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VALLEY/VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | THE COLLEGES

At Pierce, Zito Has a View of Future

March 19, 1998|VINCE KOWALICK

Barry Zito's bedroom at UC Santa Barbara was a stand-up double from the Pacific Ocean, and he spent his time away from baseball with a surfboard.

"It was beautiful," Zito said. "Swimming and the beach. I miss Santa Barbara dearly."

But Zito said farewell to the sea breeze, surf and Division I baseball when he transferred to Pierce College in January.

The 6-foot-4, 190-pound left-hander, who blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the nation last season, had not heard of Pierce until last spring. Having earned a scholarship out of University of San Diego High, Zito never envisioned himself attending a junior college, much less living in the San Fernando Valley.

Zito might just as easily have transferred to a school closer to his hometown. That would have made life easier for Joseph and Roberta Zito, who faithfully drive north every time their only son takes the mound.

"If I had my druthers, I'd have gone back to San Diego," Zito said. "Socially, [Pierce] is about 10 steps down."

Yet, Zito has positioned himself perfectly. He and his close-knit family have no regrets.

There are no secrets or delusions concerning Zito's motive. He transferred solely for the purpose of becoming eligible for the amateur draft in June.

If Barry's future was in baseball, the Zitos were advised, better to turn pro this year than next.

"We discussed it as a family, which is how we do things," Joseph Zito said. "I was against JCs. If we were going to leave [Santa Barbara], it was going to be for the draft. Period."

Zito's fastball has been clocked in the vicinity of 90 mph and a bevy of radar guns point his way when he enters his windup. Indications are he will be chosen in the early rounds.

"He came here for a purpose and he is motivated by that," Pierce Coach Bob Lofrano said. "He is very focused. He's probably the hardest worker I've ever coached."

Zito, who has a 4-0 record and a 0.88 earned-run average, is scheduled to start Saturday against Oxnard in a Western State Conference game at Pierce.

Zito's 51 strikeouts are the most of any WSC pitcher. His strikeout-to-walk ratio--he struck out 14 and walked one in a one-hitter against Glendale--is testimony to his exceptional control.

"He is a three-pitch pitcher," Lofrano said. "He's got to be among the handful of top pitchers in the state. To have Barry in the program is great."

Zito's departure from Santa Barbara was abrupt, coming two days after he returned to school following Christmas break. It also was met with resentment.

Zito's photograph was scheduled to grace the cover of the Gauchos' media guide. Coach Bob Brontsema, who twice convinced the pitcher to reconsider, was unaware of Zito's decision until after his departure.

"It's a sore subject here," said a member of the school's sports information office.

Zito said he agonized over the decision but is convinced he made the right choice.

"I really wanted to stay in Santa Barbara and I went back in January with the full intention of staying there," Zito said. "But as far as baseball goes, I think it was the best thing I could have done."

Pierce, which ranked last in the WSC in ERA last season, became the benefactor of Zito's move because of his relationship with Alan Jaeger of Woodland Hills, a renowned private pitching coach and sports therapist.

Zito sought out Jaeger after reading his book, "Getting Focused, Staying Focused."

Jaeger, a former pitcher for Cal State Northridge, has forged a career instructing ballplayers in the teachings of Eastern philosophy, including yoga and meditation.

Jaeger worked briefly with Zito in Santa Barbara. When Zito decided to transfer, Jaeger suggested Pierce, where they would be in close proximity. Jaeger's endorsement of Lofrano further tipped the scales.

"I didn't know anything about Pierce except that Alan lived by it and he said he liked it and Coach Lofrano," Zito said. "I've worked with Alan but I'm not working with him now. I find I do better when I work off by myself."

Zito, a 59th-round pick by the Seattle Mariners in 1996, opted to attend college rather than sign a professional contract.

His skills improved rapidly at Santa Barbara and he finished with 125 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings last season. Zito ranked fourth in the nation in ratio of strikeouts per nine innings. Twice he struck out 10 consecutive batters.

"I think he always wanted to be a ballplayer, but he knew he wasn't where he had to be to be a professional ballplayer," Joseph Zito said. "He was throwing in the mid-80s in high school.

"UCSB was his first choice of college. He likes to surf and as soon as he hit Santa Barbara that was it."

Their son's transfer has considerably shortened the Zitos' weekly drive. Zito cites his parents' wishes as his primary concern.

"They're awesome," Zito said. "They've been very supportive. They're my complete inspiration."

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