disabled list almost two weeks ago (back spasms), Zambrano ended a weeklong media strike (reminiscent of the time Kramer vowed to stop talking on "Seinfeld") by offering up an honest mea culpa on his current health problems. Such an apology is rare for the average headstrong athlete, but not to Zambrano, a serial apologizer. I like an honest, humble athlete as much as the next person, but I'm getting tired of Zambrano's apologies.

"My problem is I've been lazy," Zambrano told reporters Sunday morning. "There are things in life you don't like to do, but you have to do them. I don't like [doing] abs, but I have to do them. I have to start doing them every day and be serious about it."

This truly is a new kind of crunch time failure for the Cubs.

Everyone admires Zambrano's talent and his fire, but I've never heard another player say, "Man, I wished I worked as hard as Carlos Zambrano." That's fine. Every athlete is different. Some guys do more behind the scenes, eschewing the spotlight, while others make sure you know about every preacher curl. And as we learned during the past few years, the guys who take writers on tours of their personal gyms don't always get their fantastic physiques the old-fashioned way, if you catch my drift.

Zambrano's recent admission had an every-dude quality that I dig. I too hate running and I hate sit-ups, as my sportswriter build shows.

Zambrano is meant to be a big guy, and he's probably not far off from his ideal weight and build. He's made more than 30 starts in every full season he's played, a streak that will end this season, and while you would like to see more wins, perhaps, and fewer meltdowns to cement his reputation and pay grade as an elite pitcher, you can't say that he's adverse to normal pain or unwilling to carry his load.

Considering that Mark Prior has been day-to-day since 2006, Cubs fans should be thankful for Zambrano's steadiness. And maybe you have to take the bad with the good. He's not perfect and he's just wired differently.

The problem with Zambrano is that at 28 years old, he's no longer considered a young pitcher with the world at his so-called "flat stomach." The problem with Carlos is he still has to be told to do the little things, like take in potassium, and do sit-ups. Some guys don't need these reminders.

Zambrano said he's no Ray King, a heavyset pitcher. That's true. Zambrano's girth is spread evenly throughout his 6-foot-5 frame, so he shouldn't be mistaken for King or "El Pulpo," former Cubs closer Antonio Alfonseca. Zambrano is one of those big guys who can do anything athletically, but the guy is getting older, and he could stand to hit the elliptical machine once in awhile, if not the open road, and his refusal to follow basic training techniques has led to back problems that will probably dog him for the rest of his career.

Zambrano's aversion to maturity has been a continuing trend in his All-Star tenure with the Cubs, and he's short-changing himself and his ever-suffering Cubs fans.

The Cubs made their own bed by essentially allowing him to do things the Carlos Way. Heck, while his so-called "superstar" rotation-mates were doing towel drills, he was pitching, so maybe he deserved a longer leash. But little by little, the Cubs have shortened it, and now it's time for them to force the issue, one way or another.

You wonder how long he will last before the Cubs cut ties with the franchise pitcher who is signed through 2012, with a $19.25 million option in 2013. This is a team that could be forced to shed salary in the coming years, especially if it fails to break its first-round schnied, and someone in charge might think of selling high on "Big Z," who still hasn't matured into an ace you can count on, day in and day out. Zambrano has been very, very good in his Cubs career, but he could be great.

Talented, intense, charismatic and super-athletic, Zambrano has been one of the laziest superstars this side of the old Michael Vick, who admitted on "60 Minutes" that aside from being a dogfighting criminal, he was always a "last guy in, first guy out" type of player with the Falcons, while being championed by his team as a nine-figure leader.

Zambrano's not quite at Vick's level of professional skullduggery, but compared to his fellow pitchers, he looks lazier than a Milton Bradley fly ball.

After a Cubs-Sox game at the Cell, the one in which Lou Piniella sent Bradley home, the visiting clubhouse doors opened and pitchers Ryan Dempster and Ted Lilly popped out on bicycles. The two pitchers, making a combined $20 million this season, were biking back to their North Side homes from 35th and Shields. The noted workout freaks run along the lake before games at a blistering pace. Catcher Koyie Hill, a noted tough guy, told me he found himself staring at their feet, wondering when the heck he was going to see Wrigley Field. Neither pitcher has the talent of Zambrano, and to be sure, he's been more reliable to make all of his starts, but both set a precedent for staying in shape that he could aspire to.

Just like his team, he's continually on the cusp of putting it all together and reaching that higher plane -- in his case, to become that 20-game winner, that Cy Young contender.

Sure, those are just artificial benchmarks of a winner, but until he comes through in a playoff game (a high standard for a current Cub), what else can you go by to prove you're an elite pitcher?

When it comes down to a legacy, pitch f/x and WHIP aren't going to get you a plaque in Cooperstown. Going by the basic numbers, and I know they're often misleading, Zambrano is 103-65 with a 3.47 ERA in his career, and just 0-2 with a 4.34 ERA in five postseason starts. Posting a 2.75 ERA, like he did in 2004, is great, as is winning 18 games, like he did in 2007, but is he really pitching up to his potential? Shouldn't he, and we, expect more of someone with his kind of talent? Shouldn't he be leading by example, on and off the field?

In that regard, he reminds me of another popular Cub.

Mark Grace charmed reporters and fans with his "pack of smokes and a double" style, but there's no doubt he would have put up even better numbers with more attention to his health and his conditioning, instead of sucking down cigarettes in the tunnel and spending more time in Wrigleyville than at Wrigley Field. With his hitting ability, Grace could've been a Hall of Famer. No one had more hits in the 1990s than Grace, but what did he win in Chicago?

Zambrano probably has a decade left in his career and while he's already proved he has the staying power to win another 100 to 150 games.

The Cubs have a dogged trainer in Mark O'Neal, who along with the assistant trainer Ed Halbur and strength coach Tim Buss, make a formidable team. But they're constantly busy with other players, other injuries. Especially this season. Maybe it would be worth it for the Cubs to hire a personal babysitter for Zambrano, someone to regulate his diet and make him do his crunches. What's Mr. T up to when he's not singing during the seventh-inning stretch?

Or we can just treat him like a man and keep waiting for Zambrano to fully grow up, or for the Cubs to just trade him while he's insanely valuable.

Maybe in five years, when he's pitching for the Washington Nationals or the Oakland Athletics, he'll look back on his time in Chicago and tell Cubs fans, still waiting for that elusive championship, something they're used to hearing for him: I'm sorry.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com

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.