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New Wave Whether riding his surfboard or conversing with his precocious left arm, A's phenom Barry Zito follows his own eccentric path

Jan. 15, 2001
Jan. 15, 2001

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Jan. 15, 2001

New Wave Whether riding his surfboard or conversing with his precocious left arm, A's phenom Barry Zito follows his own eccentric path

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there existed the
planet Zito. Its lone inhabitant was a man named Barry, who--by
earthling standards--was something of a nut job. He had been known
to wear a wedding gown. He played with stuffed animals, to some
of which he had given Spanish monikers (Luis the lion, Juan the
bear). On every overnight journey he brought his lucky fuchsia
satin pillows. To conquer boredom he chatted with the source of
his livelihood, his left arm. Hello, Arm. Are you doing well
today? Barry, King of Zito, believed that Tupac Shakur was still
alive, that surfing cleansed the soul, that the New Kids on the
Block's Hangin' Tough was a decent enough tune and that, for the
right amount of coin, he could last a round with Mike Tyson.
Once, he maintained, he even held a coherent conversation with
Rickey Henderson.

This is an article from the Jan. 15, 2001 issue Original Layout

There are NASA theories as to how the lone inhabitant of Zito
(now known as Barry Zito) arrived on earth, in Oakland, pitching
for the American League West-champion Athletics at the tender age
of 22 (987 in Zito years). Maybe, like Superman, he was sent here
immediately before his frozen planet exploded into billions of
pieces. Maybe, like Mork, he is researching our esoteric species.

One thing is certain: Zito--driver's license, Social Security
card and cell phone aside--is no everyday American baseball
player. He is different, in all applications of the word. Think
Bill Lee meets Gandhi meets Kelly Slater. "But not a flake," says
A's general manager Billy Beane. "Barry isn't flaky. He's
eccentric. He's a kaleidoscope. He takes the Zen approach to
things."

This year, in only his second professional season, Zito went 7-4
with a 2.72 ERA in 14 starts as a rookie lefthander for
Oakland--and that's probably the 12,471st most interesting thing
about his life. His earth parents, Joe and Roberta Zito, met 38
years ago, when Joe was a conductor and arranger for Nat King
Cole and Roberta was a member of Cole's backup group, the Merry
Young Souls. Zito's earth grandmother, Ann Meyer Makeever, is
the founder of Teaching of the Inner Christ, a San Diego-based
metaphysical faith with an estimated 50,000 followers. His earth
uncle, Patrick Duffy (married to Roberta's sister), played Bobby
Ewing on the TV series Dallas. His earth girlfriend of two
years, Susie Mora, was a fullback on Mexico's 1999 Women's World
Cup soccer team.

Ever since his freshman year at UC Santa Barbara, in 1997, Zito
has practiced yoga and meditation. He travels with the satin bed
pillows his mom sewed for him, as well as scented candles, which
he spreads throughout his hotel room. "They relax me," he says,
"and hotels don't always smell so good." He is learning to play
the guitar, and he admits to holding dialogues on the mound with
his left arm "whenever I need someone to talk to."

Almost all major leaguers either hunt, play golf, or hunt and
play golf. Zito has never fired a gun. On his things-to-do list
he places golf a close third behind nostril-hair ignition and
renting Teen Wolf Too. "The last time I played," he says, "I shot
140 in five hours. Golf sucks."

Instead, Zito entertains himself by shoving a six-foot, six-inch
white surfboard into the back of his black Dodge Durango and
finding wicked morning waves along the Southern California
coastline. By the time spring training begins next February, he
will have donned his gray-and-blue wet suit on 60 or more
occasions. When he can finally negotiate a major league contract
with any degree of leverage--as a second-year player, he has none
and will earn only a bit more than the $200,000 minimum in
2001--Zito says he will insist on a can-always-surf clause.
"Surfing kicks ass," says Zito, who splits time between
apartments in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. "Once, when I almost
died, it wasn't so cool. But now it's great. I just get up early,
put on...." Whoa! Whoa! Almost died?

Often, in the exuberance of being Zito, Barry rolls right through
critical junctures in a conversation. He can be explaining the
electoral college, which he does with lawyerlike precision, then,
flash, catch the eye of a passing olive-skinned hottie and, bam,
offer 12 unsolicited reasons for his worship of Latin women. One
minute Zito is praising the $2.75 Hawaiian French toast at the
Beach Hut in Manhattan Beach ("The world's best French toast,
dude"). The next minute he's explaining the art of throwing the
curveball. ("Dude, it's all confidence.") Seconds later he's on
to The Roots' new album ("Amazing, dude").

Uh, Barry...about that near-death experience? Well, five
summers ago, when Zito was attending UC Santa Barbara's freshman
orientation, a bunch of other students asked if he surfed.
"Dudes!" replied Barry. "I totally love surfing!"

