SI Vault
Michael Silver
June 21, 2004
As he struggles to regain his Cy Young form, Oakland's free-spirited lefty is relying on his best stuff: positive thoughts and faith in himself
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June 21, 2004

Inside The Head Of Barry Zito

As he struggles to regain his Cy Young form, Oakland's free-spirited lefty is relying on his best stuff: positive thoughts and faith in himself

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When things aren't going well on the mound, thoughts creep into Zito's head—What if the batter's waiting on a changeup? What if he hits it out?—that make him more tentative and less self-assured. It's the reason he can say with a straight face, "I wish I were a robot. It would be great to just be able to ignore everything and pitch to a spot, to suppress the intellect and let intuition take over. But we all bring the past into the present, and objectivity is the first thing that goes when you're struggling. Go to any Class A game and you'll see guys who have nastier stuff than Roger Clemens, but they never make it out because they second-guess themselves.

"There's something to be said for the 'dumb jock,' because his intelligence doesn't get in the way," Zito continues. "I think I'm aware of what goes on in my mind more than some guys, and for that reason I fight more battles. It's weird, because I don't have that problem outside of baseball. I kind of lie back and let life come to me."

As Zito's numbers worsened he began questioning his lifestyle away from the field—the surfing trips to San Francisco's Ocean Beach before home games, the postgame bar stops, the extended visits to the Guitar Center, a shop in the hip South of Market area. A man who had wholeheartedly embraced the clich�s of New Age enlightenment (yoga, meditation, self-help books, tape-recorded mantras, wheatgrass) suddenly became self-conscious. "In 2002 I was running around the city late at night, waking up early for breakfast, rocking out all day at the Guitar Center and barely even thinking about baseball," Zito says. "Last year there were times the public scrutiny began to get to me, and I'd fall into the trap of being less than who I am in public, of not speaking up and trying to stay under the radar. That's a horrible mistake for an athlete to make, and I'm not going to let it happen again."

On a recent Sunday evening Zito steers his '99 Dodge Durango (with the sticker on the side panel that reads, NORMAL PEOPLE WORRY ME) into a parking space and takes the elevator up to his Pacific Heights apartment. In an attempt to experience as many San Francisco neighborhoods as possible Zito rents a new place each season, and this one boasts a balcony with a picturesque view of the Bay. He steps over a pair of unopened handcuffs—"My sister [Sally] gave them to me," he explains, "in case I was up for using them on a chick"—and opens the door to his mostly barren refrigerator. "I've got a couple of science projects in here," he says, revealing a Styrofoam container containing moldy slices of assorted fruit. "Last season I left a head of romaine lettuce in my fridge for five months, and it decomposed into this black liquid. When I tried to throw it away, it exploded and spilled all over my kitchen. The smell was just rancid, dude."

One of Zito's prized possessions, a Fender Stratocaster guitar (he also owns several Taylor acoustics), rests on a living room stand. He has a gig the following night at Bill's Bar in Boston, where, shortly after the A's plane lands, he will play with his sister's band, The Sally Zito Project. Barry, who began playing less than four years ago, has come a long way since making his impromptu stage debut at Crogan's, a neighborhood bar in the Oakland hills. "He was really horrible," recalls A's third baseman Eric Chavez. "We were sitting in the back saying, 'Oh, my god—this is painful.' " Zito's defense? "I'd been playing six months, and it was the first time that I'd ever picked up an electric," he says.

Determined to improve his onstage chops, Zito took to slipping $100 bills to bar-band front men for the privilege of sitting in for one song. Once, in a Cincinnati club, he ran into some friends and ended up onstage playing the Dave Matthews Band's Crash into Me, with former Charge standout and current U.S. national team defender Heather Mitts providing the vocals. He has written four songs and is taking lessons from Jeff Tamelier, who plays guitar for the Oakland band Tower of Power. "His songs are knockouts, and the fact that he can write at that level after three years of playing blows my mind," Sally says. "Trust me: Even though he's my brother and even though it's good publicity, if he sucked I wouldn't let him in my band."

When he's not playing guitar Zito is often reading (Walden and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy, recently). Though he owns a high-definition TV, it's used almost exclusively for viewing DVDs. He doesn't have cable or satellite service, which keeps him from catching up on his favorite show, SpongeBob SquarePants. "He watches it with my seven-year-old daughter—at least, that's his excuse," laughs Bonnie Zito, his older sister by 13 years. "It's hard for me to think of him as a man; I mean, I still buy him toys as presents."

Yet for all his childlike verve, Zito, at his core, exudes the serenity of a man comfortable with his philosophical base. "I tell him he has an old soul," says Kathy Jacobson, Zito's publicist, "because he seems to have so many life lessons all figured out, like he's been here before." Among the subjects to which Zito has had to devote some thought is the heaviest one of all. "Everyone focuses on the earthly state, but how cool might death be," Zito says. "I believe in spiritual rebirth, and I can't wait to experience that."

Fourteen months ago death became a real-life issue again for Zito. His mother, whose transplanted liver has functioned well, was told that she had terminal cancer. "The doctors gave her three months to live," Joe says. "It was the same bulls—- as before." Roberta, who is 60, had surgery to remove some of the tumor behind her right eye and underwent radiation; then she set up a meditation room in her home and repeatedly told herself she was perfectly healthy. She and Joe then went to Mexico, outside Tijuana, where Roberta participated in a nine-week program that combined Western medicine with a Natropathic approach. She had a boiled white cabbage leaf placed on her right eye for one hour and slept in an oxygen chamber for an hour a day. "It worked," she says. "I'm cancer-free. The body responds to all of that affirmation."

She and Joe, who are living in Los Angeles, have resumed traveling to Oakland for each of Barry's home starts. Joe flew up five days before Barry faced the Kansas City Royals on May 22, and father and son worked together to restore Barry to his pre-2003 form. "The last time [in 2001] I gave him the basics," Joe says. "This time I had to take him to a different place. I had to take him deeper." Extending their sessions into the wee morning hours, they discussed the teachings of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle, and they read from the works of Neville Goddard, a 20th-century metaphysical philosopher. Joe also pulled out the Old Testament, using Joshua's victory in the battle of Jericho as an analogy for Barry's success. ("Barry is Joshua, and Jericho represents the state of mind he needs to attain," Joe explains. "Only after he captures the state—or state of mind—can the walls be broken down, and you realize they were never an obstacle to begin with.")

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