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Inside The Head Of Barry Zito As he struggles to regain his Cy Young form, Oakland's free-spirited lefty is relying on his best stuff: positive thoughts and faith in himself

June 21, 2004
June 21, 2004

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June 21, 2004

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Inside The Head Of Barry Zito As he struggles to regain his Cy Young form, Oakland's free-spirited lefty is relying on his best stuff: positive thoughts and faith in himself

Melancholy music blared through the speakers of the old Honda CRX
as Barry Zito raced across central California farmland on State
Highway 99, weaving in and out of an endless stream of semis. It
was a 3 1/2-hour trip from Visalia, Calif., home of the Oakland
Athletics' Class A affiliate, to his mother's hospital room in
Los Angeles, and Zito was hoping he'd get there in time to say
goodbye. Two weeks into his professional baseball career, on his
way to attaining his childhood dream of pitching in the majors,
Zito, crying uncontrollably, was undone by the notion that his
world away from the diamond was coming apart. He felt as
though the words of Ben Folds Five, coming from the CD, were
meant specifically for him.

This is an article from the June 21, 2004 issue Original Layout

Lying awake in my hospital room....

And the doctor just came by and told me the news.

I need a second opinion.

I don't believe that it's true.

Zito had been raised by his parents to believe that positive
thought and faith in oneself could supersede and even influence
external forces, but now he faced the prospect that nothing could
prevent his mother's death from liver failure. It was June 1999
and Roberta Zito was in the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai
Medical Center, suffering from primary biliary cirrhosis. Her
condition had worsened, and doctors had given her perhaps 12
hours to live. When Barry finally arrived at the hospital,
Roberta was as yellow as a retro A's jersey, semiconscious and
unable to recognize him. Like his older sisters, Bonnie and
Sally, Barry was overcome by emotion, but their father, Joe, was
devoid of fear or grief--"like he was sort of in denial," Barry
recalls. Against all empirical evidence, Joe kept telling his
children, "Your mother isn't sick. She's healing, and this is
part of the process." Barry spent the night in a chair near
Roberta's bed, bracing himself for the inevitable.

Nearly five years later Zito, the A's 26-year-old lefthander, is
still awed by the events that followed his bedside vigil. "She
made it through that night," he remembers, "and about two weeks
later we got the call that a donor liver had become available.
When they opened her up for the transplant, three doctors in the
room agreed that given her condition the operation was too much
of a risk. But the way we heard it, the anesthesiologist, of all
people, said, 'No, it's O.K. I have a feeling it'll be all
right.' One of the doctors told us later that in 30 years of
practicing my mother had been the sickest patient he'd ever seen
who bounced back to make a full recovery."

These days, as he struggles to regain the pitching form that in
2002 made him the seventh-youngest Cy Young Award winner, Zito
believes more ardently than ever in mind over matter. The
fifth-year hurler is convinced that anything he hopes to
accomplish--from striking out Alex Rodriguez to nailing a
sizzling guitar solo to forging a sincere and stimulating romance
with a club-hopping Hollywood lingerie model--is within his
grasp. "We're all physical bodies, but basically everything we do
is determined by what goes on in our heads," Zito says. "The only
person who ever stops me from achieving something is me."

Says A's first baseman Scott Hatteberg, "He's constantly
bombarding himself with the mental part of the game. Everybody's
trying to get a mental edge, but he takes it to another level."
Oakland righthander Tim Hudson worries that his friend is "too
analytical when it comes to baseball. It's a sport that'll drive
you crazy, and he puts too much thought into things that
sometimes have no rhyme or reason."

There have been times when Zito appeared to have it all figured
out. From July 24, 2001, through his stellar 2002 season, Zito
was 34-6 with a 2.50 ERA. Call it mind over batter: His unrivaled
curveball with the roller-coaster drop and his crafty changeup
set up a sub-90s fastball that isn't nearly as hittable as it
appears. "He throws strikes and dares you to hit it," says New
York Yankees manager Joe Torre, "and because you have to wait so
long for that curve, it makes his fastball that much faster."

Yet Zito's march toward pitching immortality slowed after he won
the Cy Young. Last year he went 14-12, mostly because of poor run
support, but early in 2004 he morphed into Barely Zito. On April
23 he surrendered a career-worst nine earned runs in four innings
of a defeat to the Anaheim Angels; six nights later he gave up
four homers, double his previous high, in a loss to the Yankees.
At week's end Zito was 4-3 with a 4.74 ERA.

