By Ann Killion
April 28, 2010

The familiar chant of "Bar-ry, Bar-ry, Bar-ry" filled AT&T Park last weekend. But for the first time, the adulation wasn't for the Giants former left fielder but for the third pitcher in their starting rotation.

The guy who was booed off the field not that long ago.

Witness the power of a 1.32 ERA.

"You walk into a book store or a coffee shop and people look at you with disgust in their eyes," Barry Zito said. "You can't even fathom what that feels like.

"To be scorned by an entire city, that definitely built up my character. I'm thankful I went through the stuff I went through. It built muscle."

Zito is using his new muscle to get off to the best start of his 11-year career. The left-hander is 3-0 in four starts and his tiny ERA ranks sixth among National League pitchers. The outpouring of local affection came after Zito beat the St. Louis Cardinals for the first time in his career, including getting Albert Pujols to look at a third strike on an inside fastball.

This April, Zito has command, presence and confidence on the mound, all the things he's lacked since he came across the Bay from Oakland to San Francisco in December 2006.

"It's taken three years to get back to the person I was going into that contract," he said. "I'm sorting it out in my life."

In the first three seasons following Zito's $126-million deal -- at the time the richest contract ever given to a pitcher -- he's been called a lot of things: The worst free agent signing in baseball history. An albatross on the Giants' fortunes. A joke. And much crueler things by fans who presumed money insulated him from actual human feelings.

"They think we're robots, but that stuff hurts," Zito said.

Zito seemed to turn a corner last July and the Giants won 10 of his final 14 starts. He's always been a better second-half pitcher, a result -- he says -- of pushing aside external expectations and concentrating on playing.

"Usually in the second half something kicks in," he said. "I think f--- it. The season is almost over, I realize I'm not going to get to do what I love. I'm just going to enjoy the game.

"Last season, I put myself back on the map. I could get guys out, be effective and pitch well in big games like the ones we had in September."

So how did the second-half guy make the transition to the first half of this season?

Zito made some changes in his environment.

"Change of scenery," he said of moving his locker across the Giants clubhouse to "veterans row" -- once occupied by non-controversial vets like Rich Aurilia and J.T. Snow. Zito's old locker was on the Barry Bonds wall (where the famous recliner has been replaced by a dog bed belonging to Tim Lincecum's white bulldog Cy).

Zito also did some feng shui in the offseason. His Southern California winters have been full of parties, music and modeling, making him fodder for tabloids and infuriating fans who saw him as less than focused on baseball.

Zito is still the artsy, philosophical guy he's always been. But he made some basic changes.

"I stopped bringing people up to my house late at night, I stopped letting people into my house that I didn't know," he said. "I just started to focus on things that would add to me as a person instead of what was fun in the moment."

He took his first trip to Europe, by himself. He went to London and Paris and drove from Milan to Rome. "I'd put it off for years," he said. "Traveling can be a scary thing. But I challenged myself to do the uncomfortable thing."

When he first signed his contract, he bought a $9 million house in Marin County, a beautiful spot more suited to a hedge fund manager with four children than a single hipster baseball player. While he still has the house, home is now a flat in the Marina District of San Francisco.

"You go through this arc where you get this money and you live in a big house and have a lot of cars," he said. "In retrospect, be careful of what you wish for. When you get everything you dreamed of, it can be daunting.

"I've simplified my life."

Part of his new mindset, Zito concedes, is the fruit of maturity. He'll be 32 in May and the last few years have been painfully humbling.

Part of it surely -- though this is something Zito doesn't concede -- is a change in expectations. When Zito signed his Giants contract he was expected to be the ace on a questionable staff put together with duct tape and promise. But that promise has evolved into the best young rotation in the majors. Lincecum is a back-to-back Cy Young winner and Matt Cain was an All-Star last season. Anything Zito produces is gravy. Expensive gravy, to be sure. But a successful Zito could be the key to the Giants' 2010 success.

Zito says this is a different experience than his Cy Young season in 2002 with the Oakland A's. He calls that accomplishment "beginner's luck" and describes his overall feeling as cocky.

"I wasn't really conscious of everything then," Zito said. "Now, it feels really satisfying to go out and have success on the mound. But I don't have any of those lofty thoughts. I'm just a regular guy throwing the ball the best I can.

"Back in 2008 I would've given my arm -- well, not my left arm -- to have been pitching well. But now I'm taking it in stride. I'm not so wrapped up in the results. That's probably why they've come."

And with results have come the adoration. And the cheers of "Bar-ry, Bar-ry."

"That's something I would have dreamed of two years ago," Zito said. "The natural tendency is to say, 'Holy s---, they're chanting my name.' And then you've walked three guys, given up a homer and you're out of the game.

"I can't lose focus."

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