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Zambrano embodies free-falling Cubs

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Bill Reiter

Bill Reiter reported on LeBron James' first season in Miami and has covered the NBA Finals, Super Bowl, Olympics and NCAA tournament for FOXSports.com. He also co-hosts Hawkins and Reiter on FOX Sports Radio (Sundays, 12-3 p.m. ET), which can be heard on the FOX Sports App, iHeartRadio, XM247 or your local station. Previously, he was an award-winning sports enterprise writer for the Kansas City Star. Follow him on Twitter.

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The horror remains as fresh now as it did eight years ago, long before Carlos Zambrano veered toward crazy, when I stood on Waveland Avenue in an October chill and tried to make sense of what just happened.

Carlos Zambrano, Chicago Cubs

Carlos Zambrano has given the Cubs plenty of headaches.

Dave Tulisa

The moment before, strangers had been jumping up and down hugging each other. Some were crying, some were pounding beers, some were talking to Harry Caray, who'd been dead for quite a while. We all exalted as the crowd inside Wrigley rumbled its approval, the sound of a curse ending washing over us.

Then Steve Bartman reached out, the Chicago Cubs imploded and one icy and lasting thought careened through every part of me: "Again. It’s happened again."

The only hint of solace in the days that followed the 2003 National League Championship Series was that the nightmare was over. Come what may, the links to that meltdown would be severed by the start of a new season.

It’s an old Cubs-fan fallback: Just wait until next year. Problem is, when it comes to the Cubs, curses have a way of lingering. They have not won a World Series since 1908 and they haven’t played in a World Series since 1945, the year the Cubs kicked off the curse of the Billy Goat Curse by turning away goat and its owner.

Which brings us, 66 years later, to Zambrano.

Because it turned out that when the nightmare was over, when Steve Bartman had been saddled with the blame and Kerry Wood and Mark Prior had reached their zenith and what it means to be a Cubs fan crashed down in all its horror, there remained two as-yet undiscovered but certain truths that would shape Chicago’s future.

The first: Zambrano, of all the players from that team, would emerge as the face and future of the organization.

The second: Zambrano, as he steadily slid from arrogance to outbursts to the kind of have-you-lost-your-mind shenanigans witnessed this past weekend, would infect his teams with yet more heartache and disaster.

The latest Big Z act of idiocy came Friday, when he got shelled, got ejected, cleaned out his locker and then left the ballpark midway through the game. On his way out, he reportedly told Cubs personnel that he was retiring.

Not exactly the stuff of professionalism, good judgment and winning baseball. From Bartman to Big Z’s Friday "retirement," it has felt like one act of failure leading directly to the next.

With Zambrano’s behavior growing more erratic with every passing season, it’s little wonder the Cubs have had the decade they have. Where they’ve succeeded, they’ve earned only the right to humiliate themselves. Where they’ve failed, it’s been ugly.

The Cubs managed to win division titles in 2007 and '08 before unceremoniously getting swept out of the playoffs both times. This season, they’ve shown just how bad it can be when you combine bad baseball, bad attitudes, erratic stars and sullen stars. Their recent winning streak can’t erase an awful season or Big Z’s skulking sullenness.

During these eight years of Cubs futility, the Red Sox have healed their own hex, and the White Sox and Cardinals (great teams no true Cubs fan can root for) have crowned themselves champions.

The Cubs have been a disaster, and no wonder.

These have been Carlos Zambrano’s teams, and that has meant being talented and able and, in the end, flummoxed and flailing and failing in the face of struggle. With plenty of absurdity thrown in for good measure.

The truth is that teams often become imbued with the essence of their leaders. Tom Brady’s New England Patriots are phenomenal, methodical and without mercy. Derek Jeter’s New York Yankees are inspired, worthy of pinstripes and consummate winners. Albert Pujols' St. Louis Cardinals were given their due long after having proven just how good they were. This year’s Miami Heat are a model of LeBron James — talented to the max but unable to handle the weight of the pressure.

With Zambrano melding the makeup of the Cubs these past eight years, they became a team prone to one of two extremes: utter disappointment or accomplishment ending in embarrassment.

Make no mistake, Zambrano has been the player of impact for the Cubs. In 2007, he signed a deal that put another $91.5 million over five years in his pocket. He has been their biggest personality and their most compelling character. His actions have again and again embarrassed himself and his team.

It’s as if Big Z, all those years ago, got infected with all the promise, hysteria and madness of that 2003 series. As Wood and Prior faded away, Big Z made the money, became the ace, punched his own catcher, got demoted to the bullpen, got put back in the starting rotation, had to be separated from Derrek Lee last year . . . and on it goes.

And yet he remains. Both catcher Michael Barrett (2007) and Lee (2010) left the team a short time after experiencing Hurricane Carlos, Barrett through free agency and Lee in a trade.

Zambrano can pitch when he wants to, as surely as he can tear a team apart when that suits him. And while he may be a very nice man — Ozzie Guillen swears by it — he’s no leader.

Which leaves the Cubs where they are today, facing another circus of stupidity worthy only of the lovable losers.

It goes without saying that it’s time for the Cubs to be rid of Zambrano. I’d rather see Bartman sitting down the third-base line at every big game than Big Z stepping foot, ever again, in the Cubs clubhouse.

The Cubs have every reason — 18 million of them in 2012 alone — to feel the same way. Just as Zambrano has every reason to want to return, something he wasted no time in trying to do. His agent is now saying the retirement talk was all in the heat of the moment; Cubs officials are letting it be known their AWOL pitcher made it clear he had retired, reportedly with goodbye text messages to boot.

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As it stands now, the Cubs have placed Zambrano on the disqualified list, meaning he’s in a 30-day no-play, no-pay purgatory. Zambrano’s agent is expected to file a grievance Monday.

But the deeper issue is that Cubs have been a wayward team since that night eight years ago. And Zambrano, for his many gifts, has brought too much turmoil to justify the money he’s been paid, the trust he was shown and the talent he has wasted.

Zambrano’s is the ugliest and most consequential example of why this is now a Cubs team going nowhere. They are saddled with nightmarish contracts. And they have a minor-league manager in Mike Quade who has as much control over his team as Zambrano has over his temper.

In his first year as a big-league manager Quade had already had an altercation with Ryan Dempster in the dugout. He’s clearly overmatched. He’s clearly lost control of this team. Having a hothead like Zambrano around, particularly after the insolence he just showed, can only further overwhelm the already over-his-head skipper.

But there’s more to the future here than just making Quade’s life easier. The Cubs, theoretically, hope to build something going forward. Baseball is not a game of quick fixes, and so culture matters.

The right attitude, the right approach, the right lessons taught to young players, building the right identity as a ball club — these are things the Cubs can still control.

There’s also pride. Self-respect. Acting like a big-league team so, hopefully, you start to play like one.

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And Zambrano, despite his apology Monday, is a cancer to all of that.

Putting up with Zambrano’s antics recalls that feeling I got in my gut after the Bartman game.

Only back then the future still seemed bright and the brutal reality of what had happened still seemed like something that could be overcome the next year or the year after that.

That night, after wandering away from Wrigley in an utter daze, I decided to drive the six hours back home. It was clear we were destined to lose Game 7. There seemed no point sticking around.

I fell asleep at the wheel about halfway home and nearly drove off the road at 80 mph. I got a speeding ticket and, in an emotionally exhausted plea for mercy, told the police officer where I’d come from.

He greeted me with four words as he handed me the ticket: “I’m a Cardinals fan.”

Of course he was. Just as, looking back, it should have been clear that the brightest player left from that mess of a team would be more curse than gift.

If the Cubs are lucky they’ll look back someday on Zambrano they way they do 2003 — as a distant, if painful memory that had one upshot: It was so bizarre one can at least hope never to have to experience anything like it again.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.

Tagged: Yankees, Cubs, Pirates, Cardinals, Derrek Lee, Carlos Zambrano

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