Venezuela embraces Zambrano despite erratic ways
Veteran right-hander remains unsigned, asks forgiveness for history of outbursts
ISLA DE MARGARITA, Venezuela -- Carlos Zambrano huffed.
The veteran right-hander kicked at the dirt in front of the pitcher's mound at Stadium Nueva Esparta and stomped. He waved his pitching arm at home plate and beat his chest with his glove.
Zambrano was just heating up. His neck and shoulders moved up and down with each breath, and he stared at his catcher's chest protector like he was trying to burn a hole through it with his eyes.
It was the fourth inning against Mexico on Monday, and Zambrano had just walked his third batter in a row after shutting down Villa Clara for three scoreless innings in his first appearance for Venezuela in the Caribbean Series.
The Zambrano show surprised no one.
This is the same Zambrano the Venezuelan fans and media have watched pitch all winter. The 32-year-old has built a reputation for being stellar, erratic and volatile when he's on the mound, and that's part of the reason the locals love him so much. Zambrano's unpredictable nature also helps explain why he remains unsigned and is still looking for a job in the big leagues.
"You've never made a mistake?" Zambrano asked. "You have? Thank you. That's my point."
Zambrano was charged with three runs on two hits in 5 1/3 innings of Venezuela's 6-3 victory Monday against Mexico. He struck out three batters and showed flashes of the pitcher who became a star during his 11 seasons with the Chicago Cubs. But a frustrated Zambrano also showed that other side people have come to expect from him.
"I'm feeling great and I feel I've worked hard to get to this point," Zambrano said. "To pitch for Venezuela in the Caribbean Series is important for the country, but also to keep showing that I can pitch. My fastball, sinker and slider are all working. I thank God for the results."
Zambrano went 1-2 with a 4.93 ERA in 42 innings for Venezuela's Navigantes del Magallanes during the winter and 1-0 with 1.69 ERA in the playoffs against the Caribes. But he might be remembered most for charging out of the dugout and tackling Caribes pitcher Mayckol Guaipe, then taking a swing at him to spark an all-out brawl in the Winter League Finals. Zambrano was out of control and admitted as much during his apology the next day.
"It's an impulse. I wanted to stop, but my emotions took over, but I had good intentions to protect my player," Zambrano said. "It's something I have to work on. It's something I have to pray on. I'm a Christian, but I also believe forgiveness is part of this. That's why I ask for forgiveness from Venezuela first and the Caribes organization."
Again, the Zambrano show surprised no one in Venezuela. The only question was when Zambrano was going to apologize.
"There's nobody on the street that is going to say Carlos Zambrano is a bad person, because everybody thinks he's a sincere, gentle and humble guy that helps people with his foundation and is very Christian, but everyone knows because of his episodes that he can be an unstable on the mound and in the dugout from one minute to the next," said Octavio Hernandez, who covers the Magallanes daily for the Venezuelan newspaper Diario Lider. "Everyone wants him to return to the Major Leagues because he's basically one of the greatest pitchers to come from Venezuela behind Johan Santana, but people also know if he doesn't control himself that he won't return. It's up to him."
Zambrano's dustups with teammates and umpires are notorious. He's ranted and raved in dugouts for years, smashing water coolers and testing relationships along the way. The tantrums were often followed by heartfelt apologies the next day.
One reporter asked Zambrano if the pitcher's sometimes unruly behavior jibed with the Christian beliefs the veteran always professes.
"It's simple. I'm human," Zambrano answered. "If you read the Bible, you'll see that the Apostle Paul was like me. The difference is that unlike Paul, I have not learned yet and I'm growing in the process."
Clubs will still have to decide if Zambrano is worth the risk. He went 7-10 with a 4.49 ERA for the Marlins in 2012. He signed a Minor League deal with the Phillies last year and was released in July.
"I don't know why he doesn't get another opportunity to get back to the United States, because he has a good arm and he is healthy," said former big league manager Ozzie Guillen, who is broadcasting the Caribbean Series in his home country for ESPN. "If he can throw strikes and control his emotions a little bit, I think he will be fine. I'm very surprised nobody has given him an opportunity, but I hope he gets one."
For his part, Zambrano insists he is ready for Spring Training.
"I'm here to pitch. That's why the Magallanes pay me," he said. "People can say what they want about me. That I'm angry, that I'm a fighter, I throw at people or whatever, but they never can say that I don't go on the field and give 100 percent. Sometimes it just goes bad."
Zambrano is who he is and his countrymen love him for it. For that, he does not apologize.