The San Francisco Giants 2012 World Series could wear many different subtitles.
You had two improbable returns from the brink of elimination in the National League Division and Championship Series, which led to the sweep of a supposedly superior Detroit Tigers.
You had the hard-to-believe-even-as-you-watched-it brilliance of Marco Scutaro and Ryan Vogelsong.
You had Pablo Sandoval's historic performance en route to the World Series MVP award and Tim Lincecum's devastating addition to a bullpen that really didn't need the help.
There were Hunter Pence's inspirational moments, his thrice-hit-broken-bat line drive, sparkling defense by the likes of Brandon Crawford and Gregor Blanco, the grace of the baseball gods and the list goes on.
Ultimately, however, it must be known by only one: "The Redemption of Barry Zito."
By now, every baseball fan is aware San Francisco left the soft-throwing southpaw off its postseason roster in 2010. Most are also aware of his trials and tribulations since crossing the Bay Bridge prior to the 2007 season.
His tenure with the Orange and Black before '12 had been, in a word, gruesome—gopheritis, walks, bloated ERAs, unbecoming WHIPs, bullpen demotions and phantom trips to the disabled list all figured into the narrative. He took his lumps with class, but the relentless downward spiral was tough to watch.
Of course, Zeets rose from the ashes and played a starring role as the club won its second Fall Classic in three years.
The St. Louis Cardinals had the Giants' heels dangling over the abyss by Game 5 of the NLCS, so Zito's 7.2 innings of scoreless baseball literally saved the team's season. The significance of his triumphant duel with all-world ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series also can't be overstated.
In both starts, the 34-year-old set a defiant stride that would not be broken until the franchise was ordering a second set of rings.
The man even anted up with the bat, hitting .400 with a couple of runs batted in.
A postseason like that washes away a lot of grime.
To understand just how much, you need to go back to the reason the spotlight always finds Zito: his infamous contract.
Seven years, $126 million and a permanent place near the head of the "biggest busts in history" table was destined to be Barry Zito's legacy with the San Francisco Giants before his October artistry.
He enjoyed a pleasant 2012 regular season, but it wouldn't have been enough to rewrite history without the postseason flourish.
And rewrite history is exactly what Zito did.
Google "worst MLB contracts of all time" and pick a link, any link.
It might be an exaggeration to say Zeets' deal is at or near the top of every single list, but it's not a large one, so I'm sticking with it. What's more, the contract's place of prominence was absolutely justified as recently as Oct. 18; it was that lucrative, and Zito's performance was that putrid.
There are a handful of pitchers toting around ink in excess of $100 million. They are perennial Cy Young contenders like CC Sabathia, Cole Hamels, Matt Cain, Johan Santana (when healthy), Cliff Lee...and Zito.
Needless to say, the lefty wasn't quite pitching to the group's standard, and it would be silly to argue that a couple starts—no matter how critical and spectacular—elevated him into their company.
But what if...
Ah, God bless the Internet even though 99 percent of its clips herald The Second Coming.
But I digress.
As Herman Edwards so vividly demonstrates, athletes play to win. Stats are nice and a perfectly fine way to measure an individual's success, but they are not the only way.
What if, instead of judging a contract exclusively by how that player performs, we judge it by how the player and his team perform during its life?
After all, if we agree that winning is the bottom line, then shouldn't a contract that coincides with a highly successful period in a team's history be viewed differently than a contract that coincides with a highly unsuccessful period (all other things being equal)?
If so, we now have six possible results for a contract where before we had three:
The best and worst cases are obvious: If a player outperforms his contract (which probably isn't possible when you're talking about the biggest ones) and the team wins, then boom, best-case scenario. On the other hand, if the player underperforms his contact and the team loses, you've got your worst-case scenario.
But Barry Zito's contract lives in the middle. He has clearly underperformed while the Giants have reached the pinnacle of the sport twice, so what do we make of it?
To get an answer, compare it to the other nine-figure deals that have been handed out.
Depending on how you treat Alex Rodriguez, there have been 36 contracts worth at least $100 million in the history of baseball. Almost half of these have been signed after the 2009 season, and that's really too early to pass judgment given that most of them are for a minimum of six years.
Consequently, these guys are immune from scrutiny for our purposes:
|Angels||10 years (2012-2021)||$240,000,000|
|Joey Votto||Reds||10 years (2014-2023)||$225,000,000|
|Prince Fielder||Tigers||9 years (2012-2020)||$214,000,000|
|Joe Mauer||Twins||8 years (2011-2018)||$184,000,000|
|Matt Kemp||Dodgers||8 years (2012-2019)||$160,000,000|
|Troy Tulowitzki||Rockies||10 years (2011-2020)||$157,750,000|
|Adrián González||Red Sox||7 years (2012-2018)||$154,000,000|
|Cole Hamels||Phillies||6 years (2013-2018)||$144,000,000|
|Carl Crawford||Red Sox||7 years (2011-2017)||$142,000,000|
|Matt Cain||Giants||8 years (2010-2017)||$139,750,000|
|Jayson Werth||Nationals||7 years (2011-2017)||$126,000,000|
|Ryan Howard||Phillies||5 years (2013-2017)||$125,000,000|
|Cliff Lee||Phillies||5 years (2011-2016)||$120,000,000|
|Matt Holliday||Cardinals||7 years (2010-2016)||$120,000,000|
|José Reyes||Marlins||6 years (2012-2017)||$106,000,000|
|Ryan Braun||Brewers||5 years (2016-2020)||$105,000,000|
Some of these megadeals are already looking like sound investments (Fielder, Kemp, Cain, Holliday), while others are throwing up red flags (Pujols, Mauer, Crawford).
