GARY — When Carlos Zambrano picked up a baseball and started pitching last year in Venezuela, it had been four years since he had taken a mound.
However, there were signs that he still had it.
A scout saw life in Zambrano's fastball and encouraged him to get back in the game.
A three-time All-Star with the Chicago Cubs, Zambrano is trying to get back into the major leagues and his comeback attempt brought him to the U.S. Steel Yard on Monday night as a member of the Chicago Dogs.
"Big Z," now 38, began a four-game series with the Gary SouthShore RailCats with an earned run average of 3.68 after 7.1 innings pitched as a reliever.
Zambrano, who hit 24 home runs with 71 RBIs in 744 career major league plate appearances, also began the series 1 for 4 at the plate.
He cited putting pressure on himself when his production from the mound began declining as a major factor in retiring from the game.
Zambrano, who is also known for taking a bat to a Gatorade dispenser in the Cubs dugout, said he’s more mature now.
His last major league season was in 2012 with the Marlins.
He played last year in Mexico and Venezuela.
Times correspondent Stan Maddux had the chance to interview Zambrano about his MLB career and comeback attempt.
Q: How do you compare your stuff and yourself physically to the last time you put on a major league uniform?
A: My pitches have good movement. My fastball is running from 89 to 92. The slider and breaking pitch and split finger are working, too. I used to throw mid-90s. Sometimes 98 or 99. I was able to hit 101 a couple of times. You know it’s not the same. At least the knowledge and the experience is there.
Q: I hear you’re trying to reinvent yourself a little bit maybe into a Kyle Hendricks type pitcher.
A: You know, I am going to try and be like a good reliever. You know getting some outs and see if I can open some eyes in the big leagues.
Q: What do you think you need to work on the most to get that call from a big league team? I know it’s early in the season.
A: Just let them know that I am able to still pitch in the big leagues. Getting people out. Throwing strikes. So far, I think I have walked (one guy), so far, in seven innings that I have, which is good.
Q: I understand you weren’t having that much fun toward the end of your career and now you’re here because you want to play baseball. Is that true?
A: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll tell you at the end of my career it was tough for me because I was making a lot of money and I wasn’t producing like the pitcher they were expecting me to be. It’s hard. But now I am more mature and just enjoying the game. I’m enjoying every moment here. Every day here. Now, my son is 9 years old and I can bring him to the ballpark and pitch to him and play around with him. Before he was so little he didn’t have the knowledge to know what was going on.
Q: I also understand that maybe you had a little intervention from up above to get back into baseball. Tell me about that.
A: It’s a message for me right now. God has spoke to me through five different pastors. I didn’t want to come back to baseball, to be honest. But I have to be obedient. I’m here because of obedience to God and he opened the door to be here. I separated from baseball from 2014 to 2018 so I can prepare myself and have maturity and be more of a man of God, not a man of the flesh. That’s what I’m practicing right now. The testimony is very important for a Christian man and I didn’t have the testimony to do the mission of God. This is a new season. This is a new time that God gave me to play again and to show again that I can do the will of God.
Q: Are you having fun?
A: I am. I am. Being around a baseball player and being able to preach to them and give them some of the experience that I have and (belief in) God, it’s amazing to me. Every day I come and teach something to them.
Q: You’re at the top of the mountain in the major leagues. Three-time All-Star. Of course, a no-hitter. Now you’re trying to work your way back. What’s that experience like?
A: Well, you got to start somewhere. Last year there was a scout. He said, "Carlos can you throw to a hitter?" I say, "Yes." And he put me out there and I was able to hit the strike zone. He say, "You still have something in the tank." He told me, "Carlos, if you got nothing I would tell you, but you got something left. Your fastball still have life. Why don’t you try and do it? Just give it a try and God will do the rest." That’s why I’m here.
Q: The Cubs sure can use a relief pitcher. Do you envision yourself being a reliever for the Cubs?
A: You know I want to play for the Cubs again, to be honest. But whatever God has for me I will accept it. Anywhere he would put me I would do my job and teach these young kids what not do to and what to do in baseball.
Q: Your were talking about maturity and you're more mature now. Some people would say he’s going to go out there again and lose his cool and here we go again. What would you say to someone like that?
A: "Try me." That’s what I can say, "Try the new Carlos Zambrano." I don’t think nothing can bother me because I don’t have that weight on my shoulders to carry a team. I’m a normal pitcher who wants to help any team and help young pitchers. That was the pressure on me when I was with the Cubs and the Marlins. The bottom line is I was a competitor. I like to compete and I like to do my best and sometimes, you know, when I couldn’t do my best my emotions would take over. There were situations that happened last year in Mexico and last year in Venezuela and I still be a competitor but with more calm. I think we can start from there.