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Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

BIG Z IS BACK!

Hoping that sun hasn’t set on his career, Carlos Zambrano looks for path back to majors with independent Chicago Dogs.

Hide the kids! Pad the water coolers! Get Derrek Lee into protective custody!

Heads up, folks — Big Z is back in town!

Yep, former Cubs pitcher and one-time walking volcano Carlos Zambrano — all 6-4 and 275 pounds (or so) of him — is suiting up to play baseball once again in Chicago at age 37.

But the big fellow’s not back with the Cubs, for whom he played 11 of his 12 major-league seasons, from 2001 to 2011. No, he’s making a comeback as a relief pitcher for the Chicago Dogs of the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball.

Never heard of the Dogs? Well, they’re named after hot dogs, not mangy curs or fluffy house pets, and they play against such notables as the Fargo-Moorhead Redhawks, Texas Airhogs, Kansas City T-Bones, St. Paul Saints and Milwaukee Milkmen. They also get their licks in against the Railroaders and RailCats, the Goldeyes and Canaries. They play the Lincoln Saltdogs, too, and one wonders about that Dogs-Saltdogs matchup and the possibly wonderful headlines that might ensue. Of course, Dogs vs. T-Bones is a keeper, too.

But none of this matters to Zambrano, who looks resplendent in his red Dogs practice jersey, black shorts and red socks on this lovely May afternoon. He is preparing for practice and the team’s home opener at sparkling Impact Field in Rosemont, and he wants it known that he is serious about succeeding at making it back to the bigs after being out of Major League Baseball for six seasons.

There have been lots of major-league pitchers who were older than 37 — indeed Rich Hill, Pat Neshek and Fernando Rodney are all active pitchers older than Zambrano — but none that anybody can think of who were away from the game for so long and came back.

“Bartolo Colon,” Zambrano says. “He pitched when he was 45.”

Not that the recently retired Colon was ever out of the game for six seasons. Only that the short, chunky — hell, let’s call him what he was: fat — pitcher for many teams just seemed to go on and on without rhyme or reason or concern over fitness or age.

“Bartolo, he’s short, he’s heavy,’’ Zambrano says. “But I saw him last year throwing 94 mph! And remember, he did it as a starter. I changed my role, you know. I want to be a reliever now.”

That’s one of the reasons Zambrano, who used to touch the mid to upper 90s with his heater when he was in the zone, feels he can make it — just by throwing fewer innings as a reliever. But he also feels he has the right mindset these days to be not just a reliever, but a closer. The guy who shuts the barn door and blows out the lantern. The reaper.

Not the short man or middle man?

Big Z shakes his head firmly. No.

“I think I have good, uh, intimidation to be a closer, you know?’’

That would be a pretty sure thing.

For example, you could ask the Gatorade dispenser in the Cubs’ dugout back in 2009 how intimidated it felt when Z demolished it with a bat after he was thrown out of a game against the Pirates for arguing a tag call at home plate. In a rage, he had tried to throw the game ball out of the park, almost making it into the left-field bleachers, then he threw his glove as hard as he could against the dugout screen, and finally he went ballistic on the aforementioned plastic cooler.

Then there was the nuclear, near-fisticuffs scrum with Lee, which got Zambrano suspended for two days before being thrown on baseball’s restricted list for six weeks. After that, he went through eight months of anger-management sessions. In 2008, he struck out looking, took one step and angrily broke the bat in half over his left thigh.

Thrown into the mix were numerous run-ins with umpires, nasty words about his own teammates (for which he would apologize), and meltdowns that seemed to make his pitching incidental to his state of mind.

When he finally was done with the Cubs in 2011 — or rather, when they were done with him — Big Z was traded to the Marlins, whose manager was former high-voltage White Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen. This is what a local newspaper, the Miami New Times, wrote on Jan. 5, 2012, about the addition: “The Marlins inked a deal last night for once-explosive, possibly still insane Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano. With Ozzie Guillen already signed on to manage the club, the two most unhinged personalities in baseball will call Little Havana home next season.”

This was clear hyperbole, and not really fair. The two are both from Venezuela and quite volatile at times. But Ozzie is Ozzie, a decent guy who is simply unfiltered, all the time. But for Zambrano, the volatility occurs the way it did for Dr. Jekyll when he drank that potion and morphed into Mr. Hyde. Off the field, there seldom has been a nicer, softer-spoken, more considerate person than Carlos Zambrano. Then comes the drink called baseball.

