How often is a professional athlete entitled (and, yes, some people believe they are) to yet another bye, or at worst a wrist slap, for behaviour that would be deemed intolerably terminal regarding any other job?
How often does a field boss grin and bear it, before he is either backed by his superiors in taking a stand against such miscreance or left to twist while offering feeble critiques that nobody will take seriously because the miscreant will yet be welcomed back, for some perverse reason?
When at last, ask Chicago Cub fans too long accustomed to seasonal disaster, postseason absence or execution, front-office folly, and clubhouse or on-field boorishness, does a Carlos Zambrano cash his final check?
At which point, even in a culture as tolerant to a fault as professional sports, does an organisation have the right to say at last, “Enough is enough?”
It may or may not be sooner than even the most put-upon Cub fan might think, or hope. Zambrano has incurred a thirty-day suspension without pay for his Friday night disappearing act. The Cubs’ brass expects the Major League Baseball Players Association to appeal the suspension due to the severity of the punishment. If the Players Association is as smart as they’ve seemed lately, they’ll say nothing and let it ride. Sometimes even a stubborn union must admit when one of its own just isn’t fit for the job.
Zambrano and the Players Association alike ought to be grateful that the time-bomb righthander was only suspended without pay and not put on the waiver wire post haste for the purpose of releasing him. Have you ever seen the uniform major league baseball player’s contract? Take a look. Take a look, especially, at the section on Termination: By Club. In a nutshell, the Cubs are within their rights to send Zambrano packing. His Friday night follies merely culminated a series of behaviours for which the contract’s termination clauses apply.
Zambrano got strafed early and often by the Braves on a night when he clearly didn’t have his best stuff. No problem, that’s baseball, that’s pitching. But then he threw a pair of inside-tight pitches to Chipper Jones in the fifth inning, when Jones batted following a pair of back-to-back bombs by Freddie Freeman and—enhancing his stature holding the longest hitting streak in Braves history—Dan Uggla. The second pitch provoked the Braves—clearly in no mood for this kind of nonsense, on the day former (and most successful in franchise history) manager Bobby Cox’s uniform number was retired—to start pouring out of their dugout as Zambrano got the thumb from plate umpire Ted Timmons.
Not one Cub poked his nose out of his dugout. Even they didn’t need anyone to tell them their pitcher was clearly in the wrong. That isn’t exactly cause for a club to terminate a contract. Rightly or wrongly, pitchers have thrown at hitters from time immemorial and often as not for specious reasons such as their egos taking a beating on the mound. That’s the most likely reason Zambrano threw at Jones twice (Jones himself had taken Zambrano long earlier in the game) after Freeman and Uggla cleared the fences.
It may be stupidity, but it isn’t a termination offence. It’s what Zambrano did next that solidifies the argument for the Cubs exercising the clause, never mind that they’d have to eat $24 million left on the deal. Whether it was provoked by the direct knowledge that his team wouldn’t back him up in a confrontation with the Braves that he’d provoked for no sane reason isn’t known yet. Normally, even if you’re wrong, your teammates will come out of the dugout to back you up against the other guys. This time, Zambrano stood alone. Or, rather, walked alone. The moment he got the thumb, Zambrano walked off the mound, into the dugout, and through to the clubhouse. Then, he cleaned out his locker, including his nameplate, and disappeared into the Atlanta night.
A pitcher wouldn’t be human if he wasn’t disheartened or disgusted after surrendering five bombs, eight hits overall, and eight runs in a 77-pitch outing. The gutsiest of them all might talk about life beyond the mound and most of it would be seen for what it usually is, abject frustration after a very nasty evening’s work. But they don’t usually pull Zambrano’s disappearing act. Cubs manager Mike Quade, who hasn’t exactly been performing to rave reviews exclusively this season, can tolerate a pitcher having a bad night on the mound. What Quade can’t tolerate, and no club should, is “walk[ing] out on 24 guys that are battling their asses off for him. I don’t know where he’s gone or what he’s doing,” Quade continued, speaking to reporters after the loss to the Atlanta Braves. “I heard he has retired, or talking about retiring. I can’t have a guy walking out on 24 guys, that’s for damn sure.”
It’s not as though Zambrano hasn’t supped at less savoury tables in the past. Almost a month earlier, he’d been pasted for eight runs in four and two-thirds innings by the Florida Marlins. (The Fish ended up winning that one 13-3.) On Opening Day 2010, the Braves battered Zambrano for eight runs in one and a third. Zambrano’s self-vapourisation into the Friday night mist might have been seen as an isolated incident of frustration had he not had enough eruptions the past few seasons to make it seem too much of a piece.
Maybe his reputation preceded him just enough that, when he nailed Jones with the second of those inside pitches, not one Cub was all that willing to defend him even before his disappearing act. Not in leaving the dugout to confront the Braves, not in postmortems. “I don’t think [the Braves] did anything wrong,” said third baseman Aramis Ramirez, “so there was no reason for him to throw at anybody.”
Zambrano’s lack of defenders isn’t restricted to the Cubs’ clubhouse. Rick Sutcliffe, once a Cub pitching star (his acquisition in early 1984 helped mean a trip to the National League Championship Series), now a broadcaster, said on the air that the Cubs “need to figure out a way to end this relationship,” adding Zambrano should leave baseball for the rest of the season but try to return with a clearer mind someplace else next year. John Smoltz, the longtime Braves pitching bellwether, thinks at minimum that the Cubs should purge him post haste.
“For every pitcher,” Smoltz was quoted as saying, ” there’s something like (frustration). You can forgive a moment. There have been too many moments for Carlos Zambrano. Now something will have to be done . . . because there have been too many moments.’’
General manager Jim Hendry formally apologised to the Braves for the Friday night follies. “A class move,” Chipper Jones himself said. “I appreciated it. I like Carlos. I’ve always liked Carlos. He’s an intense competitor. Unfortunately, sometimes that hurts him.” And often as not, his kind of intensity hurts his team.
The hardest thing a baseball team seems to face is clubhouse poison. Too many teams have tolerated it because of on-the-field results; too many others have tolerated it even from people who are likeable at core. (It’s especially tricky to ponder that the Cubs might be having this conversation about a fellow who’s adopted an orphan or two and helped build a church or two when he’s out of uniform.) Their behaviours might well have been covered by the termination clause, but their teams failed to exercise them to the detriment of their own clubhouses. “If [Zambrano] changes his attitude, he’s more then welcome [back],” Ramirez said when Zambrano’s suspension was announced. “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.”
Sometimes the best thing a team or the players’ union can do is act for a moment as if this is the outside world, where a Carlos Zambrano would be filling out his unemployment insurance application over far fewer such displays than those the Cubs withstood until this weekend. And sometimes the best thing for a Zambrano, assuming anyone in his family or his circle of friends or acquaintances can get him to listen long enough, is to get help, lots of it, and not mere anger management counseling, as he underwent last year. Before he even thinks about whether he really belongs in the glare and the heat of professional competition.
He threatened or at least talked about retiring? There could be those within the Cubs’ arterials responding, “Hold the door for him, call him the cab to the airport.”
Professional baseball isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. There is no entitlement to play it, there should be no entitlement to disciplinary byes or wrist slaps merely because of someone’s talent level or core personality. We who have been reminded of that the hard way in the past ponder that Zambrano might want to read his contract while on unpaid suspension, and look for those actualities between the lines of the termination clause.