In the roughly nine months I worked for the Cubs publications department in 2008, I never saw the irrational, infantile and irate side of Carlos Zambrano. The Z I knew was awkward, quiet and seemingly insecure -- unsure of his place in the room at any given time (or in one case, an elevator; more on that later).
Granted, my times with Z were limited to infinitesimal moments. Seconds and minutes that added up to a picture of a man. Through my eyes, the large Venezuelan wasn't El Toro (The Bull), -- a nickname insinuating strength and fear -- but a cautious observer, afraid to truly throw himself into the world around him.
His locker was the first cubby on the wall closest to door to the entrance of the Cubs locker room. At first glance, it's a position that demands respect -- a spot worthy of a five-year, $91.5 million contract. But, in reality, it was more of place to hide.
Unlike the rest of the small, narrow clubhouse, Zambrano's wood locker wasn't visible on your way down the stairs, when you faced the locker room itself or when you started to walk into the depths of it. It really wasn't noticeable until you were on your way out. And when you did, all you saw was a man hunched over in front of it, backed turned, fiddling with something, timidly looking around every few minutes, forehead wrinkled, eyes open, hopeful. Then they would dart back to the nothingness of his locker.
My fist interaction with Zambrano was a few years prior to 2008. I was having trouble sleeping and was desperate enough to see a specialist. I figured she would hand me some pills and I'd be comatose five hours later. Instead, she told me, snootily, I needed to change my sleep patterns. Go to bed earlier, wake up earlier, no naps, be a normal human being. Considering I was home on summer vacation from college, none of that was going to happen. I left the office defeated and still very tired.
The elevator opened and I was hoping no one would be in it so I could wallow by myself. Instead, there was a giant Latino man standing there, alone. He was wearing a green golf shirt and blue jeans. For a second, like all celebrity sightings, I didn't recognize him. He just seemed different. Later, I realized it was because he wasn't wearing a Cubs jersey. Without it, he didn't command respect. There wasn't a presence about him. He was just another guy.
When I did realize who this giant-of-a-man was, my spirits picked up. I wasn't tired for the first time in a long time. After all, I was a Cubs fan and their best pitcher was standing three feet from me. I was sharing an elevator with Big Z!
I read earlier that week Zambrano was dealing with some back issues and everything became clear. In that instance, I wanted to ask him about his back. Be friendly. A real fan. Supportive. But that seemed weird, so I just smiled and nodded. He quickly nodded back and then his eyes shifted to the ground for the rest of the ride down, his hands shoved into his pockets. He looked like a kid hiding from bullies on the playground.
At the time, I thought it was just awkward in the sense that "I know who you are and you know I know who you are and there is nothing either of us can do to make this less weird." But now, looking back, it wasn't that at all. Carlos Zambrano was the weird one. Awkward; the fat guy wearing a shirt two sized too small, -- constantly adjusting it, stealing glances of himself in dark windows to see if he looked any thinner -- always trying to enter conversations mid-stream, but never saying anything, laughing at the wrong times, too loudly, never comfortable, always trying to fit in.
My duties during my time with the Cubs needed me to be in the club house a few times a week during home stands. This could have been for interviews, picture taking or just to hand out Vine Lines -- the Cubs in-house magazine -- to the players and coaching staff. It varied a lot. Outside of the time before and after interviews, handing out the magazine, oddly enough, was when most of the interactions I had with players and coaches occurred on a more personal level. It was also the best time to observe the dynamics of the Cubs locker room. I was there when the mainstream media was not. It was very telling.
Ryan Theriot, Derrek Lee and Mark DeRosa seemed to own the very professional locker room. Geovany Soto often played cards with Henry Blanco (he also called me "Papi" once, which was very exciting for a white kid from the suburbs). Mike Fontenot was a clown (in the good way). Ronny Cedeno, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Marmol were constantly trying to get laid. It was a very relaxed, but confident club house. Sure, there were clicks, -- typically by race -- but from my close distance, it seemed like a group of guys that generally liked and interacted with each other.
Then there was Carlos Zambrano.
I never once saw him join any of the players in a card game or conversation at the brown high school lunchroom-style tables that went longways in the club house. He sat and watched from his cubby. A 270-pound fly on the wall.
My "beat," if you will, was the Cubs minor league system. I wrote daily -- which turned into weekly -- minor league reports that I unoriginally called "Down on the Farm." Sometimes this included stories on new draft picks, interviews with minor league coaches or updates on interesting prospects. One of those was Angel Guzman, whose story, for whatever reason, my boss wanted to be told. After a Tommy John surgery the year before, Guzman had finally made it back to the bigs. I was to interview him and write something up. Like Zambrano, Guzman was from Venezuela and the two, apparently, were friends. When Guzman got the call back up, his locker was placed close to Z's.
I approached Guzman his second day in Chicago. He was in very good spirits and immediately agreed to the interview. Guzman's "English voice" was high pitched -- almost like a shriek -- and he had to think hard, pausing often, for the right word combinations. In the end, the interview went smoothly. What was odd to me was Z's reaction to it.
Throughout the interview, Zambrano was unrelentingly looking on the two of us with a half smile. He genuinely appeared both amused and amazed by what was transpiring in front of him, like a kid seeing his first 3D movie. I'm not sure if it was because how Guzman reacted to me -- excited and forthcoming (Z had a strained relationship with the media) -- or if he was just happy for his friend. His interest in a simple two minute interview with another player just seemed odd. Most guys, especially Z, avoided those things as best they could. He seemed to want to be part of it, but only in theory.
When the interview was over, Zambrano put his head down and started fiddling with his mitt.
To me, that is who Zambrano appeared to be. An observer. Afraid of his surroundings. Awkward and alone. Claustrophobic. Shoved into the corner of a tiny clubhouse that seemed to shrink every day.