By PAT JORDAN
Published: September 12, 2008
Barry Zito, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, is tall and slim and as handsome as a male model, a pretty-boy actor, which is part of the problem. Even at 30, he looks more boyish than mannish, wide-eyed, with a too-innocent smile for a man his age. It’s an image he himself cultivated when he was in his early 20s: the guitar-playing, cool surfer dude with long hair dyed red or blue who carried a stuffed animal around and slept on aromatherapy pillows. The persona stuck. People still see in him a certain childish frivolousness, regard his innocence as merely arrested adolescence, his talent as an accidental gift.
That talent, the best curveball in baseball, made Zito one of the most successful pitchers of the first half of this decade. In 2000, at the age of 22, he was a rookie sensation with the Oakland A’s; in just half a season, his record was 7-4, but he was 5-1 in September and won a playoff game against Roger Clemens and the New York Yankees. He closed out the next season 11-1 to finish with a record of 17-8. The following year, he was 23-5 and the winner of the Cy Young Award as the American League’s best pitcher. That’s the kind of performance the San Francisco Giants hoped to get when they signed him in late 2006 to the richest contract ever for a pitcher, $126 million over seven years.
Which is also part of the problem. The money demanded greatness; it promised that Zito would reproduce, if not surpass, his Cy Young performance, season after season. Instead, he had his worst season ever last year, going 11-13, and this year he tied a Giants’ record by losing his first 8 decisions. Some people wondered if he would become the first pitcher in the National League to lose 20 games in a season since Phil Niekro in 1979. San Francisco fans are booing, and already he’s being written off as the biggest bust in the history of free-agent signings.
Zito is an enigma: a perfectly formed pitcher at 22, his promise fulfilled at 24. Now, at 30, without injury, he is in the midst of a fall from grace so confounding that it confuses not only him but everyone else, which is why his hometown fans boo him. It must be his fault, they say. The money made him complacent. The success came too easy. He has no character.
“If I wasn’t making so much money, the fans would show a little compassion,” Zito told me this summer. “But the money gives them no leeway to be sympathetic. When someone becomes successful or rich and famous, people perceive that person as being different. But I’m the same guy I’ve always been.” Which is not quite true. Despite his looks, there is not much that is boyish about Zito today. He is serious, almost brooding, when he talks. “It’s the people around me who’ve changed,” he said. “I can count my friends on one hand.” Then he told a story.
After Zito signed with San Francisco, he ran into an old teammate who was out of baseball and in Los Angeles, where Zito lives in the off-season. Zito took him to dinner at an expensive restaurant, then to a popular nightclub and then back to his home, where they were joined by a couple of other friends. Zito showed him his BlackBerry, with all his text messages from famous actors, actresses and musicians. “Not to brag,” Zito said. “Just to share my blessings with him. I told him, ‘I love ya, man.’ ” The former teammate stood up and said, “Dude, I’m outta here,” and left. A few days later, a mutual friend told Zito that the teammate said Zito was showing off, “to stuff it down my throat, like, ‘I get it, dude, you’re this big fancy dude.’ ”
Zito had been staring down at the table as he told me this. Now he looked up. “But I was the same kid I always was,” he said. “My having money now threatened him. It was his perception, not who I was.”
Who he was in his early years with the A’s was a hipster living in a ’70s-era, porn-star bachelor pad with a “Zen lounge.” Before games, he sat in the outfield grass in his uniform doing yoga. He played his guitar in the clubhouse, in hotel rooms on the road and occasionally in Oakland bars because in baseball it’s just “fastball, curveball, changeup — you can’t change that much and be creative.” He took acting lessons and appeared in a version of “The Nutcracker.” He carried around books like “Creative Mind,” by Ernest Holmes, and “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle, because, according to his agent, Scott Boras, Zito was not just a baseball pitcher: he was really a “Zicasso . . .[an] artist-poet-intellectual.” He bragged about dating models, like the one who ordered a “truffle for $100 instead of something that was actually good to eat.” He told the magazine FHM that when he went out chasing girls he brought along a “wingman,” because, he said, “if I’m talking to a 9, but she’s hanging out with a 2,” the wingman had to flirt with the 2 no matter “how big or ugly she is.” That’s why he started acting like a surfer dude, he said, because “surfer chicks love surfer guys. . . . Hot chicks don’t dig ballplayers.”