But time will have the final word.
The rest of the nine-figure contracts, however, are fair game for final judgment. To aid in that mission, I've included the number of World Series titles won by a player during the life of each contract:
|Alex Rodriguez||Yankees||10 years (2008-2017)||$275,000,000||1|
|Alex Rodriguez||Rangers||10 years (2001-2010)||$252,000,000||0|
|Derek Jeter||Yankees||10 years (2001-2010)||$189,000,000||1|
|Mark Teixeira||Yankees||8 years (2009-2016)||$180,000,000||1|
|CC Sabathia||Yankees||7 years (2009-2015)||$161,000,000||1|
|Manny Ramírez||Red Sox||8 years (2001-2008)||$160,000,000||2|
|Miguel Cabrera||Tigers||8 years (2008-2015)||$152,300,000||0|
|Todd Helton||Rockies||9 years (2003-2011)||$141,500,000||0|
|Johan Santana||Mets||6 years (2008-2013)||$137,500,000||0|
|Alfonso Soriano||Cubs||8 years (2007-2014)||$136,000,000||0|
|Ryan Zimmerman||Nationals||11 years (2009-2019)||$135,000,000||0|
|Vernon Wells||Blue Jays||7 years (2008-2014)||$126,000,000||0|
|Barry Zito||Giants||7 years (2007-2013)||$126,000,000||2|
|Mike Hampton||Rockies||8 years (2001-2008)||$121,000,000||0|
|Jason Giambi||Yankees||7 years (2002-2008)||$120,000,000||0|
|Carlos Beltrán||Mets||7 years (2005-2011)||$119,000,000||0|
|Ken Griffey, Jr.||Reds||9 years (2000-2008)||$116,500,000||0|
|Albert Pujols||Cardinals||8 years (2004-2011)||$116,000,000||2|
|Kevin Brown||Dodgers||7 years (1999-2005)||$105,000,000||0|
|Carlos Lee||Astros||6 years (2007-2012)||$100,000,000||0|
Right away, you can see Barry Zito is one of the few nine-figure men to have a single World Series ring, let alone two.
Furthermore, you can reasonably toss the quartet of Yankees because there were, y'know, four of them on that 2009 championship team. There are no rules against buying titles, but there are no rules against judging those titles by a different standard, either.
So, even if you dismiss the 2010 World Series because Zeets wasn't on the postseason roster—and you can't do that because of the dignity and maturity with which he handled his omission—Barry the Blade still has a leg up on every non-Yankee except Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols.
It's clear that you can't lump Barry Zito's contract and two World Series titles in with the same belonging to Manny Ramirez and Albert Pujols.
Man-Ram and Prince Albert played critical postseason roles in winning both titles, as they tore up the regular season and did so for the majority of their contracts. Ramirez's tenure with the Boston Red Sox didn't end well, but you'd still have to say that Beantown got a wicked return on its Manny-being-Manny investment.
Ramirez and Pujols embody the best nine-figure contracts of all time—they delivered on expectations and their teams reached the promised land on multiple occasions.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have guys like Mike Hampton, Vernon Wells and Jason Giambi. They were either epic failures or, in the Giambino's case, became embroiled in scandal.
But outside of those five, which owner would you rather be?
Do you want to be the deep pockets who gave Zito a contract in which he underperformed and yet brought with it two world championships? Or do you want to be the suit who handed a king's ransom to a Todd Helton or a Carlos Lee? That is, to players who arguably did their deals justice, but don't have any hardware to show for them?
If you play the game to win, I'd say the answer is obvious.
If you are involved in the big leagues, you have been searching for a World Series ring your whole life.
We know this because no child dreams of hitting a game-winning homer in July, or imagines making the defensive gem that saves the finale of a three-game set in August. We dream of hitting the game-winning homer like Joe Carter or making THE defensive gem like Bobby Richardson.
It is all about the biggest moment in the biggest game for the biggest reward.
Consequently, to win a Fall Classic is to achieve a lifelong goal; to do something that only a tiny percentage of people in the profession have ever done or will ever do.
In that light, it would be hard to call Barry Zito's contract anything but a smashing success. San Francisco got its first World Series title after 52 years of Major League Baseball in the city, and a second title two years later—all while Zito's $126 million was sitting on the books.
To focus on the finer details would be to lose sight of the forest for the trees.
On the other hand, simply ignoring the trees and fixating on the forest is awfully convenient given just how ugly most of the former are.
When all is said and done, though, whether you buy the rings-trump-all argument is beside the point.
Zito and the Giants have two titles to show for his contract, and Zito didn't just contribute to the second, he helped lead the charge. Maybe that doesn't make his deal one of the better nine-figure varieties out there, maybe it doesn't even make it a good bargain.
But the 2012 postseason sure as hell gets him off those all-time worst lists, once and for all.
And I doubt anyone thought Barry Zito would ever get that clean again.