Huge lie. "I had never surfed in my life," he says. "I just
wanted to be cool."

The next day Zito bought a board and--over the ensuing
weeks--transformed himself from a nonsurfer to a really, really
terrible surfer. During this time a friend persuaded Barry to
test the gargantuan tidals of San Diego's notorious Black's
Beach. "It took me an hour to paddle out to the big waves," he
says. "I'm paddling and paddling and paddling, looking up at
20-foot waves, one side of my head saying, Dude, don't do this.
Dude, don't do this. The other side saying, The only thing to
fear is fear itself. The only thing to fear is fear itself."

A man-eating 18-footer approached. Zito readied his board. The
wave came closer. And closer. "I said a little prayer, and it
broke right in front of me," he recalls. "I tried to duck, and it
pulled me out of my dive into a washing machine." The wave threw
Zito off his board and sucked him under. He was in a fetal
position, spinning round and round, unable to turn right side up,
unable to find air. "Maybe it was 15 seconds, maybe it was a
minute," he says. "But if another wave had come along, I'd have
been dead. Definitely dead." He retrieved his board and paddled
back to shore, swearing off surfing forever. "The next week," he
says. "I was back on the board."

There is something about Zito--a goofy confidence, an
all-knowing-yet-unassuming aura, a disregard for what others
think of him--that makes him, in USC baseball coach Mike
Gillespie's words, "uniquely special." When Barry, the youngest
of Roberta and Joe's three children, was still a toddler, "he had
a funny knack for throwing a ball wherever he wanted it--through a
hole, or in a corner," Roberta recalls. This prompted Joe to
build a pitching mound in the backyard of the family's San Diego
home. Seven days a week, Barry had to practice with Joe for two
hours.

Joe would videotape Barry's backyard performances, then study
them and offer advice. Nearly every week, from age 13 to 16,
Barry would accompany Joe to the home of former San Diego Padres
lefthander Randy Jones, the 1976 National League Cy Young Award
winner, who, in retirement, tutored kids for $50 per one-hour
lesson. "Barry always had a burning desire to be a professional
pitcher," recalls Jones, now a Padres radio announcer. "One day
he said he couldn't throw a changeup. In our session that day he
threw 80 straight changeups. He learned."

It would be easy to associate Joe Zito with Marv Marinovich and
other obsessive-compulsive parents who have considered it their
duty to program their scions into the next cyborg superjock. But
at the same time Barry was becoming a pitching phenom, he was
free to experiment with life. Unlike most of his teammates at
Grossmont High, which he attended from ninth through 11th grade,
Barry spent his off-field time not as the stereotypical cocky
athlete, but as a long-haired, oft-ostracized member of the
slacker skateboarding clique. "He would wear his hair the way he
wanted to, and he would dress how he wanted to," says Roberta.
"He'd want to get a certain style of clothing, and the first
thing I'd say was, 'Are you sure it's what the kids are wearing?'
He'd say, 'Mom, it's what I'm wearing.'"

Zito spent his senior year at San Diego's private University
High. Despite having an excellent season (8-4, 2.92 ERA, 105
strikeouts in 85 innings), he was virtually ignored by college
recruiters and pro scouts. He may have had a wicked curveball and
baseball knowledge beyond his years, but Zito's fastball rarely
exceeded 85 mph and, all the tutoring notwithstanding, his
mechanics were awkward. Only three schools--UC Santa Barbara, Cal
State-Northridge and Wake Forest--offered him scholarships. The
Seattle Mariners, one of the few organizations to scout him,
picked Zito in the 59th round of the June 1996 draft.

"He threw way too far across his body, and that killed his
velocity," says Craig Weissmann, a former Seattle scout who now
works for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "But there was something
special about the kid." Over the next six weeks Weissmann made
Zito his project. The two worked out in the Zitos' backyard,
spending hours focusing on specific points of Barry's delivery.
Soon enough Weissmann clocked Zito's fastball at close to 90 mph.
When it came time to negotiate, the Mariners dangled a $90,000
bonus, unheard of for such a low-round selection. "I'll never
forget us sitting there with Craig," says Joe. "At one point
Craig turned to Barry and said, 'The offer is very good. What's
the problem?' And my son--who was picked in the 59th round but
knew he was going to be great--looked up and said, 'I think I
should be a first-rounder.'"

During his college career Zito was peripatetic. After striking
out 123 batters in 85 1/3 innings for Santa Barbara in 1997, he
made Collegiate Baseball's freshman All-America team. But to
make himself eligible for the major league draft as a sophomore,
he transferred to Los Angeles Pierce, a junior college, where he
went 9-2 with a 2.62 ERA and struck out 135 in 103 innings. To
the Zito family's dismay, Barry lasted until the third round of
the 1998 draft before the Texas Rangers chose him. Disappointed
by the team's offer of nearly $300,000, Zito enrolled at USC. In
1999, after he pitched spectacularly as a junior (12-3, 3.28
ERA, 154 strikeouts in 112 2/3 innings), the A's took him with
the ninth pick of the draft and gave him a $1.59 million signing
bonus.

