The author, a former professional pitcher, may well have discovered the mystery of Barry Zito. This is his wake-up call.
I go round and round with Barry Zito and his handler. He has a handler now. I have just finished an in-depth interview with the Giants’ $126 million man. All has gone well, until now. Suddenly, he re-thinks everything, and the whole piece is going sideways. Did I say something that might embarrass myself? Will this hurt my new image? I conjecture on the reason, but something is very wrong here. Then Barry, with all due respect to Paul‘s Letter to the Corinthians, in a single sentence sums up the entire downward trend of his career and this story.
“I’m just not that guy anymore.”
I have known Barry Zito since he “spake like a child,” in 1999 in Los Angeles. I know his father, Joe, have discussed politics and art with him. His wonderful, late mother Roberta and I once exchanged correspondence. I hung out with Zito and his teammates in Spring Training back in the day. I consider him a friend and one of my all-time favorite athletes.
So why now, after all these years, am I considering scrapping this whole essay? I seek answers, by reading the Good Book, by sleeping on it several nights, by prayer and rewrite. Then wisdom comes to me, a gift.
I have discovered the mystery, why Barry Zito is no longer a great Major League pitcher.
“My mother was very spiritual,” he recalls. “Many who are raised ‘in a box,’ with a rigid structure; some people want to rebel in their youth, to leave the box, but for me, I was raised in the opposite direction. I wanted to be in the box.”
When Roberta passed away, a light went out in Barry. His father has been credited with his development. A musical arranger for Nat King Cole, he seemingly “built” his son into a pitcher the way he composed tunes, one piece at a time until it was fluid and beautiful, even though he knew little about baseball.
“What he did know was work ethic, signs of failure, falling short of the mark, regardless of location, what signs would show, to see if the work slacked,” said Barry. “If I wanted to be special he taught me that I had to forego what other kids would do.”
But Roberta was the key. She ran what became a ‘ “new age’ spiritual center. It was not really religion but a ‘spirituality church’ that associated with other churches connected with each other,” says Barry.
“Wild child full of grace
Savior of the human race
Your cool face.” – “Wild Child,” The Doors
Barry Zito ponders life amid the splendor of his Hollywood hills home on an 80-degree January day. 40 years ago a scruffy ex-pitcher-turned-writer named Pat Jordan came to these same hills to explore the life of another California southpaw named Bo Belinsky. What he discovered was a Bob Seger song, a “Beautiful Loser” living off the largesse of others. Not long after that he visited Steve Blass, Pittsburgh’s hero of the 1971 World Series, a “money pitcher,” just as Barry Zito was. Blass did not throw very hard, but he was an elite hurler.
In 1973, Blass simply could not throw strikes. The act of throwing baseballs 60 feet, six inches, over a diamond-shaped home plate, became among those things that, in his life, simply could no longer be achieved. He was done.
There are similarities with Barry Zito and there are differences. Barry was a star at the University of Southern California. In 1999 Zito was one of, if not the hottest amateur pitching prospect available. Pushing six-feet-three, he possessed a perfect pitcher’s body. His mechanics, like future teammate Tim Lincecum’s, were slightly unorthodox, but as with Lincecum were developed in large measure by fathers.
Enter Oakland general manager William Lamar Beane, aka, Brad Pitt’s stand-in, or vice-versa.
Success, in Beane’s view, was “not unique to that family. I love Barry. Barry’s great. Barry was always one of my favorites. Of any players I had, he was so devoted, to being a great player, he does all he can, he’s very systematic in his preparation . . . plus he’s curious, picking up the guitar, becoming accomplished like he is in a short time. Intellectually he’s a very curious guy. He’s interested in history, politics, philosophy, musical, spirituality, reading.”
Zito signed with Oakland. In 2000 came his big moment: Yankee Stadium in an elimination game. This is Laurence Olivier stuff, the big debut on the Broadway stage.
“I was just chillin’,” he said of winning in this pressurized atmosphere. Man, this guy was Maverick doing a “fly-by” over Admiral Benjamin’s daughter. He was charisma personified.
In 2002 Zito was 23-5 with a 2.75 earned run average. After beating Minnesota in a Metrodome play-off game he won the Cy Young Award.
“The reason the A's won, wasn't Moneyball or Bill James, it was Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito,” stated ex-USC and Red Sox ace Bill “Spaceman” Lee.
He was a star, healthy, never missing a start, an ace among aces from 2003 to 2006.
