What am I, the Barry Zito of sales?

I have been pleased to see that Barry Zito has put together some strong outings as of late, including a 7-inning effort in the San Francisco Giants 10-2 win over the Colorado Rockies last night.  It certainly hasn’t been a smooth ride for the former Cy Young Award winner the past few years.  One minute he’s an ace.  The next minute he’s struggling to stay in the Giants’ starting rotation. It always seems to be an uphill battle for Zito.  Every spring, he pitches himself into a hole, compiling a win-loss record of something like 1-6 with a 7.26 ERA to start June.  He then spends the remainder of the season trying to get right.  In general, he’s a much better second-half pitcher and tends to have a string of strong performances late in the season, though it’s usually not enough to push his winning percentage over .500, get his ERA under 4.00 or live up to his $126 million contract.

I don’t think Zito fails because of mechanics or effort.  I think his problems generally boil down to nerves, a lack of confidence.  I know this because I experience the same sort of struggles on my job.  I work in sales, for an Internet startup, and I spend my days cold-calling businesses, pitching my firm’s service.  One minute, I am on fire, getting through to lots of business owners, setting up free trial accounts and closing deals. However, if I go a few days without a trial or a closed account, my pitch quickly goes to shit.  My anxiety spikes every time I get a live person on the phone, I speak faster, stammer when given objections, and sigh when they invariably hang up the phone on me.  It can be pitiful to listen to.

I tend to easily forget that I’ve been successful before in my job, that everyone is rooting for me to succeed and I have all the tools to make this happen.  My guess is that Zito has a comparable inner monologue.  Still, I know how reassuring it is for me when I start succeeding again.  Zito must be feeling pretty good today.  I hope he keeps up the good work.

Brett Favre: A few times this has been done in the baseball world

I’ve been watching with mild disgust these past few weeks as the latest iteration of the Brett Favre saga has unfolded.  The future Hall of Fame quarterback recently came out of retirement, for the second time in as many seasons to play for the Minnesota Vikings (he previously did this with the New York Jets.)  Twice now, Favre has finished a season, retired, said he’s 99% retired and then come back on the eve of the next season.  He’ll probably qualify for Medicare before he finally retires for good.

Favre is certainly not the first athlete to do this.  In baseball, the practice of retiring and then coming back is practically an art form.   Here are a few ballplayers who’ve had a hard time walking away:

Roger Clemens: The undisputed king of the un-retirement game.  Football has Favre.  Basketball has Michael Jordan, and to a lesser extent, Magic Johnson.  In baseball, there is Clemens.  At last count, he has retired three times, and only reason the 354-game-winner has stayed put this time is because of the ongoing rumors about his steroid use.  Somewhere, he and Barry Bonds are probably holed up in a bunker together, waiting for this thing to blow over.

Rickey Henderson: Henderson made more stops than the circus in his Hall of Fame career.  At the end, at age 44, he played independent league ball with the Newark Bears in hopes of making it back to the big leagues.  It worked.  He’d probably still be playing today if someone would give him a job.

Arky Vaughan: A lesser known name than Clemens or Henderson, Vaughan was a star in his own right during his prime in the 1930s and ’40s.  An All-Star shortstop, Vaughan walked away from baseball at 31, in the midst of a Hall of Fame career, due to a dispute with his manager with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Leo Durocher.  Vaughan spent time on his ranch in California and did not play ball for a total of three years, before returning for the 1947 season.  He played two final seasons as a reserve and then retired for good.

Jim Palmer: The Baltimore Orioles pitching great retired following the 1984 season and then attempted a comeback in the spring of 1990.  He didn’t make it out of spring training.

Jim Bouton: It was easy for Bouton to retire from baseball just past his 30th birthday, following the success of his bestselling 1970 book, Ball Four. However, he got the itch to play again a few years later and spent a couple seasons in the minors before returning with the Atlanta Braves in the fall of 1978.  He wrote about the experience in a postscript to Ball Four.

Bo Jackson: Give Bo credit for trying, though this was a sad sight to see.  A two-sport star with the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders, Jackson was never the same after blowing out his hip in a Raiders playoff game.  He played baseball again, but not as the star he was before.

Nancy Bartlett

I got a sad phone call recently. The mother of my childhood best friend Devin had died after an illness. Her name was Nancy, and she deserves credit for getting me into baseball.

I met Devin the summer before kindergarten. I was out with my family one evening walking our dog and saw Devin outside, around the corner from our house. We were fast friends. Two months apart in age, we did everything together: Had sleepovers, went to the same barber, shopped for Christmas presents at the 98-cent store (where else do you shop when you’re seven?) Our moms even arranged for us to get chicken pox at the same time.