But when I met with him for breakfast in Cleveland in June when he was 2-11, Zito seemed embarrassed by his past self. He said he had never really been a surfer dude, although he had done some surfing at one time. “I was a rookie when ESPN TV wanted to do a feature on me about the stuffed animals, the candles and the pillows,” he told me. “The pillowcases were real because my mom had read that fuchsia pillowcases help your psychological brain waves.” He laughed. “I don’t know if it works. But the stuffed animals and candles weren’t real. But I thought I’d play with it. It was awesome — ESPN TV, so cool. So I went out and bought all these stuffed animals and candles and incense” and set the stage.
As for the girls, he said: “I had no reference point with women until I was in college. I didn’t have a girlfriend until I was 21. I was this 5-7 pudgy kid in high school. . . . I wasn’t a popular kid. I was an outcast. The popular kids weren’t accepting of us. We’d go to these parties, and the popular kids were hanging with the pretty girls while we hung in the back and left after 20 minutes. No one wanted us to be there.” Zito said the first two girls he ever really dated were soccer players, because he felt that “athletic girls would understand the mind-set of an athlete” (apparently not — they have been quoted describing him as a “weirdo” and a “dork”). He’s currently dating an actress named Lauren German. When she and Zito were both at U.S.C., he told me, “she was the hottest girl, who dated the baseball star” — and the star wasn’t Zito. “I met her a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. I went up to her and said: ‘Wow! You’re Lauren German.’ She didn’t remember me. I said, ‘I’m Barry Zito.’ She said: ‘Oh, yeah. What are you doing now?’ I said, ‘I’m playing baseball.’ She looked at me like, ‘Get a real job.’”
The New Age aura that once surrounded Barry Zito was not without a real foundation. When he was 6, his parents — Joe, formerly a conductor and arranger for Nat King Cole’s band, and his mother, Roberta, who had been one of Cole’s backup singers in the Merry Young Souls — abruptly left Las Vegas and moved Barry and his older sisters, Sally, then 15, and Bonnie, then 19, to San Diego, where Roberta eventually took over a spiritual center called the Teaching of the Inner Christ, which had been founded by her mother, Ann Meyer Makeever. “My grandmother had a divine inspiration in the late ’60s,” Zito told me. “Even though she was happily married, she left her husband because she felt he would have hindered her. He never got over it. Eventually she met another man, and they started her church. She was one of the first people to talk about adding to the world’s accumulative consciousness. As a kid I didn’t understand it.”
Because he was a “late kid” — his father was 50 when he was born — he had been raised as an only child, Zito said. “I got a lot of attention. It was like I had three mothers.” And a doting father who called him “the baby.” When his mother noticed the birthmark on his left wrist, she saw it as an omen that her son would do something special with his left arm. “We live our lives paying attention to certain signs,” she has said, “a metaphysical side of life.” When Zito was 7, his parents noticed him throwing rocks at the clothesline and knocking off clothespins. When he picked up a baseball, his mother once said, “he had a funny knack for throwing a ball wherever he wanted it — through a hole or in a corner.”
Although Joe Zito knew nothing about baseball, he built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard and bought books about the art of pitching. He began to coach his son while they listened to Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. He told him, at age 7, “You’re a great champion.”
Zito had once said that his father “gave up his music for me,” which isn’t quite the truth. Instead, he told me, his father, after working for Nat King Cole, had managed acts and done entertainment contract law in Vegas — Joe Zito had no law degree, but according to Barry had schooled himself in libraries — and then “had to go from that high to San Diego, where he didn’t work. I became the focal point of his life. The other kids gave me a hard time because from age 7 baseball was the priority in my life. I felt awkward. I’d come home from school and want to play with my friends, but Dad was adamant that I work in the backyard, throwing at a strike zone on a canvas.” His father didn’t care if people thought he was overbearing.
“I looked up to my father when I was 7 and 8,” Zito said. “I believed it was my calling to be in the big leagues. I’d been raised by a family that always told me I could do anything I wanted.”
His father preached a host of New Age theories based on a single principle: mind over matter. He told his son that he was invincible, that people who think life is hard are doomed to fail. “If you fail,” the father told him, “it’s because you don’t think you’re infallible.” Zito absorbed his father’s words and in the second grade made a drawing of a pitcher with the words “Making a Million Dollars.” Years later, Zito would say of his success, “It’s all about confidence.” His pitching coach with Oakland, Rick Peterson, said, “Barry studied for greatness.”
