Crazy Good

One afternoon more than a decade ago, on a ragged field in a midsize Venezuelan beach city, a skinny 12-year-old named Carlos Zambrano put his right foot on first base, stretched out his left arm and prepared to record the final out of a pickup baseball game. His side included several of his seven brothers, and with runners at second and third, the team's hold on a one-run lead depended on Carlos catching the throw from the third baseman.

Despite appearances-the ball, for instance, was two rolled-up tube socks bundled together by electrical tape-this game was a very big deal. The winners stayed on the field. The losers went to the back of a long line of teams waiting their turn. Gambling was involved as well: The boys of Puerto Cabello always bet a case of Pepsi on the outcome.

So everything of importance to young teensbragging rights, the next few hours of their lives, the Pepsi-came down to Carlos making the catch. Just before the decisive ball was thrown, as the batter was leaving the box, the young first baseman shouted, "Soy pequeño Mark McGwire!"

The statement, "I am little Mark McGwire," was a typically loud and overeager pronouncement from young Carlos. It didn't mean anything; his mouth was always moving, and these words were just something he summoned on short notice. The boys of Puerto Cabello, especially the other seven Zambrano brothers, were accustomed to such bombast from the kid with the rocket arm.

And now the words were spoken, and the ball was in the air.

TAKE A look at big Carlos Zambrano, the 25-yearold righthander for the Cubs, a 6'5", 255-pound slab of a man with shoulders as wide as a subcompact, the neck of an offensive lineman, eyebrows like hedgerows. We pick him up as he leaves the batter's box at Wrigley Field after striking out against Marlins pitcher Jason Vargas in the third inning on April 24.

As he turns to walk back to the dugout, something primal is urging him to do exactly what he shouldn't do. He knows he shouldn't let the urge win. What he should do-summon the advice of all those people who have told him, over and over, to keep his cool and stifle his emotions and exude the professionalism his standing would suggestis getting lost in the swirling haze of his fury.

The cartoon angel vs. the cartoon devil, one on each shoulder-that might as well be the Zambrano coat of arms.

So reason can go to hell. Carlos goes primal. He puts one hand on each end of the 34-inch, 33-ounce maple bat, stops momentarily, raises his left leg and brings the bat down with enough force to break it in two.

In the dugout, his teammates can't believe it. This is startling, even for Zambrano. Leadoff man Juan Pierre, walking toward the plate from the on-deck circle, thinks to himself, This is ridiculous. Pitchers aren't supposed to be able to hit, and he breaks his bat over his knee?

Nobody does this anymore, not since Bo Jackson and Chili Davis popularized the flamboyant act of premeditated anger in the '80s. It was a minor fad for a while, but the hardness of the new maple bats and the futility of the gesture-you're still out, right?-have rendered it nearly obsolete.

But leave it to the unpredictable Zambrano, the switch-hitting pitcher. "I wasn't really thinking when I did it," he says, "but I never thought the bat would break." He raises his chin and squints his eyes: "You know what, though? It does."

This was not an isolated loss of discretion for Zambrano. He combines immense talent with a limitless capacity for distraction. His operatic behavior on the mound, if viewed dispassionately, represents a sort of manic performance art. He bellows to himself, to opponents, to teammates, to God and occasionally to umpires. But he bristles when anyone assumes he is spewing profanity: "Some of my friends ask, Are you out there saying bad words?' I say no. I never say bad words." He finishes every inning by taking off his cap a few steps before the dugout and pointing to the sky, thanking God.

He wants you to know he's trying to reduce the drama in his life. He's not always succeeding, but he's trying nonetheless. The Cubs' 7—22 record in May was enough to drive everyone in Wrigleyville to distraction. Even so, drama still reigns for Zambrano because his life continues to offer up little moments when trying isn't enough.

"You get pissed off at him," says Dusty Baker. "I'm not going to lie about that. I've had as many closed-door meetings with him as anybody I've ever managed. But the thing about Z is, he's a big kid. You can't stay pissed at him. It's impossible."

