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Going Deep: Barry Zito
by Alan Schwarz
Barry Zito’s career is at a crossroads. Two years after his 23-5 record for the Athletics won him the American League Cy Young Award at age 24, Zito spent last season devolving into an average starter with an 11-11, 4.48 record. And as he prepares for 2005, with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder traded, Zito finds himself the sole remaining member of the A’s vaunted Big Three, an old man on a rotation rebuilt with youngsters Rich Harden, Joe Blanton and Dan Meyer.
In this first installment of Going Deep—Alan Schwarz’ new column in which he will regularly sit down with a baseball newsmaker for a one-on-one interview—Zito discusses his fall from stardom, his approach to 2005, and being “a prisoner of my own mind.”
ALAN SCHWARZ: So much has changed for you over the past year. To what extent does this spring training feel like a new start?
BARRY ZITO: It does. I learned so many lessons last year, and I think it propelled me into a new learning and a new integration motivation to get back to basics. My drive has always been getting better mechanically, getting better efficiency-wise, and I think last year was more stat-oriented. There wasn’t as much emphasis on me getting better as a pitcher—there was more, “Get the win.”
AS: The need to play up to the 23-5 legacy of 2002?
BZ: I think so. I’ve really been focusing more on mechanics and being solid fundamentally. I really felt like last year was my greatest year in the big leagues because it taught me the most. I think after ’03 (when he went 14-12, 3.30), it wasn’t a bad year, but I really wanted to prove myself. I think I was trying to prove a lot of things to a lot of people instead of proving myself just to me, which is essentially all that really matters.
AS: After 2002, you said you didn’t want to let the Cy Young change you. It sounds like it did.
BZ: Yeah, and it was unconscious. I started to come out of it in the last couple months of last season. Last year was the first year that I didn’t want the season to end. I was like, “I’m getting hot, I’m ready to pitch two more months, now I’m starting to get my feel back.” So I basically vowed to myself to not lose the feel of baseball in the offseason, whereas in previous offseasons I had always detached from baseball.
AS: Did you skip surfing this winter? That was always your escape.
BZ: I did some surfing, but I stopped surfing at Christmas—I didn’t take any trips, I didn’t detach. This is the first offseason where I really stayed baseball-minded the whole time, except for the first four or five weeks after. That’s how I was after the 2000 offseason and ‘01, because I felt like I wasn’t there yet.
AS: It sounds to me as if perhaps in the past few years your outside interests (guitar, surfing, etc.) got in the way.
BZ: No, not at all. And I would tell you. It has nothing to do with that. When I say in previous offseasons I would detach from baseball, it’s not that I would detach from baseball because of a surf trip to Fiji. I can go on a surf trip to Fiji and still be baseball-minded and still have baseball in my psyche every day. I’m the kind of person who needs many things in myself to feel that I’m being productive. I think if you took music and photography out of my life and all of the other things that I do, that’s not Barry Zito. That’s not what makes me up.
AS: Looking back, did you have too much success too early?
BZ: I don’t think it was too much success—I think it was being on autopilot to the end of 2002. You’re in your routine and that’s all you know, and then you’re in the big leagues and, boom, the Cy Young, and then you kind of realize, “Wow, I’m pretty good.” I think it’s just a case of that’s all I knew.
AS: Last year, there were theories that you were tipping your pitches, that you couldn’t get your curveball over, that you were relying on your fastball too much to righthanders. What do you think was the reason for your slide?
BZ: I think more than anything it was just a confidence issue—a conviction issue. I think that came from, like I said before, trying to prove too many things to too many people. It causes you to press. You start out with a lack of confidence and then it manifests as your pitches start going up in the zone. When you’re overthrowing you don’t trust that you’re good enough to get them out with your normal stuff.
AS: Given last year, did you think that if two of the so-called Big Three were traded, you’d be the one still in Oakland?
BZ: No. I thought that I was going to be the one. When I found out that they got traded, instead of remorsing I saw it as a golden opportunity. It’s a great opportunity to see what we can do on our own.
AS: Could it be a distraction for you, though? To have extra responsibility beyond getting yourself on track?
BZ: No, I think more than anything it just solidifies a role. There was never really a role before. It was just one-third—one-third of this institution that people had created.
I’ve learned more about myself in the last year of my life than the previous 25. I really earned a greater respect for baseball, and I have a greater passion now for baseball than I ever have had at any time in my life. Baseball shows me what’s inside of me and what I’m made of. It’s instant feedback—every five days, I know what Barry Zito is made of.
It’s funny—signing my fan mail, I was literally writing back full letters to people. I gained a new respect for the fans, for the game. Just so much good has come out of last year. Where I used to completely disconnect from the game the first four years, now I feel guilty—I feel like I’m cheating on my wife or something if I get away from the game too much.
AS: You’ve said you “can become a prisoner of my own mind.” Could that happen again?
BZ: Every pitcher, even ones that dominate, will never tell you that they’ve been prisoners of their own mind because they’re too macho. But I can guarantee you that every one of them has.
I think that as long as you stick to the preparation, results will take care of themselves. And I can tell you that last year the preparation wasn’t there—not physically, because I was doing bullpens, but I didn’t have my heart in it. You can throw a bullpen, and be like “I’m a nasty mother——,” or you can throw a bullpen and be like, “ugh.” Every pitch can miss and you can still walk off that mound and be like, “I’m a nasty mother——.” It’s all in your perception.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.