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Big Z Makes History: Where Were You?

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When people ask me what team I like, Cubs or White Sox, I invariably say that I root for both, which invariably makes me look like a complete wimp.

In this city, you've got to make a choice. I consider myself exempt, because I'm not from here.

I also consider the cross-town enmity a tad parochial (or is it provincial?). But then again, I'm from tiny Steubenville, Ohio, where Big Red vs. Catholic Central is the only rivalry that's important. (That's definitely provincial vs. parochial.)

Cubs and Sox fans are nothing if not territorial. In many ways, they're fighting each other for authenticity: Who are the better baseball fans?*

As a sportswriter, I'm supposed to be both neutral and inquisitive, like a surly Swiss border guard. As a freelance sportswriter, more games mean more potential money for me. So I root for both teams unless of course I'm working. In those situations I root for a quick game and some good quotes.

When people find out I'm a sportswriter, they ask two questions: "Where do you sit?" (The press box. It's not a secret. This is occasionally followed by, "Do you send in your story right away?" which makes me think every high school student should have to take a class called, "How that newspaper you're reading was created") and "Do you get to go to meet the players?" (Well, yeah, that's kind of the point.)*

Because I am a freelance writer and an irregular one at that, I don't have many one-on-one relationships with anyone outside of other reporters, team officials and security guards. I'm essentially a phantom with a recorder and Paper Denim jeans. I probably look like 75 percent of the reporters under 40: short, kind of fat, unathletic.

But over the last five years, I've seen and talked to enough players to know who I like and who I don't. And if I have to name a favorite player* in the city, someone I'd actually pay to see, it would be Carlos Zambrano, hands-down.

So this, essentially, has been just a long-winded introduction of my appreciation of Zambrano's historic no-hitter Sunday night. The Cubs' 36-year no-hitter drought was one of the many telltale signs of what a shitty franchise they were for such a long time, and just maybe it's a harbinger of a record-setting, ghost-erasing October.

Of course I missed this game entirely.

Oh, my wife turned it on a few times, but neither of us paid too much attention once we saw the score, because the Steelers were on. I'm a devout Pittsburgh Steelers fan so we were watching their bludgeoning of the Cleveland Browns during the latter parts of the Cubs' game.

Typically we have a Cubs game on only if they're tied or winning, as my wife, a hardcore yet super-sensitive fan, won't watch if they're losing. "You know how I get," she says.
But if it's 15-3 in the seventh? She's all-in. It's not like she's a front-runner (she owns a Jody Davis jersey), she just can't take any more heartbreak.

So we missed the entire no-hitter, catching just the aftermath on Comcast. We stared at a photo of Dan Plesac on the screen while he (unnecessarily) broke down the game via telephone. After a few minutes, we bowed to the futility of it all and turned it off.

There was no celebration, because in the scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. This season has been all about October and ending a century of disappointment, from the off-season signing of Kosuke Fukudome (the $48 million defensive replacement, as Daily Herald scribe Bruce Miles so elegantly put it) to the July trade for all-or-nothing pitcher Rich Harden. If you hear a Cub say it's not about individual achievements this year, for once they're not lying. Still, this was a historic game, the kind that gives George Will an erection.

In this case, the rain was the real news of the weekend. The city was bone soaked, flooded and weary. Zambrano's game was played under duress, anonymously. Aside from Comcast, which was televising the game, none of the local TV stations sent a crew to Milwaukee for the hastily scheduled "neutral-site" game against Houston. Only one columnist showed up.

Sundays in September are for football, the Bears and the Steelers, the point spread and the over/under. The timing wasn't right.

Zambrano's no-hitter should've been held on a sun-drenched Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the whole city tuned in and the park bursting at the seams. We would've crowded around a TV at work, living on every pitch. The White Sox fans would've been rooting against him, while agnostics like me rooted for something good to happen. The Cubs fans would've been pessimistic, the real ones, anyway. Instead history happened in the pall of a Bears loss and during a Steelers win. The rain had subsided. The White Sox were playing in front of friends and family as they tried to hold on to a playoff berth.

In truth, Zambrano's outing was akin to the 2005 White Sox winning all of their clinchers on the road. Do you remember where you were when the White Sox won the World Series? If you're not a White Sox fan, no, you probably don't.

You might've been at the gym or eating at a vegan restaurant. Perhaps you were dusting or catching up on your correspondence to old camp friends. (To be even more polarizing, where were you when Mark Buehrle pitched a no-hitter last spring? Did you even know it happened?)

When the White Sox won it all, ending their share of the city's baseball ignominy, I was in Wrigleyville, writing a "think piece" on how miserable Cubs fans were dealing with the ignominy of being the only loser left. The bars around the park were mostly empty. One TV at Murphy's Bleachers had the Chicago Wolves game on, as a likely sign of protest. (The bartender was wearing a Wolves jersey, which, if anything shows how far the Blackhawks had fallen.)

It was raining that night too; cold rain that burst from the sky as the 1-0 victory, also over Houston, wrapped up. The rain came almost on cue and sucked the life out of what should have been a glorious, celebratory night. I went back to my office and wrote my story around midnight, half-buzzed and a little disappointed.

I covered a flirtation of perfection by Zambrano last year, a gutty complete game performance that ended up as a 1-0 loss to San Diego. You might remember it as the game where Cubs gentleman Derrek Lee and gangly Princeton grad Chris Young got into an NBA slap fight. The scene I remember most is during the ensuing bench-clearing non-event, Zambrano came charging out of the dugout, pants unbuttoned, jersey untucked. He had been cooling off in the clubhouse when he got word of a fight. He had a no-hitter going, mind you, and just a few weeks prior, he punched out his own catcher. But he didn't care. This is why I like Zambrano.

I wouldn't call him "crazy, " a lazy description of a bright, talented man who happens to have a personality. To me, "Big Z" represents Chicago better than any scrappy white infielder, mustache-sporting coach or well-muscled, child-rearing middle linebacker. After outlasting Mark Prior and upstaging Kerry Wood - not to mention Buehrle or any of the current White Sox, with the exception of manager Ozzie Guillen - Zambrano is now the face of Chicago baseball, the Ernie Banks of our time.

Carlos is not just an athlete, he's an entertainer; an improvisational actor that the late Del Close could be proud of, from his physical comedy (belly flops and broken bats) to monologues (his one-man arguments on the mound) to his cutting, observational jokes in the clubhouse.

Like a lot of Chicagoans (especially this Chicagoan), Zambrano doesn't eat right. He's out-of-this-world athletic, but kind of flabby, a diet or two dozen away from his "ideal" weight. He wastes too much time on the Internet. He's kind of a goof-off. He's got a lot of potential. He's got a bad temper. It is Zambrano's fragilities that make him all the more likable.

In a way I'm sorry I missed him getting that piece of history, but at the same time I'm glad he did it. Rain or shine.

Slightly humorous asides, marked by asterisks in the copy:

* I don't hate either group of fans, even the annoying drunk Cubs genus, but I loathe those adult transplants that "adopt" the Cubs and blithely rip the White Sox. These are the kind of people that wear visors to the game and yell "balk" at opposing pitchers.

* Recently a female intern at my company went one further with the clubhouse question, asking me if female reporters were allowed to um, "check out" the naked baseball players. It turned out her boyfriend was playing in Triple-A, and the idea of randy female reporters let loose worried her incessantly. A little put-off by the question, I segued wildly into a story about Omar Vizquel that isn't proper in any forum.

* I don't, actually, have to pick a favorite player. That was just a rhetorical device.