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BILL SHAIKIN / ON BASEBALL

Giants pitcher Barry Zito's a real trooper for World Series champs

Once branded a $126-million bust, Barry Zito reinvented himself to become a winner again despite diminished velocity. His work for veterans earns plaudits too.

April 27, 2013|By Bill Shaikin
  • Giants starter Barry Zito works against the San Diego Padres during a game last Sunday in San Francisco.
Giants starter Barry Zito works against the San Diego Padres during a game… (Susan Tripp Pollard / McClatchy-Tribune )

There is a discolored mess on the brick wall behind center field at AT&T Park. The mess is what was left behind when a plaque honoring Barry Bonds and his all-time home run record mysteriously vanished.

The San Francisco Giants say they'll put up a new one. We could not help thinking back to the winter of 2006-07, with Bonds on the verge of setting the record. The Giants signed Barry Zito — for the most money ever given to a pitcher at that time — and declared the face of the team henceforth would be the smiling Zito, not the scowling Bonds.

Never happened. In 2007, Bonds commanded all the attention; the Giants did not invite him back. In 2008, and again in 2009, Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award. In 2010, Buster Posey showed up, and the Giants won the World Series. In 2012, they won again.

But the Zito script, the one in which he was a colossal bust and portrayed the Giants as stuck waiting for his contract to run out, needs a rewrite. The Giants owe Zito nothing beyond this year, but all they are waiting for now is his next start.

That is scheduled Friday, against the Dodgers at AT&T Park. He has thrown 21 scoreless innings there this season — three games started, seven shutout innings each time.

The last Giants pitcher to have three such outings — home, away or both — so soon into the season? Hall of Famer Carl Hubbell, in 1933.

There is nothing simple about Zito, whose interests beyond baseball range from fashion and music to religion and philanthropy. To explain Zito's baseball rebirth by saying he learned how to pitch with a lesser fastball would be too simple.

"Putting it into a 100,000-word book would be too simple," said Zito, 3-1 with a 3.29 earned-run average after getting no decision against the Padres on Saturday night in San Diego. "You can't really explain the experiences we have in life through a sentence, or through a whole book."

Zito once had the experience of hearing an Iraq War veteran say how she went to the grocery store, dressed in fatigues, only to get dressed down as "despicable" by a shopper opposed to the war. There had to be a way for baseball to support the veterans, he thought.

In 2005, Zito launched "Strikeouts for Troops," enlisting major leaguers in providing financial and logistical support for injured military personnel returning home. Zito visited Friday with Nick Kimmel, who stepped on a bomb in Afghanistan and lost the lower half of both legs and one arm. Zito invited Kimmel to spring training last year and accompanied him as he threw out a first pitch in the World Series last fall.

It is not that working with injured troops helped Zito put his baseball struggles in perspective. That would be terribly trite, and disrespectful to the troops.

But, when those struggles extended from months into years, his off-field interests enabled him to compartmentalize his frustration and put it out of his mind, or at least push it to the back of his mind for a little while.

"Whenever you become too myopic on any aspect of your life, it's going to become a little bit out of sorts," Zito said. "I can't say I have mastered that by any means."

In 2010, when the Giants left him off the playoff roster, Zito sat at an interview table for an hour before Game 1 of the World Series, graciously fielding about a hundred different permutations of "How does the highest-paid player on the team feel about getting cut?"

In 2012, he started Game 1 of the World Series, beating Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. That came five days after he beat the St. Louis Cardinals in an elimination game in the National League Championship Series — and that came after he failed to get through the third inning of his lone start in the division series.

In the clubhouse in St. Louis, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti all but broke down in tears, thankful that Zito had been rewarded for his perseverance.

"Six years of baseball demons," Righetti said. "It takes a lot of courage to stand on the mound with an 82-mph fastball."

Not military courage, and Righetti didn't mean it that way. But to win a Cy Young Award in 2002, lurch through a painful reinvention on a public stage, and emerge with two championship rings, well, that should be worth something.

"I was able to contribute to one of those rings, and in a roundabout way both of them. Sure, that does feel good," Zito said.

"The wisdom and understanding I have gained through tough times will forever be embraced by me. I'm sure there are more tough times ahead, both on and off the field."

Zito said he would not presume to say whether fans might finally change the description that inevitably follows his name from "Barry Zito, $126-million man" to "Barry Zito, World Series champion."

The Giants won the last 14 games he started last season. Bruce Bochy, their manager, said Zito had earned the latter tag.

"No question," Bochy said. "We don't win the World Series last year without him."

Neither Lincecum nor Zito is guaranteed anything beyond this year. This would have been outrageous to say two or three years ago, but Zito might be the better bet for a new long-term contract. He turns 35 next month, but he never has been on the disabled list because of an arm injury, and his on-the-job training in piling up innings with diminished velocity has been substantially completed.

"He is Zicasso," said his agent, Scott Boras. "You know what they say about artists: the older they get, the more valuable their work."

In the portrait of the artist as a young man, he looked outstanding. In the portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man, he does not look too bad, not at all.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Twitter: @BillShaikin

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