Former Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano launches comeback with Chicago Dogs
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MIAMI — Tiger Woods one day, Carlos Zambrano the next?
‘‘Why not?’’ the burly former Cubs right-hander said as he mingled Monday with players and staff on the field at Marlins Park before the team’s game against the Marlins. ‘‘Bartolo [Colon] pitched until he was 45. I’m 37.’’
Of course, Colon never beat up his catcher, never went after his first baseman in the dugout and never ‘‘retired’’ in the middle of a game after getting ejected for drilling Chipper Jones with a pitch.
And Colon never went seven seasons between major-league pitches.
But as often as old friends found him on the field for hugs and jokes about whether he could pitch Monday, Zambrano had an air of seriousness behind his smiles while he watched the Cubs take batting practice.
Maybe because he already has a job playing baseball again.
Zambrano hesitated at first, then showed the email from the independent Chicago Dogs, who are based in Rosemont, welcoming him to the 2019 team.
One day after Woods pulled off perhaps the greatest comeback in golf at the Masters, Zambrano landed a contract to pitch in the United States for the first time since 2013. He will travel to Chicago to take a physical May 2.
And one year after a halfhearted comeback attempt in Mexico, he also promises this: He is making a serious effort this time around to see whether he can make it back as a reliever.
‘‘Now I want to play,’’ he said. ‘‘Now I want to see what happens.’’
Why now? Why at all?
Zambrano literally considers it a message from God.
It started a few years ago at a Christian youth conference in his native Venezuela.
‘‘I went to that conference, and something happened to me and changed my life,’’ he said. ‘‘I had an encounter with God. I used to believe in God. And now I’m committed.’’
Then in the span of a few months in 2017 and into last year, he said four pastors from four churches in different parts of the world told him independently: ‘‘God wants you to go back to baseball.’’
By the time the third one said it, he wept.
‘‘It’s hard for me to cry, but a tear came down,’’ he said.
He pitched in Mexico last year, but he said the effort was more about ‘‘obedience to God’’ than personal conviction or passion.
Now he’s all-in, especially after his fastball went from a Mexican League-best 89 mph last year to 94 mph during winter ball in Venezuela.
‘‘I want to see if I can throw 95 again,’’ he said.
Zambrano, who will turn 38 in June, would be one of the greatest stories in sports if he pulls this off. He threw his last major-league pitch on Sept. 21, 2012.
He was the best and most polarizing pitcher for manager Lou Piniella’s playoff teams with the Cubs in 2007-08. But his annual meltdowns eventually overshadowed his achievements until he was suspended in 2011 for abandoning the team after his ejection in Atlanta in one of Jim Hendry’s final moves as general manager.
A few months later, he was dumped in a trade to the Marlins in one of Theo Epstein’s first moves as the Cubs’ president.
Zambrano makes no bold assertions now. Major-league teams are lukewarm at best regarding his comeback effort, and Zambrano said he’s too old to try out.
The best-case scenario?
‘‘I don’t know what God will do,’’ he said.
Is it crazy to think he could return to the majors as a reliever? No more crazy than Jonny Venters returning from multiple Tommy John surgeries to pitch last year for the first time in six seasons, he suggests.
‘‘And Tiger Woods,’’ he said.
‘‘What happened with me was for a purpose. God can convert the most evil guy into the most dedicated man in a ministry. I’m not saying I’m perfect now. I think I can handle myself.’’