The Barry Zito Era

Barry Zito started for the first time since September 2 last night, and did something that he hasn’t done very often this year: he earned a victory, against the Dodgers no less. It was only his 5th win of the year, and his first since May 30, against the A’s. Odds are, it was Zito’s last start as a Giant, and the club will probably buy him out this offseason and call it a day. $7 million to tell a below-average pitcher goodbye… Man, the Giants really flopped on that contract. Big time. However, all of that aside, it was very nice to see ol’ Zito flip a few good benders in there in his final start.

CSN Bay Area ran a story this morning saying Zito was a little miffed he didn’t get a final ovation from the fans, being he was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the 5th. He still had more in the tank, and wanted to stay out there longer. I love it how the media plays this crap up, especially in a losing season. Last time I checked, Zito is about the last guy in the league who would criticize his coaching staff for anything. So the crowd didn’t get to give him a hero’s ovation in his final start? Give me a break. What if Zito had come back out for the 6th, walked the bases loaded and let the Dodgers tie it before Bochy took the ball out of his hand? It’s happened many times during his Giants career, so maybe, just maybe old Boch was looking out for the lefty’s best interests. Either way, I think Zito is and should be happy with a win in his final AT&T performance. After all he went through, it was a nice way to go out.

For the Giants’ beats, Baggarly and others, I think it might be time to find work elsewhere. Baggs’ himself seems to be getting bitter with Giants’ management. Maybe I’m off base here, but some of his comments lately make you wonder.

It feels a bit weird saying this, but Giants baseball in my lifetime has been as much about Barry Zito as it has been about Barry Bonds. Hell, Zito is one of only a handful of guys to ever start multiple Opening Days for the Giants. I had just begun my senior year in high school (2006) when the Giants finished below .500 for the second season in a row. That was a big transition season for the pitching staff. You had Jason Schmidt’s last year with the team, Matt Cain’s first full season in the bigs, and two hard-throwing rookies in the pen (Brian Wilson and Jonathan Sanchez). Jamey Wright, Matt Morris, Armando Benitez and Kevin Correia were on that team. Steve Kline and Noah Lowry too. Holy smokes.

Those Giants also had one of the oldest offenses ever fielded by a Major League club, including 41 years-old Bonds and Steve Finley, and 39 year-old Omar Vizquel. But that’s a topic for another time. Long story short, Brian Sabean needed to find a frontline pitcher that offseason that he could plug in front of guys like Cain and Lincecum, who was getting seasoned on the farm. Sabean found his guy that winter, and made him the richest pitcher in baseball history.

I knew much less about baseball in those days than I do today (and I still don’t really know all that much). What I did know then: baseball teams have plenty of money, and Zito was the hottest pitcher on the market. 7 years, $126 million were just numbers to me then, not much else. Zito was a Giant, and that’s all that mattered. I followed the A’s loosely when I was younger. I wouldn’t say I was a big fan or anything, but I still remember having a Zito poster in my room in middle school. It was a mock ad with the line, “Zito’s curveball; guaranteed to buckle your knees,” and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. Now, 4-5 years later, he was trading in the green and gold for orange and black, to replace my favorite pitcher in the game (Schmidt) as the Giants’ ace. Sounded like a plan to me.

I’ll never forget that first spring. After a decent debut on Opening Day (albeit only 5 innings pitched), the wheels came off in Zito’s second start, against the Dodgers. When the dust settled, he’d allowed 8 ER. I think that’s when I had my “wake-up” moment with Zito. Like I said, I knew very little about the game then, and apparently knew nothing about Zito aside from the big curve. I remember seeing that fastball and thinking… “86? What the hell is that? This is the guy who’s replacing Schmidt?” That was TWO starts into his Giants career, and I don’t think I ever really regained my initial excitement for the guy.

Seven years later, I think the greatest thing you can say about Barry Zito is that he made it through that contract with class and resiliency. If you were there for those years, as many of us were, you know how many times it seemed realistic that the Giants would cut ties with him. But you don’t cut the highest-paid player in your franchise’s history, and eventually you knew he would continue to take the mound every 5th day until that contract expired. If you’re like me, you rooted for him every time out, but you also hoped he wouldn’t give up a 6-spot in the process. 17 losses and 102 BB in 2008; being left off the playoff roster in 2010; falling flat on his face and losing his rotation spot in 2011; there were some serious down points on the front end of that contract. I seriously thought he was done after 2011.

Once again, he bounced back. Would there still be a second championship flag flying above the ballpark if not for Zito? What are the odds that Sabean finds another 5th starter who hits his stride down the stretch like Zito did last summer? Pitching 7.2 shutout innings in St. Louis, beating Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series… those are two of the unforgettable efforts in recent Giants history. Does any other 5th starter do what Zito did there?

Seven years and $126 million are more than just numbers to me now. Eleven years removed from his Cy Young season in Oakland, Zito is wrapping up his roller coaster career in San Francisco. What the future holds for the crafty lefty, I guess we’ll find out. If history tells us anything, I wouldn’t put it past him to catch on with somebody out of spring training and make an Opening Day roster. The dude has an amazing ability to bounce back, and has to be one of the most positive people in the game. Somebody better make a movie about the damn guy some day. When they do, it’ll probably put Moneyball to shame. And I’ll be there in the theater when it comes out, I can tell you that much.

The Barry Zito era is over, for better or worse. It’s been real, Barry.

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2 thoughts on “The Barry Zito Era”

  1. Totally agree about Baggs. I’m not sure what Giants management did to him to make him bitter, but he sure comes across like he is. He even works for a company that is partially owned by the Giants, right?

    As for Zito, gotta have very mixed feelings about the guy. Terrible, terrible contract, but that is not his fault. I think he knew he was done when he came to that first spring training with a longer stride. I think he knew he had lost his velocity and this was his way of trying to get it back. Rags went ballistic and Zito relented. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if he had been allowed to try the new delivery.

    Lastly, even though he was left off the 2010 playoff roster, he had something like 18 or 19 QS during the regular season. Who knows what some other pitcher signed for less money might have done, but the Giants don’t make the playoffs without those starts. They also flat out would not have won the 2012 Series without Zito.

    There are a lot of teams out there who would gladly pay a player $127 M if they knew that player would be the difference between not making the playoffs and winning ONE World Series Championship!

  2. Thanks for commenting! Zito has pitched for the Giants as many years now as he pitched for the A’s. That’s unreal to think about, and I think he’ll always be remembered fondly for his days as a part of the big 3 in Oakland. What he did last fall was special, and you’re right, championships are priceless – Fans in many a baseball city will remind Giants Nation of it every day!

    What a wild ride… I’m telling you, there’s got to be a screenplay writer out there taking notes.

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