With small-market Oakland in a battle to make the playoffs for
the fifth consecutive season--the A's led the AL West by 2 1/2
games over Anaheim and the Texas Rangers through Monday--Zito's
run of mediocrity is magnified. To former Cy Young winner Randy
Jones, from whom Zito took weekly pitching lessons during a
four-year stretch of his childhood, it's a matter of Zito's pitch
placement. "Fundamentally, he looks pretty good, and the
curveball and the changeup are working," says Jones, now a
spokesman for the San Diego Padres. "But he's really falling in
love with the cut fastball, which jams righthanded hitters, at
the expense of the two-seam fastball, which tails away from them.
He used to throw the two-seam pretty well when we worked
together, but now he's sort of one-dimensional, always trying to
cut the ball in against righties. When you miss and the ball goes
over the middle third of the plate, you're going to give up some
long balls."

Zito's explanation: "Some of my changeups have been flat, and
guys have hit them for home runs. When a changeup doesn't have
any finish, down-and-away to a righthander or down-and-in to a
lefty, it's basically just a batting-practice fastball."

Others have cited the off-season departure of pitching coach Rick
Peterson, who went to the New York Mets, and a mechanical
adjustment Zito made in spring training as possible causes of his
struggles. Zito, as always, insists the answers are all upstairs.
"Everyone's looking for a scapegoat, so they're pointing to [new
pitching coach] Curt Young, which is just wrong," Zito says. "I
miss Rick on a personal level, but we're doing the same things in
terms of preparation that we did last year. Mechanically, I tried
to get taller in my stance in spring training, but I've reverted
to my old delivery, so that's not it, either. Everybody wants
something tangible to blame so they can sleep at night, but I
view my pitching performance based on how confident I was out
there, period.

"And if I lose that confidence, I can become a prisoner of my own
mind."

Turning one's back to royalty is not always an advisable act. But
here at Marquee, a Manhattan club, on an early morning in late
April, that's what the young blonde in a skimpy cocktail dress
has done quite conspicuously to a short man who, nearby observers
claim, is a Kuwaiti prince. Suppressing the urge to curtsy, this
blonde and another similarly clad seductress groove together in
the corner of the dance floor, bumping and grinding not with the
prince but for him. Bemused, a tall man in a polyester shirt
unbuttoned to the breastline surveys the scene.

One of the blondes looks up and smiles at Barry Zito; he gives
her the Tenth Avenue freezeout. It was hours after the A's had
blown an eighth-inning lead and lost to the Yankees, and Zito has
just run into a model with whom he had been involved while living
in L.A. in the off-season. Zito's enthusiasm for the relationship
had been doused by her affected attitude. "We couldn't eat at a
restaurant because she'd say, 'We ate there two weeks ago,'" Zito
had explained earlier. "Or she'd order this tiny mushroom truffle
for $100 instead of something that was actually good to eat. I
told her, 'I can't be myself around you,' which is incredibly
rare for me."

Now, with his competitiveness stirred--not to mention a couple of
drinks in his system--Zito's interest in the woman has been
revived. "She's here with some dude, and I'm jealous," he says.
"That's new for me, and I don't like it. What I'm going to do is
find her and talk to her, really get inside her mind. I want to
go deep."

At 6'4" and 215 pounds, with a handsome face and an utter lack of
pretense, Zito suffers no shortage of female attention. "I don't
care if the guy's job was collecting trash along the road, he'd
still make women melt just from talking to them," says Jackie
Legg, a friend of Zito's since high school. "The positive energy
he puts out attracts people. They get fixated on that energy and
just want to be around him."

Adds Sally Zito, 34, a musician who lives year-round in her
brother's off-season house in the Hollywood Hills, "He's really
kind of sweet to the girls he dates, even though we're talking
mass quantities."

Yet Zito came late to the dating game. He says he "kissed one
girl in high school, not so much because I was shy, but because
of my lifestyle choices. I had long hair and was hanging with an
alternative crowd--people who were into a psychedelic scene." He
did not offer specifics, but the implication is the women of
University High did not consider baked Zito to be an appetizing
dish.

Zito says he lost his virginity as a freshman at UC Santa
Barbara, "then didn't hook up again until I got my first
girlfriend two years later." By then Zito had transferred to USC,
where he met Trojans soccer standout Susie Mora, also a defender
on Mexico's national team. "On our first date he gave me a
bear-shaped candle, and I thought he was such a weirdo," Mora
recalls. "He was so open; he would say anything that was on his
mind." He'd do anything too. Once, after Zito had played in a
Rock 'n' Jock celebrity softball game at Cal State-Fullerton,
Mora recalls, he suddenly unveiled his "Crip-walking" skills--or
lack thereof--to mortified rappers Method Man and Ludacris.

