Print and Go Back ESPN.com: ESPNMagazine [Print without images]

Wednesday, February 5, 2003
Updated: February 12, 6:39 PM ET
Perfect Pitch

By By Tim Keown


This address can't be right. 1616? Can't be. There are numbered mail slots inside the locked plate-glass door, and there it is, four black letters -- ZITO. Hard to believe, but 1616 it is. The three-story complex is a couple of blocks off Sunset, in Hollywood, on the side of town where the not-yet screenwriters wait tables to make rent. There's a guy storming the sidewalk with his clumpy, matted hair bouncing behind him, muttering 12-letter epithets while rooting through garbage cans. Languages and smells and sirens and helicopters merge into LA's horizontal cacophony. A guy selling stuff out of 1616's carport says, "Buzzer? No, sorry." Smiling and helpful, he's trying not to laugh at the idea of this place having an intercom. "You looking for the ballplayer, right? Second floor. He's up there. You need him, you go around and call him. No problem. His window on the other side is open."

ESPNMag.Com
This story appears in the latest edition of ESPN The Magazine, on newstands this week. To get more from The Magazine, check out ESPNMag.com.

  • ESPNMag.com
  • Subscribe to The Mag
  • The false, helium laughter of a game show pours out of a downstairs apartment, competing with a rapidly escalating smoker's hack. I call out, "Barry," a little hesitantly at first. No answer. A little louder. "Barry!" Nothing. Finally, louder still, with a bit of what-the-hell mixed in.

    "Barry!"

    Nothing.

    A couple of beats later, a shirtless and barefoot Barry Zito opens the glass door. He's got the look of cultivated dishevelment that many attempt but few achieve. He looks like he belongs here, a cool guy with quiet confidence, waiting for his big break, knowing it's just a matter of time. He's back from an afternoon of surfing in Malibu. He leads the way to the apartment he shares with his sister, Sally, a budding singer-songwriter.

    The neighbors don't understand. This guy signed a contract with the A's that'll keep him rich for a long time, then won the AL Cy Young Award. He can live anywhere he wants, and he chooses this? He's been here for three off-seasons, and around 1616, they shake their heads. "Why are you still here?" they ask him. "Zito, dude -- get outta here."

    He and Sally are moving soon -- Barry recently bought a house in the Hollywood Hills -- and he seems to miss the place already. He runs down the varied makeup of the neighborhood's crosscultural jet stream: Iraqi, Russian, Gypsy, Hispanic. There's a girl in the complex across the street who always asks Sally about Barry and sometimes she & well, sometimes she forgets to close her drapes. He stacks his unwanted clothes on the curb and lets the people in the neighborhood -- like the guy muttering, 12 letters at a time -- take them as needed. "There's a good feel here, man," he says. "It might be crazy, but it feels right."

    This is the essence of Zito. His grandmother, who started a San Diego-based religious movement called Teachings of the Inner Christ, tells relatives her grandson is "giving off a different vibration" that may lead him to great spiritual heights. His father quit his work as an accomplished composer and arranger (he had worked extensively with Nat "King" Cole) to turn his son into a big-league pitcher. This happened when Barry was 8 years old.

    Joe Zito knew next to nothing about baseball, but he read every book and watched every video. "I stayed one page ahead of Barry," he says. Joe hired former Cy Young winner Randy Jones to give weekly lessons. Joe and Barry worked on pitching in the backyard nearly every day. If Barry didn't feel like it? "It's okay if you want to play with your friends," Joe would say. "It just means we're not going to be as good as we want to be."

    To Joe, Barry is a 6'4" lefthanded composition-in-progress. As recently as July 2001, he was wildly discordant, 67 with an ERA near 5.00. "I was afraid to take the mound," he says. Joe moved in on July 25. Together they spent four days reading Creative Mind, a 1919 book by Ernest Holmes, whose Religious Science philosophy calls for the exclusion of negative thought and the belief in the mind's ability to turn positive thought into action. Joe and Barry read the book out loud, one paragraph at a time. Joe gave real-life examples based on the text. Barry took notes. "You've forgotten who you are," Joe said. "Don't make this a bigger deal than it is. Don't let the external invade the internal."

    Barry finished '01 by going 111, and followed it with 235, a 2.75 ERA and Cy in '02. That's 346 since the four days with Joe. "Dude, that's not a coincidence," says Barry.

    The family dynamic is fascinating. His mother, Roberta, a former singer in Cole's Merry Young Souls, is an ordained minister who preaches on the metaphysical and credits her belief system for allowing her to survive a serious illness and subsequent liver transplant. Joe is a jovial 74-year-old with a booming voice and a welcoming manner. He micromanages Barry's career, and Barry is fine with that. "Some people might think he's an overbearing father, but I don't care," Barry says. "The older I get, the more I see what a great man he is."

    Barry's favorite Joe Zito moment took place a few years back, in the glitzy Orange County office of Scott Boras, when the reigning czar of baseball agents was trying to make Barry a client. Boras sat at the head of the conference table, surrounded by his associates.

    Telling the story, Barry is parked in a booth at Mel's Drive-In diner in Hollywood. To do justice to this particular Joe Zito tale, Barry gets up, grabs both sides of the table and hovers over it like a bad storm. "Here's what my dad does, just like this," Barry says, thrusting out his chin. "My dad, big ol' Italian pimp that he is, says, 'All right, Scott, let me tell you what you're gonna do for my son.' I'm like, Holy s, this is Scott Frickin' Boras! It was awesome, man. That's when I knew my dad was the s."

