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Sports Saturday

Fans come out to Chicago Dogs opener for Carlos Zambrano’s return to mound

Independent team sells out opener as rain-drenched fans come out for a glimpse of Big Z.

“He brought it every game he played,” said former Blackhawks star Chris Chelios, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch Friday.
Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Hidden under the free hot dog costumes fans received as they walked into Impact Field on Friday evening was a jersey that not too long ago was the proudest one worn at a ballpark just 13 miles to the east.

Looking closely, you could catch a glimpse of No. 38 and the name Zambrano.

For some fans, those Cubs colors meant too much to hide.

“I couldn’t cover this up,” Antonio Santos said.

Santos grew up near Addison and Pulaski and is a lifelong Cubs fan. The chance to see Carlos Zambrano back in a uniform and on the mound was reason enough to make the drive to Rosemont for the independent Chicago Dogs’ season opener.

“He is the reason I’m here,” Santos said. “I wanted to see how he’s doing. The way he pitched, the way he dominated the game, he was so dedicated to the game. It means a lot to me to see him out here.”

Santos wasn’t alone in his feelings for “Big Z”. The Dogs’ opener was sold out, with an announced crowd of 6,300, but it’s safe to assume most weren’t just in it for the free hot dogs.

“He was such a loyal pitcher and player for the cubs,” Naomi Schrock of Wicker Park said. “To see him want to come back to an independent league to pitch for a team that’s still part of Chicago, that says a lot about what he thinks of this city.”

Taking a walk around Impact Field’s concourse was a lot like taking a walk down a paved Zambrano memory lane. The stories fans shared included his no-hitter against the Astros in Milwaukee and that one time he fought catcher Michael Barrett and battered a water cooler in the dugout.

One memory was consistent: Z’s unmistakable passion for the game.

“Watching the energy he brought to the mound was incredible,” Joey Riley of the Northwest Side said. “That energy wasn’t as accepted back when he played. Now we’re seeing it with Javy [Baez] and other guys showing emotion on the field. That flare that they bring I think he had a lot to do with that.”

Another legend in Chicago sports was on hand Friday night to support Zambrano’s return. Former Blackhawks star Chris Chelios threw out the first pitch and he couldn’t help himself from taking that same trip down memory lane.

“He brought it every game he played,” Chelios said of Zambrano. “Watching him walk up to me on the field during batting practice was pretty cool, kind of like a walk down memory lane. I can’t wait to see him play.”

That sentiment was a common one Friday night, some even held on to hope that it would one day again be in a Cubs uniform.

“I hope he does well and I hope he makes the 40-man roster for the Cubs in September,” Riley said.