Melancholy music blared through the speakers of the old Honda CRX as Barry Zito raced across central California farmland on State Highway 99, weaving in and out of an endless stream of semis. It was a 3�-hour trip from Visalia, Calif., home of the Oakland Athletics' Class A affiliate, to his mother's hospital room in Los Angeles, and Zito was hoping he'd get there in time to say goodbye. