A man in the game

How Barry Zito turned his career around and became the playoffs' best story

Originally Published: December 1, 2012
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Barry ZitoChris McPhersonAfter struggling during the last few years, Zito posted a 1.69 ERA in 2011-12.

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TIM KEOWN: After you beat St. Louis in the NLCS, you said you found a higher level of focus. You've always sought to blend the athletic and the spiritual, so how do you think you reached that point?
BARRY ZITO: I think it was holding myself accountable on a moment by moment basis, asking myself, "Am I giving everything in the tank right now?" The odds were against us and me personally, and so my main focus was simple: I didn't want to ask the question, "What if I'd done my best?" I think that was the whole premise to that game in St. Louis. I ended up having an uncanny ability to not let anything else affect me.

KEOWN: Second inning. Yadier Molina singles. David Freese doubles. Second and third, nobody out. Anyone who watched the Giants this year knew you were probably one hit from being pulled. What was going through your mind?
ZITO: When I said I had that uncanny ability to not let things affect me, this is what I was talking about. I had done what I wanted to do on those two pitches. I threw a fastball down and away that Yadier hit off the end of the bat up the middle and a fastball down and away that Freese hit off the end that fell down the rightfield line. I could move right along and say, "All right, next hitter." I was able to stay in the what-am-I-gonna-do mindset and not the what's-going-to-happen-to-me mindset.

KEOWN: You strike out Daniel Descalso, walk Pete Kozma intentionally and get Lance Lynn to hit into a double play. The cameras caught you talking to yourself walking off the mound. What were you saying?
ZITO: I think my dialogue was just, "Wow." Marveling at the fact that things feel so good when they go your way.

[+] EnlargeBarry Zito
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images"I had to develop this thick skin," Zito says.

KEOWN: Everybody was rallying around you, not only on the team but also with all the Twitter #RallyZito stuff. It was such a change for you. How did you take it?
ZITO: It's funny. I go back to 2010 or even 2011 when I was hurt. If you would have asked me then, "How do you think it would feel if everybody was rallying behind you and the fans were cheering for you and everyone is genuinely supporting you?" my answer would have been that it would feel so vindicating, so redeeming. But I couldn't carry those burdens anymore. I couldn't worry so much about looking a certain way in someone's eyes. I was trying to live up to my own standards, and that was new to me. When the #RallyZito was going on, we had won all these games in a row [The Giants had won 12 straight Zito starts before Game 5 of the NLCS] and I didn't think much of it. Every moment and every game is a brand-new experience. The key was this: I was concerned with what was happening and not someone else's opinion of it.

KEOWN: It sounds like you felt free of whatever mental shackles had been created over the past few years.
ZITO: That was it, yeah. It was a freedom. The #RallyZito was great. I was so happy the fans were supporting not just me but the effort and the team. But you could put #ExpletiveZito for the messages I saw when I was on Twitter for a couple of months back in 2009. I hit the inbox button and it was ... oh my gosh. You mean this 18-year-old slapd--- from San Jose is allowed to say this s--- about me in a public forum? I was just blown away. That's when I got off Twitter.

KEOWN: Even though the negative stuff was going on, everybody noticed how classy you kept it. Inwardly it might have been different, but how you were able to keep yourself centered?
ZITO: Well, there were countless difficult nights. Baseball used to be so much fun and so amazing when fans only thought good things about you. But there was this whole other aspect of the game that reared its head. So for me to deal with that, I had to be professional and not give power to all these people. It's not personal. I've learned that from playing fantasy football over the past couple of years. I can sit and yell at the TV screen if a wide receiver drops a pass in the end zone. I don't wish bad things for his career or his family; I'm just pissed because I have a vested interest and maybe I had a bad day or I had a rough week and this is a good guy to absorb all that. That gave me perspective. If we win or lose, people get to come to the field and emote and dump off a lot of emotional baggage. They might not get to do that anywhere else, and that's kind of a beautiful thing.

KEOWN: When you did well, their undiluted joy washed over you. Do you take that as "not personal" too?
ZITO: I've been able recently to process it a different way. It would be so easy to say screw the fans if they're booing me and say, "I don't give a s---." And then if I'm doing well and they're cheering me, say, "I don't give a s---." But the journey has taught me that it wasn't always every fan who was booing. I remember going to public places in San Francisco for years and literally expecting people to scowl at me. You become like a wounded animal. If you get abused a few times, you expect it every time. But I was able to move past that, and now I realize that if someone says, "Hey, good job," I can smile and say thanks instead of keeping the guard up. I'm also a lot better at having boundaries. That's a big part of my evolution. When I first signed, I wanted every fan to think I was this great guy. I realized that's an impossible goal, so now if a guy comes up to me and says something snide, I'll give him a little of his own medicine. In the past, I would have just nodded and said, "Sure, take care," and think that I probably deserved whatever he said.

KEOWN: That sounds like the defiant mentality everybody saw on the mound in the postseason.
ZITO: Yeah, I think so. I had to develop this thick skin. I call it becoming a man in the game as opposed to being a boy in the game. When you're a boy in the game, you come up and you're good and people love you and you never really walk off that gangplank. When you become a free agent and sign with a different team, that's when you become a man. It's probably the toughest thing to do, and that's why you see so many guys signing back with their teams before they hit free agency.

KEOWN: Was there anything -- any comment or conversation -- from a teammate that stuck with you during the World Series run?
ZITO: What really stood out was a moment after we won in Detroit. We were celebrating in the clubhouse and [manager Bruce] Bochy was holding the trophy up and we're drowning everyone in champagne and one of the MLB guys is dragging me off for an interview with Erin Andrews and Bud Selig. As I'm walking, I hear the whole team chanting my name. It was kind of like, "Wait, what are they saying?" It can't be my name, because this is the whole team and why would they be chanting my name? But what is that word they're saying that sounds like my name? And so after I came back, someone asked, "How did it feel to have the whole team chanting your name?" That's when it hit me. I broke down emotionally because every one of these guys, in that moment, had understood everything that I'd gone through and the journey I'd taken. That meant more to me than anything all year.

KEOWN: Did that one moment make everything worth it?
ZITO: The learning and the wisdom and understanding I gained made it worth it. Life has a funny way of rewarding you when you're doing the right things. When you're not doing the right things, you get disciplined and corrected. Sometimes we just keep taking our lashings and we're bullheaded and we keep getting disciplined. For me, the greatest reward was to take heed of those things, make changes and stop trying to control things I can't control. The effect of all that was my pitches became a little more crisp and deceptive. To be able to say I contributed to the World Series -- for the rest of my life I can say that -- and it made those five years, all the difficult and trying times, worth it a hundred times over.

KEOWN: You got married last offseason. What influence has married life had on your career?
ZITO: It's given me an equilibrium I've never had. In the past, I would come home and think about baseball all day, all night, and that was pretty much how I related to life. This year, I began to relate to life through a marriage, through a love relationship with Amber. It enabled baseball to take up a little less hard-drive space. And then finding a faith in God at the end of 2011 at the end of all those tribulations -- I think those two things together put me on a path of freedom.

KEOWN: Your faith seems to enter into your conversation more these days. How did that come about?
ZITO: I was raised so out of the box. From a spiritual side, my grandmother founded a religion [Teachings of the Inner Christ] and a teaching center in the '60s in San Diego, and I was raised on that. That's where a lot of the eccentric, Zen things come from. But I just needed more structure, and sometimes you have to go through difficulty and physical trials to really get broken down. In 2011, I got broken down physically as well as mentally. In August of that year, I committed my life to God. I realized I'd been relying on my own strength for so long and, man, I'd been wearing it. I've been wearing it like no one in my circle. So this was about finding a strength outside of myself. The way I was raised, that's a concept I never would have given any credence.

KEOWN: What was the impetus or the moment that precipitated it?
ZITO: I had this very odd injury in April of 2011. It's mostly a football injury -- Lisfranc ligament tear -- and I came off the field that day after never being hurt in 11 years, and I said, "All right, something bigger is going on here. A message is being sent, and I've got to listen." A few months later, I realized I'd been doing it alone. My best friend told me an old story I really love. A shepherd will be leading his sheep, and one of the sheep will be walking astray from the pack. The shepherd will take his rod and break the sheep's leg, and the sheep will have to rely on the shepherd to get better. But once that leg is completely healed, that sheep never leaves the side of the shepherd ever again. That's a really beautiful metaphor. A lot of things happen to us as people, and we realize we've been relying on our own strength for too long. Last September, I got a tattoo, and it's the only one I have, of a golden calf on the inside of my right bicep. I show people that, and it signifies idolatry and that I was putting things before God. I haven't talked much about this. When I committed with my chaplain, he said, "You don't need to go around telling people this stuff. There will come a time and a place." I guess that's a change for me too. I used to kind of dig attention. Now I'm seeking deeper fulfillment.

Tim Keown interviewed Zito on Nov. 14, 2012. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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