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What's the Big Deal?

March 12, 2007
March 12, 2007

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March 12, 2007

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Bill Walsh

What's the Big Deal?

The Giants will be the first to admit that they overpaid for Barry Zito, but nobody--especially that other Barry--is complaining about the new vibe he's brought to the clubhouse

As the new Faceof the Giants, Barry Zito would like to clear up something: He is not a flake.He does not bring stuffed animals on road trips or sleep with special pinkpillows or God knows what else you may have heard. Rather, Zito is "verynormal," as his publicist, Kathy Jacobson, will assure you (hey, would aflake have a publicist?), and he'd like people to stop perpetuating thestereotype. "Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not flaky," Zito says,a bag of ice strapped to his $126 million left arm. "It's just a fun thingto put on a guy"--and here he mimics a chirpy, Entertainment Tonight kindof anchor--"'Hey, lefthanded, long hair, surfer!'" He shakes his head."But these people don't know, because they've never come in here and talkedto me. Because if they did, I'd call them on that s--- in a second."

This is an article from the March 12, 2007 issue Original Layout

It's true, Zitois not a descendant of Bill (Spaceman) Lee, for that implies a certainabsent-mindedness, whereas Zito is renowned for his work ethic and preparation.Zito is just, well, different. Keep that in mind when you hear how a cactusattacked him last week. Or how he recently flew to watch an Iowa--OklahomaState wrestling match because Bobby Kielty, his former A's teammate, told himthe college competition was "just so intense" that he had to check itout. Or how he arrived for the first day of spring training and unveiled aradically different delivery--beginning with a windup from a deep crouch andending with an exaggerated stride--that freaked out Giants fans and causedmanager Bruce Bochy to think Zito might be pulling his leg. "I know Barrybetter now," says Bochy, "but when I first saw [the new delivery], Ididn't know if part of it was him having some fun with us."

Zito, however,does not joke when it comes to baseball. As unconventional as he is, at leastby the narrow standards of a professional athlete--with his interests insurfing, guitar playing, yoga and the Strikeouts for Troops foundation hestarted to help wounded U.S. soldiers--he is also very serious about the game.That focus is what persuaded the Giants to sign him to that bloated seven-yearcontract, the largest ever for a pitcher. It's also why, after locking down thedeal, he spent the winter focusing on his core conditioning and refining his.delivery. His goal was to add power while reducing stress on his arm, so heincorporated more leg thrust into his windup, then amplified the motion."It's tough to make fine adjustments," Zito explains. "Sometimesyou have to exaggerate the s--- out of it, then you pull back to the originaland the original has changed."

What Zito didn'tcount on--though he should have--was the reaction the new delivery would get.Pitching coach Dave Righetti called it so different as to be worrisome, and thestory quickly went national. By the next morning Zito was being bashed acrossthe sports-scape. And he was ticked.

The Zito WackyDelivery story got "microscoped," as the lefty says. The follow-upstory did not. In his next throwing session, Zito displayed the samenot-so-wacky, upright form that won him 102 games in six years with the A's,then looked sharp in his first spring training game. All, it seemed, hadreturned to normal. Only, if you looked closely, Zito's delivery had changed.He's added five to six inches to his stride, which gives him more thrust and,he hopes, more power. (Last year, according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook,Zito had the fourth-slowest fastball in the American League, at an average of85.8 mph, ahead of only Kenny Rogers, Mark Redman and Mark Buehrle.)

His largertransformation, however, has come off the field, where he's gone from one ofmany faces in Oakland to being The Face in San Francisco. His mug adorns Giantsbillboards, ticket schedules and T-shirts. It's part of a conscious Giantsmakeover from a hitting- to pitching-based club (and away from the p.r.nightmare that is Barry Bonds). Using the Braves teams of the 1990s as a model,G.M. Brian Sabean has locked up his quartet of young pitchers--Zito, Matt Cain,Noah Lowry and Tim Lincecum, none of whom is older than 28--through 2010. Bymarketing Zito in particular, the Giants are taking the risky route ofpositioning a finesse pitcher as their main draw. (Other than with Greg Maddux,this hasn't been done in the last 30-odd years.) Hey, kids, come watch this guythrow 75 mph! Still, it seems to be working, in part because the laid-back Zitois a perfect fit for San Francisco. As of Sunday, the team had sold 200,000more tickets than at this point last year.

