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01/19/11 11:45 AM EST

Little Z: Zambrano, wife set to adopt boy

CHICAGO -- Carlos Zambrano is counting the days until he becomes a father again.

The Cubs pitcher and his wife, Ismary, aren't dealing with the normal nine-month time frame. The Zambranos are in the final stages of adopting a boy from a Guatemala orphanage, and Carlos said he hopes to finalize the details before Opening Day.

The Zambranos already have three girls, but the right-hander met the boy, now 18 months old, during a trip to Guatemala as part of his church's relief efforts.

"We've been thinking about this for a long time," Zambrano said. "It's a good thing for us. Our daughters are excited about this. We just want to keep this guy, this little kid. He's a blessing."

The boy has no idea how lucky he is -- yet.

"He will," Zambrano said, smiling. "We will make sure he feels blessed and he feels comfortable with the family."

During the season, Zambrano, 29, is focused on baseball. In the offseason, he opens his heart. His "Big Z Foundation" is now one year old, and the goal is to help underprivileged children and families, which brings us back to Guatemala. Zambrano has visited there each of the past two offseasons to work with a group called Hope of Life, or Esperanza de Vida, which is devoted to promoting educational, medical and spiritual development.

The group sponsors the Paradise Children's Home, which cares for children who are abandoned by their parents or orphans, and provides food, clothing, medical attention and an education. That's where Zambrano met the boy who will someday be his son.

"I go there and not only spend time with our son, but also spend time with other poor young kids," said Zambrano, who was in Chicago last weekend for the Cubs Convention. "Through the [Big Z] Foundation, we support and feed people and go to hospitals. Hope of Life in Guatemala has been doing a good job to help poor people, and believe me, in Guatemala, there are a lot of poor people."

Zambrano brought his foundation director Frank Alvarez to the Central American country so he could see firsthand what life was like there. Alvarez said he was stunned and saddened by what he saw. Guatemala is one of the 10 poorest countries in Latin America.

"Most people in America don't realize how bad it is," Zambrano said. "You can see poverty here, but it's not like that kind of poverty.

"We can't take care of every poverty in the world," he said, "but we can do good things in some countries like Guatemala."

When he's there, Zambrano is far removed from the hard-throwing Major League pitcher who has humbled more than a few batters with his slider.

"They don't know too much about baseball," Zambrano said of Guatemalans. "They know who I am, and every time I go there, they treat me like a special guy."

During his most recent visit, in October, Zambrano not only toured a new hospital that's part of Hope of Life's efforts, but also helped distribute rice, soup and bread to more than 300 people.

"If you don't get shocked by what you see there, it's because you don't have a heart," Zambrano said. "You put your face down and pray to God to help those people."

Zambrano has thrown a no-hitter, won 18 games in 2007, and has, at times, looked like a possible National League Cy Young Award contender. He finished last season 8-0 with a 1.41 ERA in his final 11 starts. He's also looked foolish. Last season was one of extremes for the right-hander, who went from Opening Day starter to the bullpen and back to the rotation. He tried to fire up his teammates in the dugout after the first inning of an Interleague game against the White Sox in June, but the end result was an ugly shouting match, a three-game suspension, and time on the restricted list to undergo anger management therapy.

Asked by a reporter at the Convention about whether the personal ups and downs affected him, Zambrano cut off the questioner.

"Let's talk about this year," he said.

OK, how will what happened affect him this year?

"Let's talk about this year," he said. "I'm ready for this season and excited about this season."

During a seminar with Cubs manager Mike Quade, a fan asked if the team had considered assigning four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux, now a special assistant to the general manager, to work with Zambrano on keeping his emotions in check.

"I expect Carlos to handle himself the way he finished up last year," Quade said. "Whether he explodes, or whatever the thing is, all right, so he explodes? Take a walk, see you in five days, pitch well.

"If it becomes a reoccurring thing, then we have a problem. If we're going to have individual guys taking care of each guy who has emotional issues, man, we're not going to have a big enough plane."

Which means Maddux can focus on arm slots and talent evaluations and won't have to play mind games with Big Z. Quade said he likes Zambrano's enthusiasm for the game.

"One thing I don't want to do is take all the passion out of Carlos Zambrano," Quade said. "If a little bit of overexcitement results in him pitching and performing well, we'll deal with that. There's no question Greg Maddux will benefit him and everybody else. But I don't want to make them roommates."

During another question-and-answer session with fans, someone asked Zambrano if he had considered opening a "rehab center for Gatorade coolers." The pitcher has had a few encounters with them in the dugout. He didn't get upset.

"I know sometimes I do things I shouldn't do," he said. "I don't want to hurt anybody."

Zambrano has been the Cubs' Opening Day starter for six straight seasons, but he may lose that assignment to Ryan Dempster or newcomer Matt Garza. Zambrano said he will defer to the manager. He's just trying to get back on track.

"I thought about what brought me to the big leagues," he said. "I thought about my first year in the big leagues, what was the key. I was a student of myself in the offseason. What was the key for me in the first two years, first four years? I have a pretty good idea now as to what I have to do to come back and be dominating again."

And he has moved on from a tumultuous year.

"I forgot about what I did last season," he said in a interview after the mass media session. "I have a new season coming, and I want to think about this season and what I have to do to get a fresh start and keep doing my job. That's the main concern for me."

That and finding a way to get his new son to the U.S. It's difficult to be so far away.

"You always want to be a father more than a pitcher, more than a baseball player," Zambrano said. "Your kids give you things that baseball doesn't give you. That has to be your main concern."

There's a little boy who soon will find out what a big heart his new father has.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.