Long before it was hipster-chic, Zito had perpetual bed head and
a loud, synthetic-based wardrobe. Mychael Urban, an mlb.com
writer, once wrote that Zito "dresses like a '70s porn
star"--earning a hearty thumbs-up from mom. "He has never seemed
to feel that normal need to hide things, and his willingness to
expose himself is a marvel to me," Roberta says. "I'm always
trying to protect his facade, whatever it may be, but I've
determined there really isn't one."

In 2001, his second year with the A's, Zito did an ESPN radio
interview in which he was reunited, by telephone, with University
High classmate Mandy Clemens, who was then playing for the
Philadelphia Charge of the WUSA. On the air Zito copped to having
had a huge crush on Clemens, who told him that she had no
recollection of ever having met him. Nonetheless, they began
dating after their seasons ended. "The first thing that struck me
was that he wasn't afraid to be a dork, which I loved," Clemens
says. "He's definitely not savvy, and he's awkward with females,
though he probably knows how to talk to them by now."

Shortly before Zito left for spring training in 2002 he ended the
relationship. "It was like he decided he couldn't mentally handle
even having a friendship during the season," Clemens says. "I
think he wants to keep his life as simple as possible in order to
achieve his dream, which is to be the best pitcher in baseball."

That dream began in Zito's backyard in La Mesa, Calif., where Joe
Zito built a pitching mound for his seven-year-old son. Joe, who
was once a conductor for Nat King Cole (Roberta was a backup
singer for Cole's Merry Young Souls when they met), "basically
quit music for 11 years to work with me," Barry says. The family
lived on the small allowance Roberta received as a minister for
the Teaching of the Inner Christ, a 50,000-strong sect of
metaphysical Christianity, founded by her mother, Ann Makeever,
which helps members find their inner spiritual identity. By the
time Zito finished his second year of college baseball, at L.A.'s
Pierce College in 1998 (he had transferred there so he would be
draft-eligible a year earlier than players at four-year schools),
the family had been forced to move, ushering in what the Zitos
refer to as their "El Cajon period."

The move to El Cajon, Calif., a blue-collar town near the Mexican
border, was a humbling experience. "Oh, my God, it was awful,"
Sally recalls. "We lived in a 900-square-foot home that
apparently had been a halfway house for female prisoners;
therefore it was completely made of steel, and in the summer it
would absorb heat like nobody's business. It was the kind of
neighborhood where cars were on people's lawns, and parties raged
all night, and [police and TV] helicopters were always circling."

That summer Zito was drafted in the third round by the Texas
Rangers, who offered a $300,000 signing bonus. Barry and Joe
decided to hold out for an additional $50,000, and when the deal
fell through it was back to subsisting on chicken soup over white
rice, and spaghetti and canned peas. Barry enrolled at USC in the
spring of 1999 and went 12-3 with a 3.28 ERA and 154 strikeouts
in 11321/43 innings. The A's then selected him with the ninth
pick in the draft and gave him a $1.59 million signing bonus.
Says Barry of waiting for a better offer than the Rangers', "It
was a true act of faith."

Faith is at the center of the Zito family's philosophy. They
believe that positive thoughts release a tangible energy--in
Joe's words, "thought creates form"--and that an acute focus on a
goal can lead to its accomplishment. Barry was made aware of
these concepts from a young age, yet he didn't delve into them
much on his own until July 2001 when, after a rough outing
against the Minnesota Twins left him with a 6-7 record and a 5.01
ERA, he called his father and said, "Something's wrong."

Joe flew to Oakland and spent five days with Barry, fortifying
his son's mental approach. Mostly, they read from Creative Mind,
a 1919 book by Ernest Holmes that combines spiritualism,
psychology and philosophy. The book advocates the exclusion of
negative thought and asserts that nothing can be accomplished
without unquestioned belief in one's abilities.

The visit was followed by Zito's abrupt turnaround--he went 11-1
with a 1.32 ERA to close the season, then kept right on rolling
through 2002. The unflappable kid who struck out the side with
the bases loaded in his first major league start in 2000, who
later that fall beat Roger Clemens in a do-or-die American League
Division Series game at jam-packed Yankee Stadium, was so locked
in that it seemed nothing could penetrate his psyche.

"When you are focused and fixed in your desire," Joe says, "it
doesn't really matter who the batter is, where you're playing or
what the situation is. When a pitcher is committed to a pitch, he
can throw it down the middle and the batter won't hit it. That
may sound strange, but we have tested it many times, during
games, against some prominent hitters. It's only the human
failing that we don't have that belief that we're infallible at
all times."