    Asked about the story, Joe laughs and says, "Yeah, well? He needed to know he was working for us, and not the other way around." (Boras eventually got the Zitos' business, but not for long -- Joe replaced him with Arn Tellem in October 2001.)

    "My parents gave me balance," Barry says. "If I had a bad game in high school, my dad would say, 'We need to go out in the backyard and get to work.' My mom would say, 'Let me sing you a song and put you to bed.'" Joe is partly why Barry expects perfection and believes it's possible. Roberta is partly why Barry describes traded A's closer Billy Koch as "a great human being. If he blew a game, he'd look you in the eye and apologize. I'll miss his compassion."

    All of this is why journalists love Zito -- and why baseball's jowly, pinched-mouth establishment sometimes feels threatened by him. They call him a typical lefty, a flake. ("Wrong word," says Roberta. "So very wrong.")

    Okay, he travels with his own pillow and pillowcase (fuchsia, no less), practices yoga and burns aromatherapy candles in his hotel room. In baseball, that marks you as downright zany, even subversive. In truth, though, Zito is methodical and driven -- the antiflake. He is unconventional, sure, but he is seriously unconventional.

    It's easier to hang onto a label than it is to take on the intellectual challenge of understanding a 24-year-old who describes himself this way: "I'm confident I could be a shopping-cart retrieval guy at a grocery store, and through the power of my mind, work my way up to be an executive."

    Or this way: "I can relate to anyone. I can hang out with stoners, skaters, surfers, stockbrokers, lawyers, athletes, rappers. I feel I can hang out with any group of people and find common ground to talk with them. When people feel they can't relate to me, I take it upon myself to find that common ground and make them feel comfortable."

    Or this way: "A lot of people in baseball are scared of what they don't know. They want truth, facts. In many ways, faith is the opposite of fact. So people who rely only on facts have a hard time with someone who believes his success is part of an inner knowing."

    And it's all right here, inside and outside of 1616. Zito loves the raw force of this place, its vitality, the way everything screams today, the way everyone has an angle. Nobody bothers Zito, but occasionally little kids come to his front door and ask, in broken English, "Do you have cards or pictures to sign for us?" He loves this. He goes to sleep most nights to the thwock-thwock-thwock of police helicopters. He lives for the messy imperfection of it, and how removed it is from the insulated, hotel-and-clubhouse world of baseball. "It's real, dude," he says. "It's so frickin' real. You can't live here and not feel it."

    There's a mini-recording studio in his bedroom, where he plays his guitar and writes folk/rock songs. He takes marathon music lessons -- four hours or longer -- in the off-season, with the idea that someday he might tour in the winter months (he jammed with Chicago at a benefit in January). Up the road toward Malibu, he works out his 210-pound body five days a week in a rigorously structured program, and he deliberately schedules the workouts early in the morning to maximize the discipline. (He calls the biomechanics-based program "prehab.") In fact, his regimen is so important to him, and so exacting, he turned down the major league All-Star tour of Japan.

    He did allow himself one luxury, however: a one-week December trip to Fiji with fellow big-league surfers Ryan Klesko and Brent Mayne. "It was a stretch for me to take that extra week," Zito says, "but I worked out every day I was there. It seems like my whole life I've been the one working out on vacation, figuratively speaking."

    "There's an incredibly high price to pay for success," says A's pitching coach Rick Peterson. "What separates Barry is he doesn't care what that price tag is, because he's willing to pay it. Some guys, when they go to write that check, they find they don't have the funds. Barry's made the deposits; he has the resources to cover the check."

    Zito is a rarity in baseball: a star whose charisma only begins within the margins of the field. Joe is working vigorously to market Barry outside of that framework, saying, "If you have a hit record, you do something with it. That's the street I come from." Barry seems unimpressed by his increasing fame. "The only time I want to be recognized is when I'm at the back of a long line trying to get into a club," he says. The killer curveball, the 235 record, the 2.75 ERA, the Cy Young? Just a natural progression that's "part of the plan."

    His optimism is nearly palpable. He's a one-man crusade against mediocrity and negativity. He compliments the arrival of the food at Mel's by saying, "Wow. Good gas." He responds to praise for his 2002 season by wincing. "It's funny you would say that," he says. "I was happy with only seven or eight of my starts. I'm not trying to be cocky, but I set such a high standard for myself. I'm not happy when I pitch seven innings and give up two runs and get the win. I want to know: Why did I give up those two runs? What can I do to conserve pitches and make sure I last longer than seven?"

    Perfectionism is a heavy burden. Zito drenches an Egg Beater omelet in ketchup and says, "You can be whatever you want to be, have whatever you want to have. Just dream it and believe it. So many people think life is hard, life's a struggle, life's unfair. They're training their subconscious to believe that, and to walk through life that way. You're expecting bad things for yourself, expecting struggle. That's no way to live. My dad taught me differently. He'd say, 'Don't expect struggle. Expect ease and fluidity.' There's nothing magic about it. You have to put in the work, but you would think everyone would take it as seriously as I do."

    Zito seems bothered by this, as if he considers the rest of the world's inadequacies a personal affront. "In all aspects of life," he says, "I'm continually surprised by the mediocrity we're surrounded by." He stabs at his food and shakes his head. If only all those people knew what they were missing. If only they would listen to what Joe's been telling him since he was old enough to understand: "As you believe, you will receive."

    This article appears in the February 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.