That greatness revealed itself over the course of a college career that spanned three different schools and a couple of all-American seasons. After the last, at U.S.C. in 1999, he was the ninth overall draft pick. The Oakland A’s gave him a $1.59 million signing bonus. The following year, he was in the big leagues.
What distinguished Zito’s early career was that he always had quality statistics beyond his win-loss records, although he did tend to walk a lot of batters, almost four per nine innings. Zito’s high walk ratio is the price he pays for his perfect curveball, the major reason for his success. A perfect Zito curveball will approach the plate at the batter’s eye level, then begin to drop, cross the plate at the batter’s knees and be caught by the catcher at the batter’s shoe tops. Zito’s curveball spends nine-tenths of its life out of the strike zone, which is why umpires don’t like to call it a strike. It never looks like a strike. That’s why it’s so difficult to hit. Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees once said: “I have never seen anything like it. It drops three to four feet. You might as well not even look for it because you’re not going to hit it.”
Not many pitchers throw the big overhand curveball anymore, because it is the most difficult pitch to master. The Hall of Famer Tom Seaver told me, “I never intellectually understood a curveball.” A great curveball is the only pitch that requires two different arm motions. Almost all other breaking pitches — slider, split finger, changeup — are essentially variations of a fastball, “slip pitches” whose break is determined by the way the pitcher grips the ball, not the motion of his arm. To throw a great overhand curve with a 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock drop, a pitcher grips the ball like he would a fastball, with his first two fingers close together and cutting the ball in half. Then he begins his motion as if throwing a fastball. As ball and hand pass the side of his head, his first two fingers on the ball are aimed at the plate, just as they would be with a fastball. When the ball moves past the pitcher’s head he begins to curl his first two fingers over the top of the ball while simultaneously and violently pulling his arm back from the plate and down toward his opposite hip. It’s the same motion a dancer might use to wrap his arm around the waist of his partner before dipping her. That abrupt change in arm motion puts a furious downspin on the ball, causing it to drop like a duck that has been shot on the wing. Years ago, a great overhand curveball was called the Unfair One. Most pitchers struggle for years to master the Unfair One and then, defeated, abandon it and rely on the slider, split finger or changeup, which can be mastered in one throwing session in the bullpen. Zito’s grip for his curveball is unusual: he positions his index and middle fingers on either side of the seam as it creates the horseshoe on the ball, and creates the spin with pressure from his index finger. Most pitchers place both fingers inside the seam and apply pressure with the middle finger. Zito mastered his curveball in his youth, almost without effort.
“I was 8,” he said. “I just threw the curveball with a certain grip and struck out everyone.” It was a blessing.
Zito experienced the first setback of his career in 2001, when he began the season with a 6-7 record. Father hurried to Oakland to straighten son out. The two sequestered themselves in Barry’s home for five days, Joe reading to his son from New Age books and expounding on his and Roberta’s metaphysical philosophy.
Joe told Barry about “the Universal Law,” which was a kind of gravity or electricity in the atmosphere set up by our thoughts that “would come back to us.” He told Barry about “Inverse Transformation”: Barry should pray with the belief that what he was praying for he already possessed. If he did that, eventually he would get what he wished for. In this way, Zito learned, he would be able to create his own reality. Father told son that our thoughts shape our lives, not vice versa, so he should “wear the mood” that accompanies accomplishment. Father quoted from Psalms: “Be Still and Know That I Am God.” Zito said that for him it meant “trust in yourself knowing that God is in control . . . trust in what makes our heart beat . . . and our cells renew themselves.” He wrote the aphorism on the underside of the bill of his cap, leaving out the word “God.” During games he would glance at it for inspiration.
After his metaphysical retreat, Zito ended his season with an 11-1 run. In his words, “it worked.” He began to incorporate his parents’ New Age theories, this “pretty deep stuff,” into the narrative he had been creating about himself: he was not going to be “some stereotypical ballplayer that has no interests, really — no life, no depth, no intelligence.” He began to talk to his teammates, the media, fans, everyone, in a kind of New Age psychobabble not often heard in a baseball clubhouse. He said he believed in spiritual rebirth, which was why he wanted to experience “how cool death is.” He put a sign on his truck: “Normal People Worry Me.”
