You realize all you can be is yourself. Barry Zito said that. The world swirls about him, the debate goes on, the arguments continue. But all Barry Zito can do is be himself.
“I definitely have something to prove,” Zito conceded.
Zito is not the Giants’ main man, not their No. 1 pitcher, not their best pitcher. He remains their most controversial, however, booed by some fans, questioned by some journalists, apparently doubted by some baseball people.
He deals with the world as well as anyone in his situation — an athlete who is a gentleman, but also because of a $126 million salary that inevitably becomes part of every story or conversation about Zito — who is considered an underachiever.
He’s pitching again, working exhibition games. But last fall, the best autumn in the history of the San Francisco Giants, Zito was on the bench. The team left him off the active roster for the postseason, and so in not playing, Zito became nearly as significant as those who were playing.
“It will always be part of my life,” Zito said when asked if he has been able to move away from the disappointment. “There’s ups and downs, and as long as I keep my head level and sturdy, and not get too high or too low, then I’ll be fine.
“I’m excited to play baseball again.”
His critics are not. There was that supposed leak this spring from the Giants’ front office — quickly denied, of course — that Zito was on a short leash and could be let go by the team. There were hints — rumors, really — he could be traded.
“I don’t know what people are making of all this,” Zito said. “That stuff is out of my control. How I pitch is in my control, but it’s not my business to answer everyone who wants to write something.”
Zito has never been a typical athlete, not that there is any typical athlete and not that he ever would be on the Giants, that delightful collection of free-thinkers and sometimes free-swingers.
The son of a musician and music agent, Zito plays his guitar and practices his Zen. He will be 33 in May. He once had the best curveball in baseball. These days, he simply has the most pressure. Even last year when Zito got off to a brilliant start, a 4-0 record, the issue was why he hadn’t done it in the previous seasons.
Three years ago, in a New York Times article by Pat Jordan — a pitching prospect himself many years earlier — Zito acknowledged dollars made a difference.
“If I wasn’t making so much money, the fans would show a little compassion,” Zito said. “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.”
Unfortunately, he’s not the same pitcher he had been, especially the year of 2002, when he won the AL Cy Young Award pitching for the A’s. Zito has conceded he attempted to live up to the salary, to make every pitch perfect, which led to more than a few being imperfect.
After the season, Zito went to his home in Los Angeles — he attended and played for UC Santa Barbara and then USC. Zito said he “tried to lay low relax, make the short offseason meaningful.” He started throwing again in mid-December.
“Relaxation to me,” Zito said of his down time, “is just trying to have days when I can sit at home, not have a lot of things to do, because basically we have six months where we don’t have time to do much on our own. Just clearing the mind.”
Zito tends to be philosophical, which is understandable. When the fastball is a bit slower, when the curve doesn’t break, when the 3-2 pitch that seems to catch the corner is called a ball, one seeks perspective.
“When you realize you can handle going 0-8,” Zito said last year about the painful start of the 2008 season, his second with the Giants, “and getting sent to the bullpen, you realize there’s not a lot to worry about.
“You just realize that all you can be is yourself. You can’t be anything more.”
Or anything less.
Catching up with the champs
The San Francisco Examiner will profile a series of Giants players leading up to the season opener against the Dodgers on Thursday.
Pitcher Tim Lincecum
Outfielder Cody Ross
First baseman Aubrey Huff
Shortstop Miguel Tejada
Pitcher Barry Zito
Catcher Buster Posey