In 2001, his second year with the A's, Zito did an ESPN radio interview in which he was reunited, by telephone, with University High classmate Mandy Clemens, who was then playing for the Philadelphia Charge of the WUSA On the air Zito copped to having had a huge crush on Clemens, who told him that she had no recollection of ever having met him. Nonetheless, they began dating after their seasons ended. "The first thing that struck me was that he wasn't afraid to be a dork, which I loved," Clemens says. "He's definitely not savvy, and he's awkward with females, though he probably knows how to talk to them by now."
Shortly before Zito left for spring training in 2002 he ended the relationship. "It was like he decided he couldn't mentally handle even having a friendship during the season," Clemens says. "I think he wants to keep his life as simple as possible in order to achieve his dream, which is to be the best pitcher in baseball."
That dream began in Zito's backyard in La Mesa, Calif., where Joe Zito built a pitching mound for his seven-year-old son. Joe, who was once a conductor for Nat King Cole (Roberta was a backup singer for Cole's Merry Young Souls when they met), "basically quit music for 11 years to work with me," Barry says. The family lived on the small allowance Roberta received as a minister for the Teaching of the Inner Christ, a 50,000-strong sect of metaphysical Christianity, founded by her mother, Ann Makeever, which helps members find their inner spiritual identity. By the time Zito finished his second year of college baseball, at L.A.'s Pierce College in 1998 (he had transferred there so he would be draft-eligible a year earlier than players at four-year schools), the family had been forced to move, ushering in what the Zitos refer to as their " El Cajon period."
The move to El Cajon, Calif., a blue-collar town near the Mexican border, was a humbling experience. "Oh, my God, it was awful," Sally recalls. "We lived in a 900-square-foot home that apparently had been a halfway house for female prisoners; therefore it was completely made of steel, and in the summer it would absorb heat like nobody's business. It was the kind of neighborhood where cars were on people's lawns, and parties raged all night, and [police and TV] helicopters were always circling."
That summer Zito was drafted in the third round by the Texas Rangers, who offered a $300,000 signing bonus. Barry and Joe decided to hold out for an additional $50,000, and when the deal fell through it was back to subsisting on chicken soup over white rice, and spaghetti and canned peas. Barry enrolled at USC in the spring of 1999 and went 12-3 with a 3.28 ERA and 154 strikeouts in 113? innings. The A's then selected him with the ninth pick in the draft and gave him a $1.59 million signing bonus. Says Barry of waiting for a better offer than the Rangers', "It was a true act of faith."
Faith is at the center of the Zito family's philosophy. They believe that positive thoughts release a tangible energy—in Joe's words, "thought creates form"—and that an acute focus on a goal can lead to its accomplishment. Barry was made aware of these concepts from a young age, yet he didn't delve into them much on his own until July 2001 when, after a rough outing against the Minnesota Twins left him with a 6-7 record and a 5.01 ERA, he called his father and said, "Something's wrong."
Joe flew to Oakland and spent five days with Barry, fortifying his son's mental approach. Mostly, they read from Creative Mind, a 1919 book by Ernest Holmes that combines spiritualism, psychology and philosophy. The book advocates the exclusion of negative thought and asserts that nothing can be accomplished without unquestioned belief in one's abilities.
The visit was followed by Zito's abrupt turnaround—he went 11-1 with a 1.32 ERA to close the season, then kept right on rolling through 2002. The unflappable kid who struck out the side with the bases loaded in his first major league start in 2000, who later that fall beat Roger Clemens in a do-or-die American League Division Series game at jam-packed Yankee Stadium, was so locked in that it seemed nothing could penetrate his psyche.
"When you are focused and fixed in your desire," Joe says, "it doesn't really matter who the batter is, where you're playing or what the situation is. When a pitcher is committed to a pitch, he can throw it down the middle and the batter won't hit it. That may sound strange, but we have tested it many times, during games, against some prominent hitters. It's only the human failing that we don't have that belief that we're infallible at all times."
Indeed, that state of bliss is fleeting. Last season Zito finished seventh in the AL in ERA (3-30) and second in opponents' batting average (.219), but Oakland averaged only 4.62 runs in games that he pitched, and in one stretch he had only two wins in 16 starts. Mentally, despite the self-motivational messages he scrawled inside his cap and on notes taped to his bathroom mirror, he slipped early and often. "Last year I fell into the trap of looking at my numbers and letting them dictate my mood," Zito says. "I was relying on a good start so I would be at ease for four days, and if I had a bad start I would go into the s———. At one point I was 6-3 with a 2.50 ERA, and I looked at [then teammate] Adam Piatt in the dugout and said, 'Dude, I feel like I'm 3-6 with a 5.00.' "