Indeed, that state of bliss is fleeting. Last season Zito
finished seventh in the AL in ERA (3.30) and second in opponents'
batting average (.219), but Oakland averaged only 4.62 runs in
games that he pitched, and in one stretch he had only two wins in
16 starts. Mentally, despite the self-motivational messages he
scrawled inside his cap and on notes taped to his bathroom
mirror, he slipped early and often. "Last year I fell into the
trap of looking at my numbers and letting them dictate my mood,"
Zito says. "I was relying on a good start so I would be at ease
for four days, and if I had a bad start I would go into the
s------. At one point I was 6-3 with a 2.50 ERA, and I looked at
[then teammate] Adam Piatt in the dugout and said, 'Dude, I feel
like I'm 3-6 with a 5.00.'"

When things aren't going well on the mound, thoughts creep into
Zito's head--What if the batter's waiting on a changeup? What if
he hits it out?--that make him more tentative and less
self-assured. It's the reason he can say with a straight face, "I
wish I were a robot. It would be great to just be able to ignore
everything and pitch to a spot, to suppress the intellect and let
intuition take over. But we all bring the past into the present,
and objectivity is the first thing that goes when you're
struggling. Go to any Class A game and you'll see guys who have
nastier stuff than Roger Clemens, but they never make it out
because they second-guess themselves.

"There's something to be said for the 'dumb jock,' because his
intelligence doesn't get in the way," Zito continues. "I think
I'm aware of what goes on in my mind more than some guys, and for
that reason I fight more battles. It's weird, because I don't
have that problem outside of baseball. I kind of lie back and let
life come to me."

As Zito's numbers worsened he began questioning his lifestyle
away from the field--the surfing trips to San Francisco's Ocean
Beach before home games, the postgame bar stops, the extended
visits to the Guitar Center, a shop in the hip South of Market
area. A man who had wholeheartedly embraced the cliches of New
Age enlightenment (yoga, meditation, self-help books,
tape-recorded mantras, wheatgrass) suddenly became
self-conscious. "In 2002 I was running around the city late at
night, waking up early for breakfast, rocking out all day at the
Guitar Center and barely even thinking about baseball," Zito
says. "Last year there were times the public scrutiny began to
get to me, and I'd fall into the trap of being less than who I am
in public, of not speaking up and trying to stay under the radar.
That's a horrible mistake for an athlete to make, and I'm not
going to let it happen again."

On a recent Sunday evening Zito steers his '99 Dodge Durango
(with the sticker on the side panel that reads, normal people
worry me) into a parking space and takes the elevator up to his
Pacific Heights apartment. In an attempt to experience as many
San Francisco neighborhoods as possible Zito rents a new place
each season, and this one boasts a balcony with a picturesque
view of the Bay. He steps over a pair of unopened handcuffs--"My
sister [Sally] gave them to me," he explains, "in case I was up
for using them on a chick"--and opens the door to his mostly
barren refrigerator. "I've got a couple of science projects in
here," he says, revealing a Styrofoam container containing moldy
slices of assorted fruit. "Last season I left a head of romaine
lettuce in my fridge for five months, and it decomposed into this
black liquid. When I tried to throw it away, it exploded and
spilled all over my kitchen. The smell was just rancid, dude."

One of Zito's prized possessions, a Fender Stratocaster guitar
(he also owns several Taylor acoustics), rests on a living room
stand. He has a gig the following night at Bill's Bar in Boston,
where, shortly after the A's plane lands, he will play with his
sister's band, The Sally Zito Project. Barry, who began playing
less than four years ago, has come a long way since making his
impromptu stage debut at Crogan's, a neighborhood bar in the
Oakland hills. "He was really horrible," recalls A's third
baseman Eric Chavez. "We were sitting in the back saying, 'Oh, my
god--this is painful.'" Zito's defense? "I'd been playing six
months, and it was the first time that I'd ever picked up an
electric," he says.

Determined to improve his onstage chops, Zito took to slipping
$100 bills to bar-band front men for the privilege of sitting in
for one song. Once, in a Cincinnati club, he ran into some
friends and ended up onstage playing the Dave Matthews Band's
Crash into Me, with former Charge standout and current U.S.
national team defender Heather Mitts providing the vocals. He has
written four songs and is taking lessons from Jeff Tamelier, who
plays guitar for the Oakland band Tower of Power. "His songs are
knockouts, and the fact that he can write at that level after
three years of playing blows my mind," Sally says. "Trust me:
Even though he's my brother and even though it's good publicity,
if he sucked I wouldn't let him in my band."