When Zito struggled again, in 2004, his father returned, this time reading aloud from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Neville Goddard and the Old Testament. He told his son that he was Joshua at the battle of Jericho and had to break down the walls of his mind to overcome obstacles. This time, the father’s philosophies didn’t work: Zito finished 2004 with a record of 11-11 and followed it with seasons of 14-13, 16-10, 11-13 and the awful, ongoing experience that is this year.
People have espoused theories about Zito’s demise. The $126 million contract destroyed his incentive. He never had the character to be an ace. His lifestyle — surfing, acting, guitar playing — and general flakiness (he talked to his left arm) have distracted him. He pitched above his abilities before, and has now regressed to his true talent level, what baseball people would call a 16-12 pitcher. His parents’ psychobabble has clouded his mind, and he has lost sight of the simplicity of the game (“see ball, hit ball”) and made it so complex that it confuses him, turning him into the Prince Hamlet of baseball. Dave Righetti, the Giants’ pitching coach, told me: “Yogi Berra gave me the best pitching advice ever. Yogi said, ‘Throw the ball to the hitter’s bat.’ ”
According to Righetti, the mystery was that Zito, inexplicably and without suffering injury, had lost 5 miles per hour off his already modest 89-m.p.h. fastball and, also inexplicably, had lost control of his devastating curveball. “It’s not physical,” Righetti said, sitting in the visitors’ dugout before a game against the Cleveland Indians in late June. “I mean, he’s not injured. It’s a matter of confidence.”
In truth, Zito’s pitching problems are probably the result of both physical and mental problems. “He had speeded up his motion,” Righetti said, “which caused him to overstride.” Zito’s arm has been trailing his lunging body a split second too late. This causes him to lose speed off his fastball and to fling his curveball high, rather than snapping it low across the plate. He lost control of his curve, Righetti said, “and batters weren’t swinging at it. Then he stopped throwing as many curves as he used to.” Righetti said the funny thing was, when Zito threw on the sidelines in warm-up sessions, “everything was locked in. But the game speeded him up. You know, this is a tough game to be on top for years.” He meant that the greatest athletes, who have 20-year careers of peaks and valleys, have the ability to will themselves out of occasional slumps.
“I’ve made mechanical adjustments lately,” Zito said during our breakfast in late June. “My curve and fastball are better now. But your body’s gonna do what your mind lets it do. You have to surrender to the pitch. You try to control the process, not the result. A New Age guy told me that the last thought you have before you let the ball go — I hope the batter doesn’t hit it — determines where it goes. All the preparation, off-season work, can be done in by that last thought.”
Zito told me his pitching problems were caused by the fact that he hadn’t been himself the last few years.
“I wanted to be more ‘professional,’ ” he said. “This new guy. Because of the Contract, I wanted people to know I was serious about pitching, not this flaky guy. I allowed the seriousness of things to creep into my mind. The city. The Contract. The fans. My new teammates. I wasn’t a blue-collar Oakland guy anymore.
I was a white-collar guy on a white-collar team in a white-collar city. I stopped surfing. I stopped bringing my guitar on the road. But now I have to get back to that ‘age of innocence,’ when I realized how big things were and out of my control, and I just surrendered to it. I always played baseball because I loved it, not all these other reasons. By not being myself in life, I stopped being myself on the mound. I tried to throw harder than was natural, be finer with my curveball. It’s a struggle for someone who’s super-aware, like me. It would be a blessing to be a typical jock.” He paused, then added: “It’s not like I have to think my way back to innocence or anything. I just have to think my way back to that free-spirited kid in Oakland who wasn’t thinking about serious things, like the Contract.”
But at 30, that “free-spirited kid” is gone forever. Zito said: “I can’t trust people anymore.
I have to protect myself. I can’t be myself with people.” He was particularly stunned by the vehemence with which the media and fans greeted news of the Contract. And then he was stunned by the fans’ booing his failed pitching. “Actually, I think the San Francisco fans have been pretty good to him,” Righetti said. “If he was in New York, the fans would be off the chart.” But Zito wasn’t used to being booed and criticized. His flaky persona had deflected such criticism for years, as if people felt it was unfair to be too harsh on such an innocent sprite. But he’s not a sprite anymore, and his critics are no longer so forgiving. Which is why he has assumed a new persona: the abused guy who can no longer be himself with people. “But it requires so much energy to be inauthentic,” Zito said. Which is the point. Zito was never truly “authentic.” The free-spirited kid was always something of a construct. Now that he’s a man, it’s time for “serious things,” like the apparently premature demise of a once-brilliant career. This is what Zito is struggling with. But how to rewrite the narrative of his life?
