Out pitch

CHICAGO -- So, I was talking to Carlos the other day in the Cubs' clubhouse, and the subject was culture.

At the trade deadline, he had talked about how the team needed to change its culture, so I thought it was something worth following up.

What did he mean exactly? Culture is kind of an amorphous buzzword, isn't it? Should they fire everyone, or just change the yogurt machine?

"It's our attitude, the way we view ourselves, our identity, what our mission is, what we're trying to accomplish," Carlos said. "Our mentality, that's what I'm talking about."

Wow, that's pretty deep. It doesn't sound like erstwhile retiree Carlos "We stinks" Zambrano, does it?

Well, that's because it was Carlos Pena, the good Carlos, not the one who calls his team a "Triple-A" squad and criticizes the closer for blowing his lead. Not the Carlos who has blown up his career with his own petulance. Not the guy who cramps up, punches his catcher, etc., yadda yadda yadda.

"We talk about not having the season we envisioned," Pena said. "I take it as an opportunity to have something change. And when this team does win, that victory is going to be unbelievable."

Bad Carlos, the elephant in the clubhouse, won't be a part of that renaissance, and maybe that's part of what Pena, who saw a 180 happen in Tampa Bay, was getting at. It's time to clear the clubhouse of bad vibes, starting with Small Z. Looks like the Cubs are getting a head start on 2012.

To paraphrase Michael Ray Richardson's famous line, Zambrano's ship be stinking.

And the Cubs' ship continues to take on water. Is it October yet?

I'll say this for Zambrano: He's the most charitable athlete to ever get banned from his team two straight years.
An orphan-adopting, church-building mensch off the field, Zambrano has devolved into a menace in a Cubs uniform, torpedoing all the talent in his right arm with all the demons in his head.

Listen, it takes a lot to get suspended from a professional sports team, especially with a union as powerful as the Major League Baseball Players Association (which will fight this Monday).

Zambrano has done the trick in back-to-back seasons.

Zambrano's Cubs career might have reached its nadir in Atlanta after he was ejected from Friday night's start for throwing at, though missing, Chipper Jones. He had already given up five home runs and hit Dan Uggla. He was out of control, by every definition of the word.

After getting thumbed by umpire Tim Timmons, Zambrano packed up whatever was in his visiting locker and told some clubhouse staff he was retiring. No one believes that to be true. It was just another temper tantrum. But everyone's tired of his sideshow, most of all his teammates, some of whom were angry he was throwing at the Braves for no reason.

"I never saw anybody pack his stuff and leave and retire," Aramis Ramirez told reporters Friday night. "I've been around for a while, but I've never seen something like that."

General manager Jim Hendry has had to suspend Milton Bradley and Zambrano twice in the past three seasons. For a team that hasn't won a World Series in 103 years and counting, three suspensions in three seasons is an impressive streak.

Hendry, already beset by a lousy team and job insecurity, was frank Friday night when reporters contacted him, saying if Zambrano wanted to retire the Cubs would honor his wishes.

By Saturday, Hendry was more forceful. He put Zambrano on the 30-day disqualified list, a no-pay ban from the team that might not stand up when the MLBPA gets involved. But in any event, this isn't about money. The Cubs and Zambrano are getting divorced.

"His actions last night were totally intolerable," Hendry told reporters in Atlanta. "This was the most stringent penalty we could enforce without a release."

Zambrano's agent, Barry Praver, told ESPN The Magazine's Buster Olney that the Cubs were told within two hours after Friday's game that Zambrano "definitely" wasn't retiring. Praver said Zambrano made private emotional remarks to club staff and returned his things to his locker late Friday night.

Here's the key: Zambrano's teammates don't seem to mind his absence. They don't want him around. If they were in a pennant race, it would be one thing.

"He's made his bed. Let him sleep in it," Ryan Dempster said. "It's not like it's something new."

"He's been doing a lot of things, not once or twice. He's got to think a little bit more," Alfonso Soriano said. "He's a big man, but mentally he's weak."

Zambrano's friend, Ozzie Guillen, called it a "very bad and very sad situation."

"The only thing about it, can you learn when you make mistakes?" Guillen asked. "If you learn from that, people will [forgive] you. But if you're going to make mistakes in and out, day in and day out, some people aren't going to believe where you come from."

It's been a miserable season in Wrigleyvillle, and another lost season for a franchise adrift in its own mediocrity. But the Cubs had been playing well lately, and really, when you put yourself in such a hole, that's all you can do, try to win some games and ruin someone else's season. Or you can pack up your locker and threaten to quit.

Enter Zambrano, the walking rain cloud.

Forget the hasty retreat for a second. Zambrano should know you don't throw at guys to make up for your own pitching inadequacies. This is civilized society. Zambrano, for all his bluster, hasn't been very good this season. He's 9-7 with a 4.82 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP. Opponents are hitting .277 against him and his strikeout stuff has diminished greatly.

I've stuck up for Zambrano in the past, because I like his fire and I dig that he's an entertainer. I'm a firm believer in different rules for different guys, because everyone is not wired alike. Athletes, to me, are similar to actors and artists. But Zambrano has fast become a joke in the Cubs' clubhouse. As Soriano said, this is a trend, not an isolated incident.

Zambrano is owed only $19 million next year. Not exactly chump change, but easily digestible. Owner Tom Ricketts and his siblings can't be happy about eating another contract after Carlos Silva was waived this spring, but this has to be done.

Ricketts didn't want to elaborate on Hendry's words.

"Tom's letting Jim's explanation today be the last word for the weekend," a Ricketts spokesperson said Saturday.

The Cubs dangled Zambrano this season, offering to eat a chunk of his contract if a team would take him off their hands, but no one bit. Think about that for a second. No one wanted him.

That could've changed this offseason. Hendry has the kind of relationships that augur this kind of dealing. And Zambrano, who turned only 30 this season, has more than enough talent to make a difference for a contender. But you have to wonder if his personality quirks have made him untouchable, especially with his numbers declining.

When the Cubs sent Zambrano to anger management last season, it was seen as a necessary move, and we all thought it worked. Now I look at all the so-called changes that have been made under the new ownership group. It's all cosmetic. Nothing's changed. And until things do, we'll be dealing with the same issues. Wait 'til next year, indeed.

But let's close with some more words from Good Carlos.

"Sometimes," Pena said, "opportunities come disguised as adversity. I think this [season] might be a case just like that. This has been a difficult season, but it also presents an unbelievable opportunity for us. That's the way I'm looking at it."

Goodbye, Bad Carlos. Hello, change. Sounds good.

When's the World Series parade?

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.