Chicago Dogs manager Butch Hobson looks at it like this: His No. 1 priority as a minor-league skipper is to help his players advance to the next level, while his second goal is to win a championship.
“I’ve been in independent baseball for a long time, and I’m a firm believer in it,” said Hobson, who is entering his second season with the Dogs. “I believe it gives players a chance or chances that they wouldn’t have had if independent ball wasn’t out there.”
That’s just what it’s doing for former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano.
Dogs owner Shawn Hunter heard last season that Zambrano was looking to make a comeback. This offseason, discussions with the former three-time All-Star regained traction.
“A gentleman [on Zambrano’s behalf] reached out to Shawn . . . and said, ‘Carlos really wants to get back and we’re looking at the independent ball route, would you have an interest?’ ” Hobson said. “And we talked about it. We did a lot of homework on it, and we finally made the decision that, yes, we need to sign Carlos Zambrano to be a part of the Chicago Dogs.”
As first reported in the Sun-Times, the Dogs signed Zambrano, who will turn 38 in June, for 2019 (pending a physical).
Hobson expects Zambrano to bring a veteran presence to the team.
“I know he has a burning desire to do it again,” Hobson said. “I know he’s happy to come and be able to pitch where he practically grew up with the Cubs, and we’re excited to have him. It’s a win-win situation for Carlos and for the Dogs.”
Especially given the attention it has brought to the Dogs, who open their season May 17 at home in Rosemont.
Competing in a saturated baseball market like Chicago hasn’t been easy for the Dogs. In their inaugural season last year, the Dogs averaged 3,000 fans, which is about half the capacity of Impact Field.
But the addition of Zambrano makes the Dogs a lot more intriguing.
“We have to work hard every day of the year to build awareness and support and become relevant,” Hunter said. “Chicago is one of the greatest baseball cities in America with the two major-league teams . . . It keeps us on our toes and make sure we’re always delivering our best and I think we’re up for that challenge.”
Hobson is also up to the task.
This might not be exactly where Hobson envisioned his 44-year baseball career would lead him, but he wouldn’t change a thing.
If baseball was Hobson’s first love, football was his second.
“When you grow up in Alabama and you don’t play football, mama don’t feed you,” Hobson said with a thick southern accent.
The University of Alabama recruited Hobson as a dual athlete. Along with playing baseball, he was a backup quarterback under legendary coach Bear Bryant.
Hobson knew he wasn’t good enough to make it to the NFL. So when a couple of scouts told him he had a chance at the big leagues if he focused all his time on baseball, Hobson decided to give up football his senior year with the blessing of Bryant.
“I thought maybe if things worked out all right that I might have a future in the game of baseball,” Hobson said. “Looking back, I made the right decision.”
Hobson made his major-league debut in 1975 with the Red Sox. Two years later, he had his best season of his career as a player, hitting 30 home runs with 112 RBI.
Toward the end of his eight-season big-league playing career with the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees, Hobson knew he wanted to remain active in baseball.
After he was named International League Manager of the Year in 1991, Hobson went on to manage the Red Sox for three seasons. He was ultimately fired after the 1994 season and has been managing in the minors since.
Hobson doesn’t think about managing in the majors anymore. That ship seemingly has sailed.
However, if an opportunity would arise, he wouldn’t say no.
“I would be crazy or stupid to say if that opportunity presented itself one day that I definitely wouldn’t be happy about it,” Hobson said. “But I’m enjoying my time here.”
Hobson, 67, feels blessed that he’s been able to remain in the game for as long as he has. But his main hope is that he has a lasting impact on his players the way Bryant did on him.
“I hope that in some way by sharing life’s experiences and the things that I’ve done good in my life and the things that I have done bad in my life, that you know having the opportunity to play for me is going to help them be better people,” Hobson said. “Coach Bryant taught us life after football because he knew there would probably only be 1 or 2 percent of us who would be in the NFL, and I really try to teach life after baseball because there is life after baseball. And I think approaching it in that way, hopefully a player looks back and says, ‘Man I played for Butch Hobson and I learned a lot about life, and I still learned a lot about the game.’ ”