“It ain’t about the money that you got in the bank
It ain’t about how many hearts you break
It don’t matter how many people know your name
Even though that’s what they say…”
– “The Secret To Life”
Barry Zito looks like any other good looking man of a certain age. Dark hair, chiseled face, clear eyes that take in everything before him, a poise that makes him naturally comfortable no matter where he is. He could be a businessman, an architect, a doctor, or this being Nashville, a songwriter.
And that’s just what the man in the oversized zip-up sweatshirt is: a songwriter. An ASCAP-signed, indie record-making writer/artist with his life on his sleeve. But unlike most of the hopefuls making the rounds, getting first cuts, playing writer’s nights, Zito has also been one of the most famous and infamous names in baseball.
Drafted three times in college, he finally signed to the Oakland Athletics in 1999 as their first round draft pick. With a wicked curve ball, known as his strikeout pitch, as well as a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a circle changeup and a cutter-slider, he threw fast, was versatile and a young buck to watch. In 2002, he won the Cy Young Award and made the All-Star team; in 2003, he slipped a little, but still made the All-Star team.
Those are facts. For fans and Moneyball guys, those things are important. It’s how decisions get made and fantasy league arguments are waged. Zito was good; his arm a weapon. In 2006, he signed a then seven-year deal with the San Francisco Giants – $126 million, with an $18 million dollar option for 2014 and a $7 million buyout clause. At the time, it was the biggest deal for a pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.
Those are the kind of facts that make people weak at the knees – the money, the celebrity, the ease at which you live. What people don’t see behind those facts is what it takes to get there, how it feels to deal with everything that comes with it and the price of caring.
And, because America loves to tear down its heroes – or expects them to deliver at the peak of the ability every single time – there’s another fact. Zito, once he got to San Francisco, struggled. Struggled with his pitching to the point where he was a constant source of conversation, then catcalling from Giants fans.
Those are the facts, but they’re hardly the story. For Zito, born in Las Vegas and raised in San Diego, the real story is one of courage, conviction, facing the seeming worst, maintaining one’s dignity, reaching out and learning what really matters. It’s about love and perseverance; it’s about being the man you’re meant to be.
Oh, and writing songs...
“The spotlight told lies, I bought every last one
Traded family and friends in for fortune and fun
Then it all crashed down, as I swung my wrecking ball, But waiting in the aftermath, was a reason for it all.”
Credit: Ed Rode
“My father was working with Nat King Cole, then moved to Vegas as a talent manager,” Zito recalls, sitting at a table at Bongo Java. “My father and Steve Wynn were friends. … But when the family moved to San Diego, there was no industry (for my dad). That’s when we started going out to the backyard, doing baseball drills.
“I was the slowest runner, the lowest jumper, the lowest velocity (throwing) on the team. My dad said to me, ‘You wanna be a baseball player?’ I told him ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘I’m going to hold you accountable to your dream.’
“There were times I was fighting for independence. I didn’t want to come home and pitch for an hour and a half, but I never didn’t want the dream. He saw that.” Zito’s father was no sports stage parent. At 7, Zito was already throwing a curveball. As he explains, “Most kids don’t start doing that ‘til they’re 11.”
Focus. Practice. Commitment. A love of the game that carried the teenager past what normal kids get caught up in. For Zito – and his father – there was a larger vision at hand. Using the principles of Ernest Holmes’ Creative Mind, they pored over the book – and got in “line with the Laws of Creation.”
When Zito won the Cy Young Award, he came to believe he’d had a breakthrough. “If you can just think positive thoughts. … That year and a half of domination showed I could (pitch like no one else). Only it turned into a curse.”
There’s plenty of internet pieces on the games that didn’t go the way they should, the reality of Zito not closing when the chips were down. What you don’t see is the truth of how that felt – and what it means to be called names, to get so inside yourself with doubt that it’s hard to see light.
“I’d sit in the player lot for half an hour, 45 minutes some times, just listening to music,” he explains. “I knew I was going to have to pass the concessionaires in the tunnels with all these other people who work at the stadium for not a lot of money, the security people, the staff – and they’d all look at me. I knew what they were thinking, because everyone in San Francisco is a baseball fan.
