San Francisco Giants: Solving the Barry Zito Puzzle

Lyell MarksCorrespondent IMay 2, 2008

Barry Zito is learning the hard way that money can’t buy happiness.

After signing what at the time was the richest contract ever given to a pitcher, Zito has fallen from being one of the brightest stars in the game to a flickering semblance of his former persona.

For the first time in his eight-year major league career, Zito wasn’t handed the ball on Friday for his scheduled start after being moved to the bullpen by manager Bruce Bochy.

No one could have foreseen this when Zito signed his seven-year, $126 million dollar contract two years ago. For Zito, it will either be a much-needed wake up call or a demotion that will signal the beginning of the end.

Six years ago, Zito was considered one of the best pitchers in the game after earning the Cy Young award with a 23-5 record and an ERA of 2.75 for the Oakland Athletics.

Today, Zito is statistically the worst starting pitcher in baseball, becoming one of only three pitchers in the last 52 years to go 0-6 in the month of April.

Zito’s negative transformation is puzzling to say the least. Typically, pitchers begin to reach their prime in their late 20s, yet Zito has done a complete about-face.

The youthful exuberance and flair that accompanied Zito while in Oakland has been dormant during his stay in San Francisco. The once playful and carefree Zito is now burdened with relentless criticism and the frustration of failing to meet even the lowest expectations the Giants had for him.

Right now, Zito would likely give every penny of his fortune to find a cure for his nightmarish frustration. For a guy who stresses a simplistic and peaceful lifestyle, the conditions are becoming turbulent.

While having tremendous success in Oakland, Zito’s eccentricity flourished along side his success; his current stay in San Francisco seems to be cramping his creativity and extinguishing his competitive fire.

Zito can no longer playfully practice yoga in the outfield or calmly strum his guitar in the clubhouse without the guilt of knowing he is viewed as one of the biggest mistakes in the history of the Giants organization. The talents that bolstered the quirky persona of Zito seem to all be hidden by his inflated ERA and lack of self-confidence.

His offbeat personality also makes Zito difficult to interpret. Once nicknamed “Planet Zito,” he must feel now like the only inhabitant of a very solitary solar system.

Zito meditates before every game and carries stuffed animals on road trips, habits that once symbolized his eccentric pitching style but unfortunately have been ridiculed as harshly as his shortcomings on the mound.

Before signing his contract with the Giants, struggle and adversity were two words not often found in Zito’s vocabulary. He was confident and poised, saying once that “When I’m doing well, it’s like I’m in a nice little ballet. Everything is going slow all around me. It’s very peaceful.”

Someone or something has violently disturbed that peace, and left Zito picking up the pieces of his shattered confidence. The music has stopped and Zito is going to be forced to handle a harsh reality that he could ultimately be remembered as the worst financial mistake in baseball history.

Even the carefree Zito is becoming increasingly fearful of that possibility. Zito's humbling demotion will give him time to reflect and adjust, two things he seems to do very well in other aspects of his life.

Now is the time for Zito to find his inner Zen. He is capable of being one of the best pitchers in the game, but so much of his game depends on his state of mind and his ability to out-smart hitters. As Zito has said himself, “If I lose my confidence, I can become a prisoner of my own mind.”

Zito has been behind those bars for almost two years now, and he is about ready for his release. He wants to rebuild the image that projected so much promise, because he wants to earn the money the Giants invested in him.

It must start within Zito. He must believe he is the same man whose name is inscribed on the 2002 Cy Young award. With the Giants increasing frustration with Zito, he needs to come to that realization sometime soon or he may be picking up a surfboard every day, instead of a baseball.