Apparently heresonates with teammates too. Zito was signed with the expectation that hewould act as a mentor to the youngsters, and so far he's delivered. After theGiants held a FanFest in January, Zito took Cain, the 22-year-oldace-in-waiting, out on the town, hitting the Redwood Room at the swanky CliftHotel. The two talked about music--Cain is an aspiring guitarist and Zitooccasionally sits in with his sister's band--and were "just hanging andpartying," as Zito says. At the end of the night, Zito got an idea."Hey," he said. "Me and my boys are heading to Sundance. Why don'tyou come?" Cain politely declined. "It would have been too crazy,"Cain says.

Regardless, Zitohad planted a seed. "I spoke to [Matt] Morris and Lowry later, and theywere like, 'You took Cainer out?' They were kind of surprised," says Zito."They're like, 'He's 22, he might not know how to do things a certain way aveteran would.' And I'm like, 'Well, what am I here for?' If I can open hiseyes to new experiences, on and off the field, then all the better."

Zito has alsobefriended Bonds, thus "keeping Bonds at bay in the clubhouse,"according to Giants COO Larry Baer. The two have adjacent lockers, and, as Zitoputs it, "We'll rap out a little bit before practice." Over the winterthey met while working out at UCLA and hit it off. The upshot: Bonds madeT-shirts that read DON'T ASK ME, ASK BARRY, each with an arrow, that the duowore on their first day together in spring training. Says first baseman MarkSweeney, the team's clubhouse leader, "Barry [Bonds] understands this isgoing to be the Zito show. Actually, I think it's refreshing for him."

Of course, somewill say that the Zito show better be magnificent to justify the ticket price.The contract has been labeled as a desperate p.r. move to distract attentionfrom Bonds's legal troubles (which in some ways it is) and as an exorbitantprice for a pitcher who showed some signs of decline in 2006 (lower strikeoutrate, higher walk rate). Sabean, however, cites Zito's durability (he's nevermissed a start), personality and age (28, when most pitchers begin to peak) aspositives, though he admits the cost was excessive. "Any pitcher, no matterwhat level of expertise or ability he might have, was in a position to getoverpaid this year," says Sabean. "We knew we were going to lose[former ace Jason] Schmidt, and we were so attracted to Barry we didn't want tocome in second place, so we went as far as we thought we should."

Actually, untilZito had a five-hour dinner in Beverly Hills with Sabean, Baer, Bochy and ownerPeter Magowan, the Giants weren't even on his radar. "I was preparingmyself for the most intense situation, which would have been New York," hesays. What changed things was the instant bond he felt with the Giants'straightforward general manager. (Zito was so close to Oakland G.M. Billy Beanethat he says he would call him in the middle of the night to talk.) "Sabeansaid he was humbled from the last couple of years," says Zito. "To seea guy of his stature suck it up and come out and say that was huge."

A few weeks laterZito signed on with the understanding that the personality he brings to theclub is a big part of the deal. So he regularly arrives at the clubhouse in themorning with a monumental case of bed-head, wearing slippers and carrying ayoga mat. He dispenses curveball tips to other pitchers, talks philosophy--andtells great stories, like the one about the cactus.

It seems thatZito was out in the desert during the first week of spring training shooting aself-portrait with a wide-angle lens--of course he was--when he grazed ajumping cholla, a species of cactus with spiny stems that, at the slightesttouch, painfully attach themselves to unsuspecting passersby. "I walked bythis thing, dude, and I swear it almost reached out," he recounts. "Allof a sudden there's this baseball-sized spiky thing in my knee, right throughmy jeans." Naturally, Zito tried to remove it using two rocks. Then heheaded back to the clubhouse to see the trainer, spines still protruding fromhis knee, whereupon he had to trash his jeans. Says Zito, "Bonds wasf------ dying. He thought it was hilarious."

And that, withall due respect to his 2002 Cy Young Award, might be the most remarkable featyet of Zito's career: He made Barry Bonds laugh. It might not be worth $126million, but right now for the Giants, it's worth a lot.

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"Barry understands that this is going to be THEZITO SHOW," Sweeney says of Bonds. "Actually, I think it's refreshingfor him."
PHOTOBrad Mangin SPECIALDELIVERY
Zito added half a foot to his stride, which he hopes will bolster his velocityand his falling strikeout rate.
PHOTOJEFF TOPPING/REUTERS (ZITO BUNTING) DIFFERENT SHADE OF BARRY
Zito not only instantly won over Bonds but also had him in stitches over hisoff-field antics.
PHOTOERIC RISBERG/AP[See caption above.]