“I pride myself now – I was able to be professional; my character was always intact. I never said ‘screw you, too’ to the media; never walked out on an interview, even when they’d say, ‘How do you feel making 20 million dollars a year?’”
Obviously, no one takes the money and intentionally doesn’t perform. Noting a pattern of putting too much pressure on himself at the start, then finding his arm once he’d blown the start of the season, Zito began looking in other places. He met his wife Amber at a Madonna concert at Angels’ Stadium in LA, where he lived off-season, and she gave him a different kind of foundation.
He also began volunteering at St. Anthony’s Foundation in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District. Beyond meals, medical help, clothes, job training, addiction recovery and advocacy, they believe in a strong gospel of love and dignity. It was there Zito found a new peace.
“The Giants donated money,” Zito says, “but I’d go down there and serve meals. Those people were just happy I was hanging out and talking to them. These are people whose basic needs aren’t being met, so they don’t care about winning or losing. They saw a guy with a meal who would talk to them, who wanted to relate and have a conversation with them.
“That’s what people miss: it’s easy to walk by someone with a sign, or a cup out and think my life is so different. I don’t even know how I’d relate. But it was the first time I’d really served people, and I learned so much from them.”
As Zito’s fates were going up and down – not being on the active roster when the Giants won their first World Series, taking a year off for an injury against his agent’s advice, being called by Billy Bean after a stint pitching here in Nashville – he found a new grace.
On Oct. 19, 2012, in the fifth game of the National League Championship Series, he pitched a 7 2/3 shut-out against the Cardinals to change the dynamics between the two teams. Like something from a Kevin Costner movie, Zito went on to pitch the first game of the World Series.
“To be able to pitch this one brilliant game in 2012,” he marvels, still beaming, “and then four days later being given the game ball from Game One of the World Series. But after everything, having Brian SaBean come out in the papers and say, ‘If I had to do it all over again, he’d do it – and still pay me the money.’ It was about mentorship, helping the young pitchers, how I’d carried myself.
“My name had become synonymous with failure,” Zito continues. “So having him say that, I felt like I could show my face, that he’d recognized the person I tried to be.”
“I’ve mastered imperfection, I know I’m no work of art
But these colors don’t come painless, these colors are my heart…”
– “My Own Path”
There was still the matter of what to do after that year off. He signed a minor league contract with the Oakland A’s, then found himself assigned to the Nashville Sounds. Rather than balk, he embraced the moment, seeing “an opportunity to fall back in love with baseball before I walked away from it.”
Though he’d always loved playing guitar, Zito never thought about what being assigned to Nashville meant. But an article in The Tennessean brought ASCAP’s Rob Filhart into his life, and in those final months of playing – including being called up in September 2016 for one MLB game – they began talking seriously about songwriting.
“It was easier knowing I was going to retire after I knew there was something I was going to,” Zito says, a few days later at Noshville Deli. “When I was going through all the stuff in San Francisco, the other players would tell me, ‘Just don’t listen to it…’ But I feel things, and it gets inside.
“There was a real sense of connection at St. Anthony’s, to a side of life I’d never experienced. We didn’t have much growing up, but my basic needs were met – and seeing those people cracked my head open! Just to set the meal down, sit and have a talk with those people. They’d have their kids with them, and we’d talk about how their day was going. There’s a whole world beyond baseball that matters.”
Zito plays occasional benefits. He’s headlined some shows in San Francisco. Mostly he writes songs that convey a warmth about life, a willingness to be vulnerable – and in one aptly titled song “Wrong.” Recognizing the traps of expectation, his voice – familiar and friendly – offers the comfort of basic things without stumbling into cliché. He’s the friend you count on, the man who admits he’s not perfect.
“I used to think after watching my team win the World Series, that would validate me. But after winning the World Series, that’s not what it’s about,” he admits, then pauses. “You know how you pound the chicken to make it tender? That’s what all these things gave me when I go into the room to write.
“I want to paint the colors of the human condition. I want to write about how fragile and frail we all are,” he continues. “We wear these masks we don’t want to peek out from behind, afraid of how we really look. The truth is we all are alike in our brokenness.”
“If I could hear the laughter in your soul
And feel the knife that cut you so deep
Then I could help you slay those dragons
Prove just how strong my love can be…”
Cover image: Glen Rose II