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Others have cited the off-season departure of pitching coach Rick Peterson, who went to the New York Mets, and a mechanical adjustment Zito made in spring training as possible causes of his struggles. Zito, as always, insists the answers are all upstairs. "Everyone's looking for a scapegoat, so they're pointing to [new pitching coach] Curt Young, which is just wrong," Zito says. "I miss Rick on a personal level, but we're doing the same things in terms of preparation that we did last year. Mechanically, I tried to get taller in my stance in spring training, but Eve reverted to my old delivery, so that's not it, either. Everybody wants something tangible to blame so they can sleep at night, but I view my pitching performance based on how confident I was out there, period.
"And if I lose that confidence, I can become a prisoner of my own mind."
Turning one's back to royalty is not always an advisable act. But here at Marquee, a Manhattan club, on an early morning in late April, that's what the young blonde in a skimpy cocktail dress has done quite conspicuously to a short man who, nearby observers claim, is a Kuwaiti prince. Suppressing the urge to curtsy, this blonde and another similarly clad seductress groove together in the corner of the dance floor, bumping and grinding not with the prince but for him. Bemused, a tall man in a polyester shirt unbuttoned to the breastline surveys the scene.
One of the blondes looks up and smiles at Barry Zito; he gives her the Tenth Avenue freezeout. It was hours after the A's had blown an eighth-inning lead and lost to the Yankees, and Zito has just run into a model with whom he had been involved while living in L.A. in the off-season. Zito's enthusiasm for the relationship had been doused by her affected attitude. "We couldn't eat at a restaurant because she'd say, 'We ate there two weeks ago,' " Zito had explained earlier. "Or she'd order this tiny mushroom truffle for $100 instead of something that was actually good to eat. I told her, 'I can't be myself around you,' which is incredibly rare for me."
Now, with his competitiveness stirred—not to mention a couple of drinks in his system—Zito's interest in the woman has been revived. "She's here with some dude, and I'm jealous," he says. "That's new for me, and I don't like it. What I'm going to do is find her and talk to her, really get inside her mind. I want to go deep?
At 6'4" and 215 pounds, with a handsome face and an utter lack of pretense, Zito suffers no shortage of female attention. "I don't care if the guy's job was collecting trash along the road, he'd still make women melt just from talking to them," says Jackie Legg, a friend of Zito's since high school. "The positive energy he puts out attracts people. They get fixated on that energy and just want to be around him."
Adds Sally Zito, 34, a musician who lives year-round in her brother's off-season house in the Hollywood Hills, "He's really kind of sweet to the girls he dates, even though we're talking mass quantities."
Yet Zito came late to the dating game. He says he "kissed one girl in high school, not so much because I was shy, but because of my lifestyle choices. I had long hair and was hanging with an alternative crowd—people who were into a psychedelic scene." He did not offer specifics, but the implication is the women of University High did not consider baked Zito to be an appetizing dish.
Zito says he lost his virginity as a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, "then didn't hook up again until I got my first girlfriend two years later." By then Zito had transferred to USC, where he met Trojans soccer standout Susie Mora, also a defender on Mexico's national team. "On our first date he gave me a bear-shaped candle, and I thought he was such a weirdo," Mora recalls. "He was so open; he would say anything that was on his mind." He'd do anything too. Once, after Zito had played in a Rock 'n' Jock celebrity softball game at Cal State-Fullerton, Mora recalls, he suddenly unveiled his "Crip-walking" skills—or lack thereof—to mortified rappers Method Man and Ludacris.
Long before it was hipster-chic, Zito had perpetual bed head and a loud, synthetic-based wardrobe. Mychael Urban, an mlb.com writer, once wrote that Zito "dresses like a '70s porn star"—earning a hearty thumbs-up from mom. "He has never seemed to feel that normal need to hide things, and his willingness to expose himself is a marvel to me," Roberta says. "I'm always trying to protect his facade, whatever it may be, but I've determined there really isn't one."