Both Nancy and my mom were recently removed from divorces when Devin and I met. My mom had remarried, though Nancy stayed single for the remainder of my childhood. She never had easy circumstances, raising Devin and his younger sister Kenna in a duplex near government housing and driving used cars. She was a tough lady, though and could silence me by saying she would tell my dad about however I was misbehaving. It made me cry at least once.

Nancy had a sense of humor, too. On her wall, she had a picture of Tom Selleck which a friend had autographed. Being young, impressionable and a fan of Magnum P.I., however, I thought the autograph was real and Nancy did little to dissuade me. Another time, at an amusement park, she told Devin and I to be extra careful on the bumper cars and not hit anyone. We did exactly as she said.

I have a small library of baseball books today, and in one of my books about the San Francisco Giants, a fan offers this quote:

“I have always loved baseball. I moved here 16 years ago and naturally started coming to games. I think the Giants are a good team because they just don’t give up. There won’t be a generational bridge, though. My kids are hopeless A’s fans.”

Devin and I started playing Little League baseball in the spring of 1989, kindergarten for us. It was the year of the Battle of the Bay, when the Giants and Oakland A’s faced off in the World Series, and Devin and I had matching posters of Will Clark and Mark McGwire lording over the San Francisco Bay. It could have been easy for Devin and I to become A’s followers, fanatics of McGwire, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. Instead, Nancy steered us right.

Nancy was a Giants fan. Through Nancy, I learned of Giants stars like Clark, Brett Butler and Kevin Mitchell, who, Nancy told me, had gotten a double off a check-swing. She also taught me about nondescript yet valuable role players like Robby Thompson, Jose Uribe and Terry Kennedy. I don’t know if we simply learned intrinsically that the A’s were soulless and evil, while the Giants were working class, blue collar and therefore good, but Nancy at least deserves credit by proxy. I think the team was a reflection of her values, which she tried to instill in us.

The picture of Selleck wasn’t the only fake Nancy displayed. There was also a photo of Devin standing in front of Clark. It looked real enough to me, and I envied Devin after hearing the story of how he met Clark. I eventually learned the truth: It was a display at Candlestick Park, where fans could have their pictures snapped for a fee. Devin and I got to have our pictures taken there, but because our families were poor, our moms took the pictures off from the side with their own cameras. The photos of Devin and I standing arm-in-arm, smiling on wooden boxes with obvious cardboard figures propped up behind us are some of my favorites from childhood. Even thinking of them just now made me smile.

After a few years, Nancy moved to a better neighborhood several blocks away, and I began to see less of Devin, until he was just a peripheral figure in my group of friends. We still keep up, but as friendly acquaintances, not childhood best buds. I last saw Nancy three years ago, when Devin got married. She had finally remarried by this point and seemed happy when I spoke to her, at the reception. I don’t know if we talked much baseball, or if the new Giants appealed to her. I know part of my childhood ended after Clark signed with the Texas Rangers following the 1993 season.

I don’t know how many people there are out there like Nancy, people who struggle through life, their labors long, joys fleeting and ephemeral. But I know that baseball at its best can provide a measure of hope and happiness to these people. I know it made Nancy happy. As a result, it made me happy, too.

(Editor’s Note, 11/12/09: I have changed the title of this post, after seeing information in my Google Analytics account which leads me to believe that people searching for porn were coming upon the old title, “My Best Friend’s Mom.” I thought it was clever when I first wrote it and would get me more hits.  I see the error of my ways.)

Hello Mr. Penny, you’re in good company

Yesterday brought some good news for my San Francisco Giants: Two-time All Star pitcher Brad Penny cleared waivers Monday and is signing with the team.   The 31-year-old Penny has struggled with injuries the past two years, but won 32 games between 2006-07 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.  As a Number 4 or 5 starter for the Giants, I think Penny could thrive.  At the very least, he should make an adequate fill-in for an injured Randy Johnson.

Penny is far from the first veteran pitcher rescued off the scrap heap by the Giants for the stretch run.  Off the top of my head, here are three experienced hurlers they’ve brought in July or later:

  • Steve Carlton, signed as a free agent, July 4, 1986: This one didn’t work out so great.  The Giants signed Carlton two weeks after his release from the Philadelphia Phillies, for whom he’d won 241 games the preceding 15 years.  The 40-year-old Carlton went a meager 1-3 for the Giants with a 5.10 ERA and was released in early August.
  • Rick Reuschel, acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, August 21, 1987: This, on the other hand, worked out brilliantly.  Reuschel went 5-3 in helping the Giants to the 1987 National League Championship Series, then went on to win 36 games the next two years and start the 1989 All-Star Game at age 40.
  • Danny Darwin, acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox, July 31, 1997: The bigger names in this trade were Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez and the Giants gave up a slew of prospects, including Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry to get them.  Nevertheless, the trade helped them to the ’97 divisional playoffs (where they promptly fell to the Florida Marlins.)  Darwin also started 25 games the following year for San Francisco at age 42.