“It was unacceptable,” said Cubs manager Lou Piniella of pitcher Carlos Zambrano’s dugout fireworks after the first inning of Friday’s 6-0 loss to the crosstown rival White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field.

“His conduct was not acceptable,” said general manager Jim Hendry, echoing Piniella’s sentiments while announcing Zambrano’s indefinite suspension from the team.

Unacceptable seems to be the team’s buzz word for the day, and to be sure, Zambrano’s actions were unsavory—he engaged teammate Derrek Lee in a shouting match and screamed at what seemed to be the entire Cubs bench. Is it really fair, though, for Zambrano to be singled out so?

Not remotely. Yes, Big Z was in the wrong to so publicly and demonstratively chastise the sorry bunch of losers who stood by and observed the Sox’s four-run first inning. The lambasting, though, was long overdue.

The 2010 Cubs were no one’s darlings. For a team still boasting one of the league’s highest payrolls, relatively little was expected. Their 32-41 record, in isolation, is by no means a surprise.

It should appall Cubs fans, however, to note the lackluster way this team has reached its mid-summer nadir. There has been no hustle in this team from day one; there has been no heart.

Their ancient, narrowly competent manager—once one of baseball’s most fiery and effective motivators—has seemed cranky at best, and utterly disengaged at worst. Their sometime cornerstones at the corner infield positions (third baseman Aramis Ramirez and first baseman Lee) have struggled at the plate and straggled in the field. Each has clearly suffered a season of long loss of focus and energy, not to mention a certain amount of their once prodigious skill to the weather of age.

Behind Piniella stands a staff ill-prepared to cover its leaders shortcomings. Bench coach Alan Trammell is a tactical wizard, but seems to have little sway over the strategically inferior Piniella, and offers nothing in the way of a healthy kick in the pants to the team’s many loafers.

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild can supply no useful input to the confused Piniella on bullpen usage, while hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo continues to work feverishly on the broken swings of Ramirez and Lee (not to mention the ever-hapless Koyie Hill), rather than simply suggest to his boss that he start the team’s better hitters (Xavier Nady, Chad Tracy and Geovany Soto for instance) more often.

Alongside the skipper stands Hendry, the architect of this rapidly crumbling house of cards. Despite astute moves this winter (signing outfielder Marlon Byrd and trading for starting pitcher Carlos Silva), Hendry failed to address the team’s real areas of need (the bullpen, to which he counter-productively returned left-handed walk artist John Grabow, and the back half of the starting rotation) while insisting that the team was, in fact, looking to win now.

To be sure, there have been pleasant surprises along the way. Byrd and Silva have far exceeded expectations, as have outfielder Tyler Colvin and catcher Soto. Any of those four would be deserving All-Stars, and were more of their teammates playing with their razor-sharp focus, this team could well be 41-32.

Instead, though, the team’s followers—Ryan Theriot, Alfonso Soriano, Kosuke Fukudome, and Randy Wells—have seemingly lost whatever spark had kept them attentive to the task at hand, and have followed Lee and Ramirez into la-la land.

Above all the doings and undoings stands the puppet-master, team chairman Tom Ricketts, whose slick and media-savvy public relations work successfully diverted attention from a fairly outrageous hike in ticket prices (one fans have wisely not rewarded, as Wrigley Field has so far averaged about 1,200 fewer patrons per game than it had through this time last season) and a revealingly un-revolutionary approach to the business side of the game. Meet the new boss; he’s the same as the old boss.

If one accepts, then, that the Cubs have been generally unacceptable this season, it may stand to reason that Big Z—ever the unwillingly cooperative lightning rod—was merely trying to be the leader everyone expected him to be this year. In football, a sideline tirade of similar magnitude would make a quarterback his fan base’s new hero. The aggressiveness, the anger, and even the finger-pointing fury Zambrano displayed only reflected a deep-seeded frustration with the shameful attitude the so-called leaders of the 2010 Cubs have adopted as their de facto identity.

Insofar as his actions were undeniably detrimental to team chemistry, Zambrano should be made to apologize. But in the final calculus, Hendry, Piniella, Rothschild, Lee, and Ramirez should all lose their places on this team before Zambrano.

Distractions like this one can help save a manager’s hide, or justify retaining a pair of aging erstwhile sluggers. Ultimately, though, in a championship vacuum like the one at the corner of Clark and Addison in Chicago’s Lakeview community, distractions are simply unacceptable.

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