MINNEAPOLIS — A half-hour before the Oakland Athletics were to play the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the 2000 American League division series, A's pitching coach Rick Peterson was making small talk on the bench with Barry Zito, trying to loosen up the 22-year-old rookie left-hander before the biggest start of his career.
While Peterson asked Zito how many relatives were in New York for the game, Zito slowly turned his head and took in a panoramic view of Yankee Stadium, which was filling up in anticipation of a series-clinching victory for the home team.
"He didn't hear a word I said," Peterson recalled Thursday. "Then he goes, 'Rick, this is the real Yankee Stadium, it's October, this is what you dream your whole life about.' Most guys go into a situation like that with fear, with doubt, with uncertainty. He looked at it as a chance to test his talents, to find out how good he is."
The baseball-following public found out how good Zito was that night when the kid limited the Yankees to one run and seven hits and struck out five in 5 2/3 innings of an 11-1 Oakland victory, outdueling New York ace Roger Clemens and staving off elimination for the A's.
And that performance may be the main reason why the A's believe Zito, now 24 and a leading AL Cy Young Award candidate, will not be rattled by the ear-splitting conditions produced by an expected record crowd of nearly 60,000 inside the Metrodome for Game 3 of the AL division series today.
"I know I'm capable of rising to the occasion," said Zito, who will oppose Twin right-hander Rick Reed with the series tied, 1-1. "It's going to be loud and all that, but Yankee Stadium was loud too.... It might be louder here, but if it's 10-15 decibels louder than other places, what's the difference? Loud is loud."
Minnesota would seem to have a huge home-field advantage, but will it? "They have no idea what it's going to be like in here," Twin first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said of the A's. "We have no idea what it's going to be like in here."
This also will be a new experience for the Twins, who have not played before such a large and vocal home crowd. What will be familiar, though, is the Metrodome's concrete-like artificial surface, the baggie over the right-field wall and the light-covered roof that makes it difficult to track fly balls.
The Twins went 54-27 at home and are built for a fast track, relying on speed on defense and offense. But the noise will add a degree of difficulty for them, as well as the A's.
"We'll have to change things defensively, use hand gestures instead of calling for pop-ups," Mientkiewicz said. "You can't see up, you can't see sideways. You might want to use a mouthpiece in this game, because you could get hit in the face with a line drive."
One player A's Manager Art Howe won't worry about is Zito, the curveball specialist who has the ability to tune out all those external forces that could distract lesser pitchers.
"He's pitched well in Yankee Stadium, and that's got to be as tough a place to pitch in the postseason as any place," Howe said. "I think he loves the big stage; he's looking forward to the challenge."