When he's not playing guitar Zito is often reading (Walden and
Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, recently). Though he owns a
high-definition TV, it's used almost exclusively for viewing
DVDs. He doesn't have cable or satellite service, which keeps him
from catching up on his favorite show, SpongeBob SquarePants. "He
watches it with my seven-year-old daughter--at least, that's his
excuse," laughs Bonnie Zito, his older sister by 13 years. "It's
hard for me to think of him as a man; I mean, I still buy him
toys as presents."

Yet for all his childlike verve, Zito, at his core, exudes the
serenity of a man comfortable with his philosophical base. "I
tell him he has an old soul," says Kathy Jacobson, Zito's
publicist, "because he seems to have so many life lessons all
figured out, like he's been here before." Among the subjects to
which Zito has had to devote some thought is the heaviest one of
all. "Everyone focuses on the earthly state, but how cool might
death be," Zito says. "I believe in spiritual rebirth, and I
can't wait to experience that."

Fourteen months ago death became a real-life issue again for
Zito. His mother, whose transplanted liver has functioned well,
was told that she had terminal cancer. "The doctors gave her
three months to live," Joe says. "It was the same bulls---as
before." Roberta, who is 60, had surgery to remove some of the
tumor behind her right eye and underwent radiation; then she set
up a meditation room in her home and repeatedly told herself she
was perfectly healthy. She and Joe then went to Mexico, outside
Tijuana, where Roberta participated in a nine-week program that
combined Western medicine with a Natropathic approach. She had a
boiled white cabbage leaf placed on her right eye for one hour
and slept in an oxygen chamber for an hour a day. "It worked,"
she says. "I'm cancer-free. The body responds to all of that
affirmation."

She and Joe, who are living in Los Angeles, have resumed
traveling to Oakland for each of Barry's home starts. Joe flew up
five days before Barry faced the Kansas City Royals on May 22,
and father and son worked together to restore Barry to his
pre-2003 form. "The last time [in 2001] I gave him the basics,"
Joe says. "This time I had to take him to a different place. I
had to take him deeper." Extending their sessions into the wee
morning hours, they discussed the teachings of Plato, Socrates
and Aristotle, and they read from the works of Neville Goddard, a
20th-century metaphysical philosopher. Joe also pulled out the
Old Testament, using Joshua's victory in the battle of Jericho as
an analogy for Barry's success. ("Barry is Joshua, and Jericho
represents the state of mind he needs to attain," Joe explains.
"Only after he captures the state--or state of mind--can the
walls be broken down, and you realize they were never an obstacle
to begin with.")

In his next three starts, all no-decisions, Zito allowed five
runs over 23 innings. Then he gave up five runs in five innings
of Oakland's 10-6 victory over the Cincinnati Reds last week.
"You might not be able to see it yet," Joe says, "but Barry is
pitching right now with the same degree of focus as he was in the
Cy Young year."

"I'm going to be fine," Barry Zito insists, stepping out onto his
apartment balcony, staring straight at Alcatraz Island under a
cloudless evening sky. "I really believe I will." As if there's
any other opinion that matters.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN TURNING IT AROUND Zito's ERA ballooned to 6.83 after a pair of late-April shellings, but in his next seven starts his outlook improved, and he went 2-0 with a 3.45 ERA.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN TURNING IT AROUND Zito's ERA ballooned to 6.83 after a pair of late-April shellings, but in his next seven starts his outlook improved, and he went 2-0 with a 3.45 ERA.COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STAND-UP GUY The ever self-reliant Zito says, "The only person who ever stops me from achieving something is me."COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOWARD SCHATZ [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS GIVING PEACE A CHANCE To focus, Zito embraces exercises such as yoga and meditation.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOWARD SCHATZCOLOR PHOTO: COURTESY BARRY ZITO A FAMILY THAT PLAYS TOGETHER Baseball and music have been twin passions for Zito (at seven, top left; strumming with Sally's band, above; and with Roberta and Joe).COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: STEVE LABADESSA [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOWARD SCHATZCOLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZAGARIS HEAD GAMES Zito tries not to second-guess himself, but admits that on the mound, doubts sometimes creep in.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HOWARD SCHATZ

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"I view my pitching based on how confident I was out there,
period. And if I lose that confidence, I can become a prisoner of
my own mind."
"There's something to be said for the 'dumb jock'--his intelligence
doesn't get in the way. I think I'm more aware, so I fight more
battles."
"I wish I were a robot. But we all bring the past into the
present, and objectivity is the first thing that goes when you're
struggling."
"Everyone focuses on the earthly state, but how cool might death
be? I believe in spiritual rebirth, and I can't wait to experience that."