Zito, who grew up in a house that needed to preserve $50 a week to give to Randy Jones for pitching lessons, was already rich, having made $7.9 million in 2006, but prior to the 2007 campaign Brian Sabean and the San Francisco Giants stunned the baseball world by bringing him across the bay for $126 million. He was now the highest-paid pitcher in Major League history.
Zito struggled mightily. The critics howled. Sabean was excoriated. Sports talk radio and the blogosphere was unkind. Jordan explored him in depth in the New York Times.
It was Barry Zito’s finest hour.
“After the big contract, he probably never stopped working and being devoted,” observed Beane.
It seems incongruous to conceive that a young man paid $126,000 to play a game would find anything but total joy in so doing, but this goes against human psychology. Public failure and withering criticism are like Original Sin; constant, dispiriting and pervasive. Zito could have sat back and counted his money. He could have told the world to buzz off. He could have crawled into a gold-plated hole. He did not. Joe Zito’s son made his father proud by working harder than ever, being just as dedicated as in his youth, and accepting complete responsibility for his performance.
“He’s a great teammate and an easy guy to root for,” says his former USC coach, Mike Gillespie (now at UC-Irvine). “There’s not one thing not to like about that guy.”
“From a personal standpoint he’s a very nice guy,” says Billy Beane. “It’s hard not to like him. He did not change from the day we signed him, he was the same guy, and I credit that to Joe and his up bringing, being intellectually curious.”
“I like the classy way he handled his demotion in the World Series,” says Spaceman Lee.
They said the same thing about Steve Blass. He never stopped working, He never complained, never blamed anybody. Blass lost the ability to throw strikes. Zito’s control has not really eluded him. Neither had health issues. Zito lost some velocity, but neither ever relied on Roger Clemens-type speed.
So, it seems obvious: Zito’s enormous contract conflicted with his sense of who he was. Blass never had a big payday. Zito certainly never admitted to guilt over the contract. Or was that really it?
“In getting to know Barry, I see how he was quirky, but he is very bright,” says Gillespie, hitting the nail on the head. It was not just the contract.
“Going back to the early parts of my career, I did not set an agenda for myself,” recalls Zito. “For me, it’s like I came up with other interests, and didn’t want to be pinned as a typical jock. I had a mild aversion to it.”
Through it all, nobody found any fault in Zito’s attitude, his diligence, his work ethic, his enthusiasm in rooting teammates on, his professionalism. In 2011 the most telling example of his character shone through in Showtime’s The Franchise. Zito, finally rehabbed, was given a start at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The camera caught him in a taxi, which he rode to the park in order to pitch the second game of a double-header.
“It came through, that I love playing this game, even if I’m financially set the rest of my life,” Zito recalled of the moment. “There’s a wound there and baseball is the balm. I’m blessed to still have passion after so many years.”
“His work ethic is off the charts,” offers Mike Gillespie. “He possessed supreme confidence but does not have a big ego.”
“One thing I’m happy about is that I love baseball,” Zito says. “I have friends I play with or are retired, and when the game does not treat them well it’s always ugly. I know players with good stats who do not love the game. The higher they go in the game, the old adage is it’s a job. So, I’m happy about the fact I still love the game, the preparation, the training. I still do all the things we have to do to get ready. I never got bitter at the game, I take pride in it.”
“For all the success he’s had, he’s never changed, he never lets fame and fortune change him, he never wanted to stop learning,” said Beane. “Learning will be part of his life the rest of his life, beyond the field, there’s so many things, he’ll never get tired of challenges, he does not have fear of new things, like when he tried singing. Fear of failure? Not Barry.”
“I think of this role from the standpoint of recently seeing some Broadway live theater,” Zito said when asked to comment on the role of sports in society. “This is a special, unique art; dancing, singing, acting, doing things just right in the moment in front of a live audience.
“Once a few years ago a friend of mine and I rode our bikes in San Francisco. It was the off-season and we peddled to McCovey Cove. We stopped and peered into AT&T Park. We could see a glimpse of the field, a sliver of green grass. He mentioned that this was an arena for modern day gladiators. It was similar to a time I was at the ancient Colosseum in Rome. From the outside I could see a glimpse of the floor where once gladiators battled to the death, and it was the same feeling. I mean, it’s pure mano a mano.”
Telling also was a scene with Joe Zito, weakened by a 2010 heart attack, on The Franchise.
“You are the finest person I know,” he tells Barry in a touching moment, “along with my wife Roberta.” “I love you, Dad,” replies Barry.
