Egos, team disarray have knocked Cubs down to size
The Chicago Cubs are the worst team in baseball. This is an indisputable, irrefutable fact, as obvious as the ivy on the outfield walls or the steel trough urinals in the Wrigley Field men's bathrooms.
I was leaning that way even before Carlos Zambrano turned Michael Barrett's mouth into marinara sauce Friday afternoon in the home clubhouse. But now I'm sure. This team is a 25-man pileup of mistakes.
The Cubs might not have the worst record. Their star player might not yell "ha!" during games and later visit -- what did the New York Post call them? -- "jiggle joints." And they might not trail their division leader by double-digit games (yet), but it doesn't matter.
They're the worst because they're so much better than this. They're the worst because the quality of their roster and the bulges in their $100-million payroll and $300-million offseason spending binge say so. And they're the worst because they lack a soul and simply can't handle the acidic, confrontational style of manager Lou Piniella. (Piniella was suspended on Sunday following a meltdown Saturday when he kicked dirt on third base umpire Mark Wegner during a loss to the Braves).
It isn't much of a baseball secret that Zambrano is a pitching diva and captain of the All-Knucklehead Team. When he was just breaking into the big leagues you could pass off his tantrums as the youthful ignorance of someone who wore his emotions on his jersey sleeve. "Fiery" is the word Cubs assistant general manager Randy Bush used Friday to describe Zambrano.
But the truth is Zambrano has a long and well-documented history of throwing hissy fits when things don't go his way. It can be anything: an infielder botches an easy grounder ... an umpire squeezes the plate ... or, in this case, a catcher perhaps screws up a sign, lets a pitch squirt away, and then throws the ball into left field for an error and unearned run. The difference is this time Zambrano not only threw a fit, but he threw a punch. Lots of them, if you asked Barrett's lip.
The first shove-fest came in the Cubs' claustrophobic dugout and in full Wrigley and TV camera view during the bottom of the fifth inning. The actual fistfight came slightly later in the privacy of the clubhouse, which is too bad. Watching the Cubs' battery (now there's an appropriate word) go at it would have been more interesting than watching yet another Chicago loss, its fifth in a row and ninth defeat in the past 11 games.
Zambrano is listed at 6-5, 255 pounds. Barrett is listed at 6-3, 210. This was no small altercation between two free agents-to-be. It not only provided a telling glimpse into the non-relationship between Zambrano and Barrett, but it became an X-ray machine and exposed a serious fracture in the psyche of this team.
Zambrano showed up his catcher in front of his teammates and those Comcast cameras, which is a cardinal sin in baseball. And what kind of idiot celebrates his 26th birthday by turning a teammate's lip into Minute Maid pulp?
But Barrett, whose catching skills aren't exactly held in high regard by Cubs' pitching staffs both past and present, is also a drama queen. He's had his share of tantrums, beginning with his part in the destruction of Sammy Sosa's boom box in 2004, with his home plate brawl with Chicago White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski in 2006, and now this. It doesn't help that he's hitting .241 (.217 in May) and has been brutal on the basepaths.
Zambrano, the supposed ace of this staff, is 5-5 with a 5.62 ERA. Against the Atlanta Braveson Friday, he gave up six ernies and a career-high 13 hits in five innings. Just in case Zambrano had a memory lapse, Barrett appeared to point to the scoreboard and remind him of the gruesome numbers.
Then came Round 1 of the Rumble in Wrigley.
Zambrano says there's absolutely nothing physically wrong with his right arm, which has lots of mileage on the pitch odometer. If that's true, then the Cubs really are doomed. If there is something wrong, and he's hiding an injury during his contract year, then Zambrano has to come clean.
But the smackdown between Zambrano and Barrett is merely the flashpoint of a team in full implosion mode. You can accuse the New York Yankees of underachieving more than any team in the big leagues, but you would be wrong. No way should this Cubs starting lineup, this Cubs starting pitching and this Cubs bullpen have just 22 wins after 52 games. They're 7½ games out of first in the ordinary NL Central. They might as well be 75 games behind.
Former Cubs manager Dusty Baker was criticized for over-protecting his players. His replacement, Piniella, is being criticized for doing the exact opposite. So what's next? A pregame Bikram yoga session for the players so they can find tranquility while doing the Tadasana tree pose?
The baseball-impaired Cubs and their $100-million payroll have run out of excuses and are beginning to run out of time. They border on unwatchable these days. Too many mind-numbing mistakes.
"I only have so many players that I can play. You know?" said Piniella, his voice rising in the postgame press conference seen around the country by now. "And it's about time some of them start playing like major leaguers! Or, get somebody else in here that can catch the damn ball or run the bases properly! All right? That's all I can say!"
That's all he can say publicly. Just think what he's saying to himself.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.