One article, one novel, one 10-part documentary can not sum up the enigma that is Barry Zito. Why? Because he wants it to be that way.
Roll back the calendar to over a decade ago. Tall, lean and handsome, looking more like a movie star than an actual pitcher, Barry Zito stands on the mound, looking in for the sign. He's calm, collected, cool, with his ruffled surfer dude hair and that boyish look in his eyes. The world belongs to him, and he knows it. He is the personification of zen on the mound, so serine he's terrifying. And with good reason.
It was on October 15th, 2015 that Zito officially announced his retirement. The shaggy-haired lefty posted a 4.04 ERA over 15 seasons (3.58 in Oakland), earning three All-Star appearances ('02, '03 and '06, all in Oakland) and one Cy Young award ('02, also in Oakland). He split his career almost down the middle between the Bright Side of the Bay and the other side with the Giants, with all of his best seasons, nicknames and stories coming from when he pitched for the A's.
This made it even more fitting when Barry decided to end his career with the Athletics, 16 years after signing with them at the age of 21. Sixteen years after he -- literally -- rocked the baseball world with his wild personality and his wicked curve. To make the ending as fairy-tale-esque as possible, it was arranged so Zito could make his last Major League start against old teammate and buddy, Tim Hudson, who was ending his own 17-season career.
The mystery that is Planet Zito has gone from blue-haired punk to cool-as-a-cucumber surfer dude to soulful musician to everything in between. He's seen the top of the baseball world and the bottom, and still had his signature sly smirk in place for his last appearance. He's not a puzzle, he's about five of them thrown together with a handful of pieces taken out. And that's how he likes it.
In fact, one of the many aspects that makes up Captain Quirk is his ability to jar and shock people, to say things that you don't expect and make you do a double-take. From some unique table-talk to quizzing people on physics, Zito has always loved getting a reaction out of people and will go to any length to do it.
Zito was mentored by teammates Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. They were the Big 3 in the early 2000's, a force of pitching terror for the A's. They were inseparable until the baseball fates saw Hudson sent to Atlanta and Mulder traded to St. Louis -- bringing in a young reliever named Danny Haren. In turn, Zito took Haren under his wing like Hudson and Mulder had done for him.
Zito has always existed on a different plane of reality than the rest of us, living life on a path of New Age theories carved out by his parents. Everything was mental for Zito, learning from an early age the importance of mind over matter. He was taught that he would get where he wanted by believing it and never letting up on the positive intentions as well as a mental (and physical) swagger. (On a related note, Zito can communicate with seals.)
On an actual related note, Zito loved yoga and meditation, which he could be found doing in the clubhouse or on the field before a game.
He once played a pitcher in the Marines on an episode of JAG. (Remember that show? Oh, yes, that show.)
There was once a rumor started that Zito had a collection of stuffed animals that he would sleep with and take on the road with him. Thinking this was funny, Zito bought a bunch of stuffed animals and played up the story for his own entertainment.
There was another rumor that he traveled with pink satin pillows. This one was pretty much true. Zito admitted later that the pillows weren't the key aspect, it was the pillowcases.
Another world Zito surrounds himself in is that of music. Born to two musicians, a composer and a singer (who were both involved with Nat King Cole), Zito started his own musical journey in jazz and branched out from there. He's talked over the years about getting more involved in his own music projects, but maybe with retirement, he can focus all that wild energy into his guitar. He's had a mini studio in his bedroom to mess around with, so perhaps he can finally find the time to put in his hours there instead of on the mound.
"I refuse to be molded into some stereotypical ballplayer that has no interests, really, no life, no depth, no intelligence."
By remaining himself, Zito has carved himself a quirky, but powerful name in baseball history. Whether he came from the same planet Bill Lee fell from or from Las Vegas (almost the same thing), it isn't likely we'll see something else like Zito again. He focused on being himself and focusing on his passions, whatever they were at that moment. All we can say is that he was a zany hero who took the world by storm while in Oakland, coming along at just the right time.
So, he's closed the book on the pitching chapter of his life. Though, knowing Zito, there are many more adventures to be had. On our planet or otherwise, only time will tell.
Feel free to share your favorite Zito memory! I have a few, but the one that strikes a chord most with me was last season. I live in Chicago, so I had to see the four games the A's played against the White Sox here at the bitter end of the season. The games were already entertaining enough (when nothing is on the line, everything becomes a lot more amusing) but I found out with short notice when Barry Zito was called up from the minors, he'd be at one of the games I was going to. Not pitching, just ... there. Zitoing. I was doing good at keeping my inner fanboy calm until he stepped out on the field and walked to the bullpen. It was surreal, knowing that was the last time I'd see such an iconic character in person, and so close, too. Someone who'd meant a lot to me during my budding years as a fetus A's fan. It was a lot of nothing, but the kind of nothing that left a tense excitement in the air. A shared kiddish giddiness amongst the few A's fans who were ogling from our place down by the field. Well worth the $8 I spent on my ticket that night.