“My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of the mother.” –The Proverbs 1:8
Prepare for a cautionary tale. Neither Blass nor Jordan was able to find an answer to the mystery of his sudden failing. After much contemplation bordering on meditation, it is with no happiness that I report my investigation into his failings since 2006 reveal that after signing the big contract, and losing the light of his mother Roberta, Barry lost that edge, that color. He “wanted to be in the box.” The man who thought, who pitched . . . outside the box . . . wantedstructure. Jim Morrison resisted such a structure, and checked out at 27. This “wild child” lost the sense of new age freedom that had been his saving grace, at least on the mound. He apparently has not made this discovery yet.
To say he has gone corporate would be an exaggeration, but the “new age” guy, Roberta’s son, is no more, at least not competitively. This is why he started losing.
“His mom, who passed away in recent years, represented as much as anything, an example of a parent who is responsive and attentive to his or her children, whether in school, musical support, or sports,” offers Beane.
It is not a matter of loving the game; he does. It is not a question of work ethic; his has not slacked. It is rather a question of attitude, a carefree, cavalier way of life, somehow honed in the spiritual shadow of his mom, the musical arrangements of his dad, that has gone from him, and with it the light of victory. Tom Seaver once described himself as “boring,” and for his corporate approach to pitching, it worked. Barry, incredibly, is now boring, and for his approach to pitching, it is deadly. Having first interviewed him coming out of USC, I can see clear as day that great chasm between the carefree winner of 2000 and the man who today rejects “that guy” by stating, “Hey, that’s just not my life any more.” He must embrace life again, not just off the field, but between the lines during games.
“Still, it’s kind of a Catch-22, to be defined by a game,” says Zito. “They say, ‘It’s not what I am but what I do,’ but that’s BS, because you have to be so vested in your heart and soul or you will let the game down . . . it’s a contradiction if they say ‘its not who I am but what I do.’ I don’t define myself as a baseball player . . . but the game takes everything we have so to say they don’t define themselves by what they do is a contradiction.”
What is the meaning of life? “Oh, is that all.” Zito ponders further.
“To become more and more of who we are.”
But who is this new version Barry Zito 2.0, and what has he become? In 2001, Mark McGwire was approached in the Pac Bell Park visitor’s clubhouse by an old college pal. Apprised of the doings of this and that old USC friend, Big Mac declared, “Hey, that’s just not part of my life anymore.” He had a hangdog look on his face; the countenance of a defeated man. We all know what happened to him after that. Zito is now between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he wants to play ball and get paid. On the other, he wishes the press would not take notice. He cannot have it both ways. He can crawl in a hole like Big Mac did for years, or stop cashing his checks, become an artist in Majorca, like Curt Flood. Until then the writers will be drawn like Ulysses to this siren song.
While Billy Beane – who has not been Zito’s employer in six years - may say he has not changed, and Zito may still profess a love for the game, there is something profoundly wrong here. It is sad to report, but when Barry says, “Hey, that’s just not my life any more,” he is not just talking about the blue hair, the chicks, the partying, the rock star lifestyle. This is a man who stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium, mowing down the Bronx Bombers, only to reflect that he was “chillin’.” He never overpowered the opposition. He did it because he was out there, a little flaky even. He was unafraid, colorful, slightly zany. This was the secret to his success.
This is a well worn theme, explored in movies like Any Given Sunday, and it does not take a genius to see, but apparently Barry lives in a world in which nobody tells him the truths he needs to hear any more. He is still a gentleman. He is not petulant, does not act entitled, he is accountable to a fault, but he needs to know that only if he becomes “that guy” once again, he will never return to his winning ways.
To use a plethora of more movie phrases, Barry has, as Hal Holbrooke says inWall Street, stared “into the abyss. That’s when a man finds his character, and that’s what keeps him out of the abyss.” Or perhaps this baseball Maverick must channel Goose, or philosophize that, as in Jerry Maguire’s “cynical world” of “tough competitors,” as the “late, great Dicky Fox” once stated, “I’ve lost more than I’ve won,” only to come back swinging.
He is 33, the same as Christ at The Resurrection.
“A wise man will hear, and will increase learning; and a man of understanding shall attain unto wise counsels.” - The Proverbs 1:5
He has another five good years left if he will heed this advice. He can get his mojo back if he, as in his Trojan pedigree, will “fight on!” Otherwise? Does anybody remember Steve Blass? As Casey Stengel once said, “You can look him up.”
Steven Travers is a USC graduate, ex-A’s minor leaguer, formert Examiner columnist, and author of 19 published books, including Barry Bonds: Baseball’s Superman, A’s Essential, and most recently The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism