I’ve heard all the reasons I’m supposed to dislike Barry Zito. I know why I need to find him undeserving of the riches the San Francisco Giants bestowed upon him when he crossed the bay from Oakland to ply his trade, which is that of major league starting pitcher. And I know he’ll have a tough time finding another job.
Despite all that, the first words that come to mind as he leaves the Giants are “class act.” Plus, I’ll always remember watching him pitch the famous (or is it infamous) “Slide, Jeremy, Slide” game in the 2001 playoffs against the New York Yankees. Zito did his part, giving up a run — a home run by Jorge Posada, I think — and two hits. But he lost.
Lots of Oakland A’s fans have never forgiven Zito for going to work for the Giants. They saw it and still see it as disloyalty. Of course, that feeling was and is still mixed with incredulity that anyone would give Zito the contract the Giants gave him: $125 million for seven years.
The disbelief was soon alloyed with Schadenfreude, as Zito struggled year after year after year. His eventual record with the Giants was 63 wins and 80 losses. The one short sunny spell in Zito’s tenure with the Giants: His 15-8 record in 2012, including a couple of brilliant performances in must-win playoff games. If you crunch the numbers ungenerously, ignoring everything Zito and every big leaguer must do every day to stay in the game, the Giants paid him $2 million per win.
Zito’s performance gave rise to one fine piece of baseball literature, 2008’s “The Mystery of Barry Zito,” by Pat Jordan in The New York Times Magazine. The piece recounted Zito’s search for what had gone wrong with his game and his struggle to deal with fans who expected so much more of him:
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.”
But time, his 2012 heroics and perhaps the fact Zito won’t be pitching for the Giants again healed his relationship with the fans. On the last day of the season, he was called into a game to face Mark Kotsay of the San Diego Padres and struck him out. He got standing ovations both coming into the game and on his way to the dugout.
And now, Zito is giving the fans an ovation of sorts. He took out a full-page ad in today’s San Francisco Chronicle (below). He says:
“Let’s Go Giants … Let’s Go Giants … Let’s Go Giants …”
These words will live with me forever. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank you, the dedicated fans of San Francisco for the fire in your hearts for Giants baseball.
These last seven years were filled with ups and downs both on the field and off. I lost both my parents, found the love of my life in Amber, gained wisdom, found a faith in God, and rode the wave to not one but two World Series Championships in three years.
It has been an experience that has shaped the lens that I will see life through for the rest of my time. I feel so very blessed to have been part of it all.
Thank you San Francisco.
Yeah, I know he can afford it. Still, that looks like a class act to me.