Manager Ozzie Guillen talks with pitcher Carlos Zambrano before a game in 2012.
Getty Images

“There are two different Carloses,” Guillen says. “The one with the uniform on, and the one in regular clothes. With the uniform, he’s emotional, a competitor. Without it, he’s a tremendous kid, a family man, a great friend — the nicest man you can imagine.”

Other pro athletes change when the games begin, but most do not devolve into a caricature of a 5-year-old on a sugar tantrum. Zambrano seems very aware of how he was perceived and how his actions back in the day were inappropriate.

“That is not how I want to be remembered,” he says.

How would he like to be remembered?

“As a person who wanted to win, who gave his heart.”

With all the disruption Zambrano caused on the Cubs, we shouldn’t forget that he was the ace or near-ace on the team for many years. He had a 125-81 record for the Cubs, and for eight consecutive seasons, he averaged almost 14 wins. He threw a no-hitter against the Astros in 2008. He started six Opening Day games, something only one other Cubs pitcher has done — Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins.

But always there was the sense that if Z could just sort of . . . grow up, he could be a superstar.

The change that made any kind of character reformation possible, Zambrano says, came after he was suspended by the Cubs in August 2011 after allowing eight earned runs to the Braves in Atlanta, getting tossed from the game in the fifth inning for throwing at Chipper Jones and then bolting the ballpark, mumbling to some clubhouse attendants that he was retiring.

Then-Cubs manager Mike Quade was aghast.

“His locker is empty,” Quade said afterward. “I don’t know where he’s at. He walked 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.”

As a batter, Carlos Zambrano had a definite dislike for strikeouts.
Sun-Times Media

What he did then, after learning the Cubs had suspended him again, was go to Miami, where he lived. He soon received a call from his mother in Venezuela.

“She was inviting me to a youth conference in Venezuela, a religious conference,” he recalls. “She insisted. So I finally said yes and flew down just to listen. That’s all — just to listen.

“Thank God for my mom. She knew what I was going through, that I didn’t have peace. It was the one thing that I didn’t have. You could look in my account and see all the money I have. The fame that I have. But I didn’t have peace. Nothing could fill that. And that day, God did it. He gave me joy, and now I live with joy.”

So Z wouldn’t flip out anymore under stress?

“No, no, no, no. It’s like the movie, ‘‘The Hulk.’’ Bruce Banner, you know, he doesn’t want to be the Hulk, but the Hulk appears when the situation happens, and he can’t control that situation and he does, whatever . . .”

This response isn’t particularly clear, so the question is rephrased: If you’re pitching and get frustrated again, are you able to peace out?

This brings a definitive, “Yes.”

So he wouldn’t demolish Gatorade merchandise again?

“I don’t think so.”

No?

“No. No.”

Then what would he say to that younger, explosive Carlos?

This older Carlos ponders that for a spell.

“I would say that it had to do with me being the ace, that I was immature, that I was making a lot of money.”

For the record, Zambrano made $114 million during his career, with $74 million coming in his final four years with the Cubs, when his actions were getting more and more unbearable, even if darkly comic. He says he’s set for life, which is good, but money doesn’t mean much to him anymore. Indeed, he is donating his Dogs’ salary to charity, saying when pressed, “I’m playing for free.”

He continues. “When you sign a big contract, you get fat. People, when they get money, they basically don’t care. They have what they were looking for. But I wasn’t that type of player. I had the money, but I needed the ring, and this team wasn’t winning in 108 years. So all these things came together, and that was what was caused my first frustration.”

Guillen, who knows Zambrano probably as well as anyone in the baseball business, essentially agrees with Z’s self-analysis.

“I think he didn’t want to be embarrassed,” Guillen says. “I think he just wanted to live up to the money. Imagine — you’re young, you’re in Chicago, you grew up poor, in the middle of nowhere, and then your dream comes true! It’s not easy. Everybody loves you, thinks you’re God because you’re famous. Nobody treats you the way they did.”

It’s a bit of a cliché — the inability to handle early success — but that doesn’t keep it from ringing true, as it so often does, be it with skyrocketing actors, entertainers, rock musicians and so on.

And, as Guillen adds, there’s also the disorientation that comes with being from another country, another culture.

“There’s a different language, different laws, different ways to do things, to talk to people,” Guillen says. “Think about Yu Darvish with the Cubs. It could be you just really don’t want to let people down.”

