“Oh he had his ups and downs.”
That’s how manager Bruce Bochy summed up Barry Zito’s seven years with “your” San Francisco Giants. Zito himself put it like this: “95 percent great and the other 5 percent terrible.” With his $126 million contract, his 63-win, 80-loss record and his unenviable statistical position this year as the “least valuable” pitcher in professional baseball, what would you say?
Wednesday night the curtain came down on the Zito era. Quietly and with customary grace. Not to mention a dash of unexpected power, a heart-pumping Romo close, and a 6-4 victory over the Despised Dodgers.
There was no curtain call for the 126 Million Dollar Man.
Zito pitched well. Nothing but junk: an offspeed slider here, an offspeed cutter there, something that resembles a fastball, usually high, often wide, and of course: the curve ball. Beguiling. Deceitful. Illusory. Devastating. The curve ball is the pitch that made Zito $126 million.
The poet Walt Whitman hated curve balls. One of baseball’s first journalists, Whitman thought the pitch a fraud and he detested lies. Falsehoods like the curve ball, he thought, would wreck the game. But then, he also thought poetry was truth. It was a different world in those days. A different game.
After it leaves the pitcher’s hand, Zito’s curve ball looks to a right-handed batter like it’s coming high and wide. Then it suddenly snaps, breaking sharply in and down over the plate. When they were both considerably younger, Alex Rodriguez described Zito’s curve ball this way: “I have never seen anything like it. It drops three to four feet. You might as well not even look for it because you’re not going to hit it.”
The Dodgers couldn’t find Zito’s curve ball Wednesday night. When they did, they couldn’t make a clean connection. Their hits, and runs, came off his other pitches. Like the cutter Dodger shortstop Nick Punto lined off Zito’s thigh at the top of the fifth. He stayed in to finish the inning, but his night was over. Bochy lifted him for a pinch hitter.
When the Giants signed Zito in 2007, they thought they had struck gold. Like Rodriguez, they were fooled by his curve ball. The contract became an albatross, a psychological drag for Zito, and a financial drag for the team. Today, whenever you see a story about the worst sports contracts in history, Zito and the Giants always make the top 10.
The downside of the contract for the team is obvious. The “least valuable” pitcher in baseball got paid $20 million for sitting in the bullpen and an occasional disaster whenever he was called to the mound.
The downside for the player is less obvious. As fans we tend to get moralistic about fat player contracts, but motivation might be a problem. Once you guarantee a guy $126 million over seven years, how do you get him out of bed?
Moreover, big money means big expectations. If $126 million seems like an unworldly amount of money, the expectations that come with it can also seem unworldly. They can crush a man. Or at least impair his mental preparation and physical performance.
Until his heroics in last year’s playoffs, Zito was afraid to show his face in his favorite places around town. Now he hopes we will remember his role in last year’s championship long after we’ve forgotten how much those 13 innings cost.
On the field Wednesday night, once again Tony Abreu, subbing for Marco Scutaro at second base, made the most noise. Tuesday night Abreu accounted for the Giants’ only run with a home run. Wednesday night he knocked in four of the six runs scored with a triple and a double. Abreu’s output was complimented by a Posey double and a Panda home run. A rare Mission Creek power surge. How rare? It was only the Panda’s 14th homer this year.
The big question, the only question after the game, was why had Bochy taken Zito out for a pinch hitter in the fifth? Why not send him up to the plate? Why not send him back to the mound in the sixth for a couple pitches, then take him out ceremoniously so pitcher and public could say their proper goodbyes.
Bochy said the decision was a “no-brainer.” The main thing on his mind was to win the game. Right. The game must go on. And that was the overwhelming sentiment among the fans in the ballpark. Players come and go. Seasons boom and bust. Championship rings or booby prizes, it’s all about now, this game, this moment and the innings that remain.
Tonight is the last game with the Dodgers for 2013. Just another game? Or will it be another Farewell to Arms — The Freak’s Finale? Stay tuned.
BTW Zito’s favorite place in the Mission to hang out? Bi-Rite Creamery.