Lamenting Barry Zito

Posted: 20th October 2010 by Joe Guzzardi in by Joe Guzzardi, Giants 2010 postseason

Here’s the latest guest post from Joe Guzzardi, a regular Wednesday and Saturday contributor.

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I first saw Barry Zito, the struggling San Francisco Giant pitcher, during the summer of 2000.

On a perfect California evening Zito, then with the AAA Sacramento River Cats, was going through his unique pre-game stretching yoga exercises in a secluded corner of Raley Field. A handful of young women spotted Zito. They raced out to left field, hung over the wall and cried out at the single, eligible Zito, “Barry! Barry! Up here, Barry!”

Zito smiled at them. But he stayed on task, getting ready to pitch in another minor league game that would take him one step closer to his inevitable arrival in the American League where he would immediately become a standout in the Oakland A’s pitching rotation.

That was ten summers and $126 million dollars ago when Zito’s life was much simpler. In 2000 everything pointed straight up for Zito, a first-round draft choice from the University of Southern California. Rivercats fans knew we had to appreciate Zito while we could. Scouting reports predicted that his curve ball would soon devastate big league sluggers.

So it did. By October Zito, a long way from Sacramento, won game 4 of the American League Division championship series for the A’s in New York against the Yankees. And in 2002, Zito reached his apex when his 23 wins helped him capture the Cy Young Award. By that time, I had adopted Zito as one of my favorite players—and not just because he fooled the hated Yankees when they fished for his breaking ball.

I admire Zito because he was then—and remains now—a thoroughly likeable player in a (steroid) era when the game has too few of them.

As a Zito fan, I’m still troubled when I hear the criticism directed at him, valid though it may be. To be sure, Zito’s results since signing what was then the largest contract in baseball’s history are disappointing. This year Zito has hit bottom. Despite an encouraging start to his season, the Giants left him off its postseason roster.

The booing unsettles me too. In 2007, I traveled to AT&T Park from my home in Lodi to watch Zito pitch against and lose to the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. When Zito walked the first three batters in inning one, the raspberries started.

As bad as Zito’s outing was, a 2008 game I also attended was even worse. On an otherwise magnificent April Sunday afternoon, Zito gave up six earned runs to the Cincinnati Reds in the top of the first. According to the San Francisco Chronicle when manager Bruce Botchy went to the mound the first time, he implored Zito to get someone out so that he wouldn’t have to yank him mid-inning and face a barrage of hissing. Laboring for each of the three innings he lasted, Zito gave up eight earned runs in a 10-1 Giant loss that put his record at 0-6.

Zito, fortunately for him, has qualities that may help him weather the tribulations that engulf him. He’s active in dozens of charities including his own Strike Outs for the Troops. Founded in 2005, the organization has raised well over $1 million.

Refreshingly Zito, unlike so many superstars, doesn’t take himself seriously. He loves skateboarding, surfing, playing his guitar and once dyed his hair blue. Twice, Zito danced in the Oakland Ballet’s “Nutcracker” benefit. When asked why he bids on eBay for his own autographed baseball cards Zito answered: “Because I know they’re authentic!”

For all this and more, in 2006 the Sporting News voted Zito baseball’s number one “Good Guy” award.

Zito is as troubled by his poor pitching as any fan or teammate. But he takes criticism in stride. Baseball fans, as Zito knows, can be merciless even toward the greatest players in the game.

In 1986, before the tax evasion and gambling scandal, Reds’ fans brutally hooted one of their most beloved players, Pete Rose, when his average slipped all the way down to .219.

What’s in Zito’s future is uncertain. A comeback at 32 is hard to imagine. But other slow balling left handers have had stand out seasons late in their careers. At 35, the New York Yankees’ Eddie Lopat posted a 16-4 record and won the ERA crown with a 2.42 average. The following year, Lopat went 12-4.  When he was 36 and 37, Jim Kaat won 20 games back to back for the Chicago White Sox, 21-13 and 20-14.

Pitching coaches say that to be successful, Zito must pitch lower in the strike zone. That’s easier said than done. The biggest question is whether Zito will get another chance.

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Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research, as well as the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com