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Zambrano's newfound faith

Carlos Zambrano, who is trying to pitch his way onto the Phillies' roster, says he's a new man after finding religion.

Carlos Zambrano credited God with changing him as a person, with instilling in him a peace that did not exist before. (Andres Leighton/AP)
Carlos Zambrano credited God with changing him as a person, with instilling in him a peace that did not exist before. (Andres Leighton/AP)Read more

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Two-and-a-half hours after he knelt behind the mound and thanked God for another opportunity to pitch, Carlos Zambrano posed a question to a visitor, who was standing at his locker.

"Have you read the Bible?" the hulking pitcher asked.

The visitor nodded. They were alone in a far corner of the clubhouse, one occupied locker in a sea of vacants. Zambrano was seated, his broad shoulders spanning the width of a black leather office chair.

"There was a guy who was outside the church, and he was looking for money," Zambrano said. "Do you remember that story? Do you remember that?"

The visitor nodded.

"He was homeless I think," Zambrano continued, "and these two disciples of Jesus came and they saw this guy laid down. He couldn't walk, so he couldn't have a job, because he was disabled. So they saw this scene, and they had compassion. And they said, you know what, we don't have any money, we don't have any things, but what we have, we give you."

Zambrano slams his open palms together and a loud smack bounces off the walls of the clubhouse. His eyes were alive, his voice excited.

"Stand up and walk," Zambrano said. "And he was healed."

Zambrano was on fire now, his hands waving through the air, his eyebrows rising and falling along with his forehead as he made his point.

"The truth is that we have to give people what we have inside," he said. "Pray for them. Give them a hug. Sometimes people need a hug. Sometimes people need love. Just a word that you say: 'You know what, I love you.' There's nothing wrong with that. The love of the Lord. Now, people come to me and I just talk about Jesus to them, the experience of him in my life, how he changed my life. It's all about Him."

Zambrano knew he sounded crazy, and so he kept on talking, kept on explaining to his visitor the reason that people think words like his are crazy. Religion, it makes people uncomfortable, even more so when an athlete is the proselytizer.

There are plenty of reasons why this is so. The violence, the judgment, the selfishness, the exclusivity. To many of us, God is the reason why good friends are miserable, the reason why wars are fought. It has not been a pretty 2,000 years for organized religion, and one of the reasons we flock to spectator sports is to distract ourselves from the earthly havoc that dogma has wrought.

But Zambrano does not give you an easy out. There is no break in the conversation that might allow for a, "Well, on another note, how did you feel about your sinker?" It isn't even a conversation. Rather, it is a monologue, a sermon, an outpouring of emotion from a man who truly believes that he has been born again, and that to separate Carlos Zambrano the pitcher from Jesus Christ the Savior would be like waving Roy Halladay off when he starts to talk about Harvey Dorfman.

"I can tell you the date," Zambrano said.

It was Sept. 27, 2011. Zambrano had been banished by the Cubs for his actions in a mid-August game against the Braves, when he allowed five home runs and was ejected and then cleaned out his locker and reportedly told clubhouse staffers that he was retiring. The outburst brought an explosive end to his 11-year career with the Cubs, one that had seen him record three top-five finishes in Cy Young voting while going 125-81 with a 3.60 ERA.

"My mom called me and said, 'Son, there's a youth conference in Venezuela, do you want to come?' " Zambrano said. "In my mind, I was saying, I don't want to know nothing about God, nothing about anything. But at the same time I knew that I needed God. I knew that there was something empty in my life. Something was missing in my life. So I say, yes, OK, I'll go. So the next week I went to Venezuela. And this preacher named Ruben Hernandez, the speech he was doing that day, it was for me. It looked like he knew me, it looked like he knew everything about me. And he didn't know that I was there. I was undercover, wearing a hat."

Zambrano shrinks down in his chair and pantomimes pulling a cap low over his face.

"He was talking, but it was like God was talking to me directly through his speech," Zambrano continued. "And then I was crying like a baby. In the middle of the speech, I was crying. And Big Z doesn't cry.

"Big Z," he says, slower now, his voice full of emphasis, "He. Don't. Cry. But that day, God made him cry. I think he is the only person to make me cry. So I was crying, and I felt like I went out of this world. And I heard God saying, like me and you talking, I heard God's voice saying, 'Carlos, you are a good person. Your heart, it's good. I like it. You sacrifice a lot of things for other people. You sacrifice yourself for your family. I sent you to the big leagues for a mission, and you haven't done anything that I told you to do. You did the opposite of what I told you. You are in the big leagues to glorify my name. You are in the big leagues to let people know that I exist. I brought you here. It wasn't in your strength, it was mine. And now you are doing things that you are not supposed to do. What are you doing with your life?' He said, 'I like the way that you sacrifice things for other people, but when is it going to be you that is sacrificed. When are you going to be at the table sacrificing for me and die so that I can live in you and you can do the purpose that I send you for?' "

Zambrano smiled.

"I cried like a baby," he said. "Believe me. I don't cry."

For 15 minutes, Zambrano talked about his rebirth. He did not say that it will herald a triumphant return to the strikeout totals of his youth. He did not say that it will lead to a World Series. He did not credit God for making his stuff any sharper, or his location any more precise. He credited God with changing him as a person, with instilling in him a peace that did not exist during his tumultuous tenure in Chicago. In short, he credited God with the things that, you suspect, He would want to be credited.

What all of that means for Carlos Zambrano the pitcher remains to be seen. The righthander pitched six scoreless innings on Sunday evening, but he did it against Class A hitters. The Phillies will likely want him to make at least one more start before giving him a shot in their rotation. Assuming, of course, that they decide to give him that shot. Concerns about his fiery nature will always surround him. Thus far, he has been a model employee. In his final extended spring training start, he stopped outside of the clubhouse at the Carpenter Complex to take pictures with the five or six fans who had dropped by to watch him pitch. After his first start for Class A Clearwater, he waited in the dugout to exchange handshakes and fist bumps with his young teammates before departing for the training room.

Whatever happens, Carlos Zambrano swears that he is a new man. He is standing and he is walking; he is the one who has been healed.

Today on David Murphy talks about how Domonic Brown has excited an entire fan base. Also, a report that Cliff Lee is hearing the trade speculation.