“I never thought I was invincible at everything, just baseball,” Zito said. “At 30, I became aware of why things happened.” He now saw his parents’ psychobabble — “Don’t expect to struggle” — as something that could lead not only to awareness but confusion. “Zen is a double-edged sword,” he said. “It guarantees nothing. When I went 11-1, it worked. Next year it won’t. Zen helps you solve some problems, but it’s better at creating problems. Thinking too much is good for life, but not functional for baseball.” He’s searching for that mind-set all great, intelligent pitchers have. Compartmentalize. Complexity for real life, simplicity for baseball.
Before Zito took the mound against Cleveland on June 25, Bruce Bochy, his manager, sat in the dugout and talked about his struggling pitcher. “He’s such a good person,” Bochy said. “He could feel he’s let down the organization. He’s trying too hard. I always remind him of the KISS theory. Keep It Simple, Stupid. But he’s his own worst enemy, he’s so demanding of himself. Once you set the bar as high as he did at an early age, the expectations, demands and pressure of being successful are so great. The good ones learn to deal with it. The others get derailed.”
On a warm, drizzly Ohio night, Zito pitched one of his best games since he had joined the Giants a year and a half earlier. He was aggressive with his fastball, which hovered around 87 m.p.h., and selective with his 79-m.p.h. slider and his excellent changeup, which seemed to approach the plate like a grapefruit, rising big to the batter’s eyes, until the batter began his swing, and then the grapefruit fell away like a ghost. Only his curveball was still erratic. He threw a few good ones, a few bad ones that spun up high and a few great ones so devastatingly deceptive that the umpire called them balls. Instead of relying on his curveball as his “out” pitch, Zito used it mostly when he was ahead in the count, 1-2, 0-2. He threw his fastball and his changeup mostly as his out pitches. Still, it was a nice game — six and two-thirds innings, four hits, no walks, four strikeouts, one run — for his third victory of the season against 11 losses. When Bochy took him out of the game in the seventh inning with two outs and a runner on second base, Zito pounded his glove angrily, as if to show his desire to stay in and finish the job.
The following afternoon I grabbed Righetti in the clubhouse runway and asked him why Bochy took Zito out so quickly in a fine performance. “He’d thrown 108 pitches,” Righetti said. “Let’s face it. Bruce wanted him to get the win. Also, we’d seen this pattern before. He was starting to go 3-2 on batters.”
I went to the players’ clubhouse to wait for Zito. A few younger players were laughing, shouting, playing noisy video games on TV: car chases, shoot’em-ups. A few years ago, Zito would have been one of them. I picked up a copy of the local paper, The Plain Dealer, and read the headline about last night’s game: “Woeful Zito Sends Tribe Sinking Into the Cellar.” The story pointed out that Zito’s previous start, in which he had allowed five hits, four walks and five runs against Detroit, was so bad that Bochy pinch-hit for him in the second inning. But this was a different Zito, the Indians’ second baseman Jamey Carroll told me: “He was like the old Zito.” Bochy said, “That’s the Zito we know.”
Just then, Zito came into the clubhouse and went straight to his locker. I went over and asked him about the game. “The umpire missed a few curves,” he said, smiling. “He would have looked like an ass if he called them for strikes.” Then he glanced toward the players with the loud video games. He frowned and said, “Excuse me.” He went over to the TV and lowered the sound without a word. The young players said nothing. Zito came back to his locker. “What was I saying?” he said, then continued: “I just let it fly last night. Real success comes effortlessly, you know. The best fun is the game when you surrender to it. The hardest thing in life is to trust that something is gonna come. Like Rachmaninoff. He wrote . . . until he taught himself just to be an instrument of something coming through him. I made up my mind only a few days ago that’s what I was gonna do.” He smiled. “Maybe I can laugh about this someday.”
Before I left I asked him if he could put me in touch with his father. His smile vanished. He didn’t say anything for a long moment. “I’d rather not,” he said at last. “I’m not comfortable with him talking about me. It’s time for me to talk about myself.”