During his brief professional career, Zito's
highlights--reaching the majors after only 31 minor league
starts; loading the bases, then striking out sluggers Mo Vaughn,
Tim Salmon and Garret Anderson in his big league debut, against
the Anaheim Angels, on July 22; turning in a clutch six-inning,
one-run outing in Game 4 to tie up Oakland's Division Series
against the New York Yankees--have been obscured by the E.T.
antics that attract sportswriters and broadcasters to his
locker. In August, Zito did an ESPN interview about his
collection of stuffed animals and their Spanish names. After the
segment aired, his teammates had the field day of field days.
Outfielder Matt Stairs sent one of the clubhouse boys to Kmart
to purchase Mr. Jangles, a three-foot-tall, brown teddy bear
that Zito was required to carry around on road trips the rest of
the season. In Baltimore all rookies were forced to wear
costumes in the hotel lobby. Zito, who had jokingly told a
reporter that he wouldn't mind "dressing like a girl," was, as a
result, issued a white wedding dress. Oakland reliever Mike
Magnante took a picture of Zito in matrimonial garb, Mr. Jangles
under right arm, strolling through a hotel lobby. "I don't get
embarrassed often," says Zito, "but that was a pretty
humiliating moment. You have to keep things in perspective."

That Zito does very well. In May 1999, two years after having
been told she had primary biliary cirrhosis of the liver, Roberta
was admitted to Los Angeles's Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in need
of a transplant. Barry, who was pitching for Visalia of the Class
A California League, had the uncanny ability every five days to
put aside his concern for his mother, throw seven or so strong
innings, and then resume his worrying. On July 11 he was told
that a matching donor liver had been found and that Roberta was
about to undergo a transplant. He borrowed a friend's car and
made the six-hour drive from Modesto. "What do you think about
for six hours?" he asks, repeating a reporter's question. "I
guess I accepted that my mother would probably die. I thought
about my family--what we would be like without my mom. Mainly, I
knew I had to be strong."

Roberta proved even stronger, pulling through the surgery without
major complications. Now recovered, she recalls a telling moment
in her son's life. In second grade his teacher told the children
to draw a picture of what they would like to accomplish. Barry,
never a superb artist, drew the image of a major league pitcher.
Across the top he wrote, MAKING A MILLION DOLLARS.

Who knew? Barry Zito--million-dollar pitcher, surfer and major
league enigma--turns out to be a psychic too. Eat your heart out,
ALF.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO BOARD-CERTIFIED Now a savvy surfer, Zito (here at Manhattan Beach, Calif.) once almost waved bye-bye. COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARISCOLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL FAMILY TRIO As an aspiring musician, Barry has a long way to go to catch up with former Nat King Cole accompanists Roberta and Joe.

Out of Nowhere

With a strong performance down the stretch for the Athletics as
they won the American League West, Barry Zito joined an honor
roll of rookies who were called up in midseason and made crucial
contributions to their clubs' championship runs.

PLAYER, POSITION, TEAM FIRST GAME

Whitey Ford, LHP, '50 Yankees July 1
New York City product, 23, boasts 9-1 record, 2.81 ERA ; wins
World Series clincher over Phillies

Bob Hazle, OF, '57 Braves July 29
In 41 games for eventual world champions, 26-year-old
"Hurricane" bats .403 with seven HRs, 27 RBIs

Mel Stottlemyre, RHP, '64 Yankees Aug. 12
Poised 22-year-old has 9-3 record, 2.06 ERA; wins World Series
Game 2 over Cardinals

Gregg Jefferies, 2B-3B, '88 Mets Aug. 28
In 29 games, hits .321 with six HRs, 17 RBIs and five steals for
NL East winners; 21-year-old bats .333 in postseason

Livan Hernandez, RHP, '97 Marlins June 15
Cuban emigre, 22, wins nine of 12 starts in regular season,
goes 4-0 in postseason for world champs

Jaret Wright, RHP, '97 Indians June 24
An 8-3 record in regular season includes seven wins following
Cleveland losses; 3-0 in postseason

Erubiel Durazo, 1B, '99 Diamondbacks July 26
Slugging Mexican League alum, 25, bats .329, slams 11 HRs in 52
games for NL West champs

Barry Zito, LHP, '00 A's July 22
Zito, 22, goes 7-4 , with a 2.72 ERA, for AL West winners;
shuts down Yankees in Division Series Game 4

"Barry isn't flaky, he's eccentric," says Beane. "He takes the
Zen approach to things."