Zambrano has blown up twice at young leftfielder Matt Murton-once late last year, once this spring-and both times the pitcher's apology was accepted. He has irritated or jawed with Barry Bonds and A.J. Pierzynski. He was ejected on Opening Day 2005 for telling home plate umpire Dale Scott he needed glasses. He's been suspected of throwing at hitters for any number of reasons, and sometimes for no reason at all. Four starts after his Opening Day ejection last season, Zambrano got tossed for drilling Reds rightfielder Austin Kearns after allowing an Adam Dunn home run.

From the other side of the field, where Cubs reliever Scott Eyre sat as a member of the Giants, it didn't look good in 2003 when Zambrano celebrated an inning-ending comebacker by Bonds with the traditional screaming and chest-beating. "You're looking at his antics and thinking, What a jerkoff," Eyre says, laughing. "Now, I love watching him pitch from this side. It's all about perspective, right?"

Zambrano compiled 43 wins over the previous three seasons, and he won three straight last month after starting the year 0—2. He should have had a fourth W after no-hitting the Braves for 6µ innings on May 26, but the Cubs bullpen and defense let him down in the ninth, when Atlanta scored once on a bases-loaded walk and twice on one sacrifice fly. He's durable and strong, with a streak of three straight seasons with at least 209 innings pitched. His goal of becoming the first Venezuelan to win the Cy Young was scuttled by Johan Santana, but Zambrano says, "I'll be fine with being second."

The movement on his pitches, especially his two-seam sinker, is so severe that he often ditches the idea of hitting spots. Instead, he'll simply throw that pitch over the center of the plate and let nature take its course. The ball, traveling at up to 95 mph, moves like it's on a string.

He's been the best No. 3 starter in the National League, but with the oft-injured Kerry Wood and Mark Prior making more simulated starts than real ones lately, Zambrano and Greg Maddux are the only pitchers standing between the Cubs and the NL Central basement. In fact, with media reports on the manager's job status attaining a traffic-andweather-on-the-8's feel, Zambrano's three wins in May might have been the only thing standing between Baker and unemployment.

Someday, maybe, the pitching ability will overtake the histrionics. Until then, Zambrano's actions will continue to obscure the fact that his penchant for doing everything so completely does have an upside. He threw eight innings against the Giants on May 10 to get his first win of the season, and during the game he put down two sacrifice bunts.

On the first, Giants pitcher Matt Cain fielded the ball nonchalantly and threw to first base, as if a normal pitcher were running. Zambrano landed on the bag a split second after the throw. Then he entered the Cubs' dugout and told the speedy Pierre, "See, I want your job."

There's nothing conventional about Zambrano. To save his right arm, he throws lefthanded while shagging flies during batting practice, easily reaching the screen behind second base from the outfield wall. In a game against the Marlins last year, Baker, running out of players, put Zambrano in to pinch-run and told him to take it easy. But when Todd Walker doubled, Z took off like a runaway train and scored from first. "I had to get the man his RBI," he says.

Zambrano arrived for work one day two years ago complaining of soreness in his legs. He hadn't pitched the day before, so the cause was a bit of a mystery. When Baker asked Zambrano about it, he admitted he'd been playing pickup soccer in a Chicago park the previous day. "He's just a grownup kid," says fellow Cubs pitcher Glendon Rusch.

When Zambrano complained of elbow pain last year, the Cubs eventually discovered he'd been spending up to five hours a day at his computer keyboard, communicating with friends and family in Venezuela.

THE ZAMBRANO story, like so many baseball stories, is an immigrant's tale. He's a young man learning the customs of the country and the game, and the game is the hard part. The game is where the rules blur and change and confuse. You're not supposed to walk off the field after every inning and raise your index finger toward the sky? "The power of my pitches comes from God," Zambrano says. But because he raises that finger every inning, should he expect to be mocked for it?