Another huge factor? Zambrano was a kid who has simply grown up — he’s not a 20-year-old breaking in anymore. As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. Consider that Z is married and has three daughters, one of whom is almost ready for college, and he has an adopted 3-year-old son from Guatemala. He gives lots of money to charities, and he is a model citizen off the field.

And so he’s trying to get back into the game, which, crazily, he wasn’t very good at in his early days. He didn’t even play in an organized baseball game until he was 14, and even then he was the worst player on his team.

So, naturally, he got stuck in right field, if he played at all. His manager would tell him that if no other players showed up, he would go into right field, “because that’s the worst place to be.”

So 10 minutes before game time, when the ump needed a lineup, the manager would look around and sign Zambrano’s name next to RF if no other position players had arrived. Then this happened:

“One day when I was 15, I was playing right field and a runner was at second and the batter hit a line drive that bounced twice and then — it was a miracle — it went into my glove. I didn’t catch it, it went into my glove. So I threw the ball home on the fly and the guy who was on second, who was a fast runner, is out by, I don’t know, two steps. And by the grace of God, there was a man in the stands who played for a Venezuelan team, and he wasn’t a scout, but he knew baseball. And after the game he comes to me and he says, ‘Can you pitch?’ And I say, ‘No, I have never pitched.’ And he says, ‘Tell the manager you want to pitch.’ And then this man worked with me on my mechanics every day.”

There were maybe 10 or 15 people in the stands that day, Zambrano recalls, just random nobodies, “not even family.” That’s the crowd that got to see this kid scorch one nearly 300 feet to the plate, and if that one man hadn’t been there to take notice, well . . .

“I wouldn’t be here,” Z says. “Honestly, I wouldn’t be here.”

Zambrano doesn’t mean literally, that is, right here in a Dogs outfit, in the stands of a 6,000-seat low-minor ballpark close to O’Hare Airport and the Rivers Casino, trying to push back one more time into the Show because, “God told me to get back into baseball.”

In truth, there is something a little healthier about the great pastime in this setting, with all the pressures of big money, big crowds, TV recognition, sycophants and hangers-on nonexistent. And that’s something Z has said he wants to feel, just like he did when he pitched in obscure leagues in Venezuela the last couple years as he tuned up, that feeling of not being the bell cow, of belonging to a team of workingman equals, of playing for the purity of the game and the wondrous challenges it presents.

“I had a dream not too long ago, and in the dream I was inside the Cubs clubhouse,” Zambrano says.
Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

To that end, Zambrano says he has much better control of his breaking pitches and will be a smarter, craftier pitcher, even if he might not be able to hit 95 mph on the radar gun. He used to be a stubborn power pitcher, you know. Throw smoke and let the sluggers try to hit vapor. Showdown on Main Street. As he puts it, thinking back: “Here comes the heat. Hit it if you can.”

Such an attitude always has its comeuppance, and it was no different for Z, when he was at his peak, in his mid-20s, one night at Yankee Stadium. “I threw my best pitch, my best sinker. I was locked in, and that pitch was 97, with movement — late movement — and this guy hit that ball like it was nothing. He smoked it like it was 85, out of the park. His name was Gary Sheffield, and I never challenged him again. I was young.”

The Dogs should at least keep a young man’s smile on Zambrano’s face. Their mascot is a bottle of mustard named “Squeeze.” And Squeeze’s opposite is a red bottle of shady-looking stuff in a trench coat, called “Evil Ketchup.” White and sky-blue jerseys feature the Chicago city flag and numerals comprised of hot dog links. Every Wednesday at home games, the Dogs are sponsored by Vienna Beef and play as the Wieners. The Wiener jerseys are mustard-yellow with relish on the sides, a baseball nestled in a jumbo hotdog bun with all the trimmings on the front and a “No Ketchup” warning on the left sleeve.

Fun, but not the end for Big Z, he prays.

That perfect ending would occur back at Wrigley Field, where he has been invited by management for the last three years as a guest because he has made amends to those he has hurt, and because, he says, “I am a Cubbie. For me, Cubs fans are the greatest in the world. They rarely boo, but when they do, it’s because they’re right. And the owner, Mr. Ricketts, is the best owner I’ve ever seen.”

Hence, the dream.

“I had a dream not too long ago, and in the dream I was inside the Cubs clubhouse,” Zambrano says. “And I say, ‘Well, it is true.’ And I was crying. I was a player and I was crying in front of my locker, and I couldn’t say anymore.”

He couldn’t say anymore, he says, because that is his dream for his perfect baseball ending.

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