Commentary

Is Carlos Zambrano worth defending?

The MLBPA will support his grievance, but it might not be a satisfying fight

Originally Published: August 17, 2011
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

The Major League Baseball Players Association finds itself in an uncomfortable position. There's no instruction manual to follow in the difficult case of Zambrano v. Cubs, but there is a vexing question to consider: Does it make sense to fight for Carlos Zambrano's right to pitch another day?

The union's job is to protect its members, so the answer seems easy. Yes, the MLBPA should do whatever it can to help Zambrano win his grievance against the Cubs. It should put its lawyers to work and convince a mediator that the Cubs were out of line when they suspended Zambrano without pay for a minimum 30 days.

But then, on the other hand, there's this: A positive outcome for Zambrano might not be in the best interests of the majority of the MLBPA membership.

The craziest part is, it might not be in the best interests of his teammates or their opponents. If Big Z gets removed from the Disqualified List (kind of a disabled list for big-boy problems) and resumes the pocketing of his $18 million per year salary, nobody wins. That's how all-encompassing the problems of this human tire fire have become.

[+] EnlargeCarlos Zambrano
AP Photo/Paul BeatyNo one, not even his own teammates, knows what to expect from Carlos Zambrano from start to start.

There's no way his teammates want him back.

And in his current state, there's no way anybody in another uniform wants to face him.

On Friday, for instance, it clearly wasn't in any of the Braves' best interests to get in the box against a mid-meltdown Zambrano. He'd given up five home runs, and his aging skills and childish immaturity combined to combust with Chipper Jones in the batter's box. Two thigh-seeking fastballs (Zambrano called them cutters) had Chipper using his two best self-preservation dance moves to avoid being drilled.

Any doubt about the feelings Zambrano's teammates have for him can be dispelled with a replay of the aftermath. When Chipper was finished dodging, the Braves' bench emptied. They got three or four steps onto the field when they realized any fight would have to be internecine: There were no Cubs interested in taking up Big Z's cause.

Players understand a baseball is a dangerous weapon, and a baseball in the hands of a still-gifted but unhinged pitcher becomes a serious threat. The union's lawyers won't consider this -- their job is to defend at all costs -- but Zambrano has crossed the line from flake to menace. He's a threat to everyone he plays with and against. He is losing his ability, and along with it his ability to deal with that loss.

Give the man this: He raises far more questions than answers.

If a guy is going to start firing fastballs at hitters' midsections every time he has trouble getting outs, can the team be forced to keep him on the roster? If he's going to force his way out of a game -- the pitches to Jones were a plea for an ejection -- does his employer have an obligation to keep holding its breath, taking the abuse and writing the checks? And in the interest of solidarity, should the union fight for rights Big Z has forfeited?

[+] EnlargeMorrison
Michael Zagaris/Getty ImagesMaybe the Marlins figured Logan Morrison was getting too popular for his -- or perhaps for the team's -- own good.

Zambrano has always been an outlier, and baseball has never been especially good at dealing with outliers. Stereotypes generally rule, whether they're racial or sociological or just plain expedient.

Logan Morrison, one of the Marlins' best young players, is an outlier of a different sort. The Marlins apparently demoted him after a disagreement over promotional duties. Morrison has a penchant for Twitter and having a good time; and rather than deal with the issue directly, the Marlins decided to risk alienating an excellent prospect with a large fan following. They chose to do it just as they court fans who might want to hand over significant amounts of cash to watch the team in its new ballpark next season. Morrison, with options remaining on his contract and no real argument to make, decided against a grievance of his own.

Zambrano isn't entirely the union's problem, of course. He's the Cubs' problem, and the Cubs' problem started when GM Jim Hendry signed Zambrano to a laughably large and ludicrously long contract. The Cubs could release him and eat the remaining $21 million coming to him, but they're not going to do that now. Big Z, bless his heart, has ungraciously provided a loophole. He offered an unofficial resignation and cleaned out his locker -- that's enough for the Cubs to at least attempt to wash their hands (and their payroll) of him.

And now, of course, the MLBPA has to go to work. It has to fight for its guy, even this guy, even if the fight isn't worth the breath it takes to make it.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote the autobiography of Pawn Stars' Rick Harrison. "License to Pawn: Deals, Steals, and my Life at the Gold & Silver" is available on Amazon.com. He also co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," available as well on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.

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Senior writer, ESPN.com

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