Though he says otherwise, Pierzynski appeared to do just that on May 21, when he pointed skyward after hitting a homer off Zambrano.

Where do the unwritten rules fall in that regard? Is White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen right when he says Zambrano, so eager to dish it out, needs to learn how to take it?

"At the beginning of my career, everybody took my actions the wrong way," Zambrano says. "Now, most people know what kind of person I am. They know I don't mean any harm; it is just my way of competing. They see that, and they know they were making a mistake with Z."

That may be true of many of the Cubs, who've seen the softer side of Zambrano, the manchild who grew up playing with a ball made of socks. He played just one season of organized baseball in Venezuela, as a 15-year-old outfielder and occasional pitcher for a team called Cunboto II. A part-time scout with a connection to the Cubs was watching one day when the 6'1", 150-pound Zambrano threw a runner out at home from deep right and then struck out the side as the closer.

As Zambrano tells it, when Alberto Rondon signed him as a 16-year-old, in 1997, the scout added a note to his report: "Needs to figure out how to open the refrigerator." With this, Zambrano stands up straight, looks himself over and says, "I think I figured it out."

So in addition to everything else, he's endearing. He's a little brother and a big brother trying to help his family. (His youngest brother, Yhormis, was a good enough player to sign, but Carlos says goodnaturedly, "He decided he would rather be the brother of a big leaguer than a big leaguer. It's less work.") He's a husband and a father of three little girls who says he's trying to be calmer on the mound for them.

But he's not a robotic product of Pitcher's Mechanics School, and he doesn't abide by much of the fine print in baseball's Code. The conundrum is simple: Would conformity be a good thing for Zambrano? Or would it change the way he pitches? "Let him be," says teammate Derrek Lee. "I like it. I've got no problem with his antics at all. Z's better when he's crazy."

After a more subdued Zambrano struggled with his control early in the season and went nearly six weeks without a win, Baker said he wanted the old Z back. Cubs bench coach Dick Pole says, "We fight the battle all the time. Do you try to harness the emotion, or let him go? And if you do harness it, is he still the same guy?"

His teammates might not always like his wild gesticulations, and his manager might not relish the dual role of psychiatrist and baby-sitter, but remember this: Big Z takes the ball. They keep jerseys in waiting for Wood and Prior at Triple-A Iowa because they know rehab stints are guaranteed. Following his latest surgery, Wood returned to the Cubs in mid-May; Prior is still out with a strained shoulder muscle. Neither has pitched as many as 170 big league innings in any season since 2003. Meanwhile, Zambrano is arguing every time Baker wants to remove him late in a game. So, yeah, his teammates sometimes get pissed off by his antics, but they get over it. Most of the time, they end up walking away shaking their heads.

Consider what happens when Zambrano walks into the clubhouse the day after the bat-overthe-knee incident and his teammates ask to see the bruise.

There is no bruise, he tells them.

Come on, they say, show us the bruise.

Zambrano shrugs, then drops his pants and reveals his left thigh: no bruise.

The other Cubs shake their heads and wave him away. Zambrano laughs at them. Big Z always comes out unscathed. Don't they know that by now?

BACK TO the field in Puerto Cabello. Zambrano missed the ball. He ran his Mark McGwire smack, and the ball went right past him. You guessed that, right? Both runners scored, and Little Z's team lost.

But that's not the end of it-it never is with Zambrano. His teammates, including his brothers, didn't console him. They chased him. He cost them the game, the chance to play the next game and the Pepsi, so they took off after him. And this was the scene: a skinny 12-year-old with a rocket arm and a wealth of sometimes misplaced self-confidence, followed by a human contrail of anger. His own teammates threw rocks and insults, and even his brothers said they were going to kill him. He made it home to his mom just in time.

Those boys wanted to teach Carlos a lesson. It worked, but probably not in the way they intended. What happened that day didn't teach him to keep his mouth shut, or to choose his trash-talking moments more carefully. Instead, it taught him a different lesson: If you're going to talk, you'd better back it up.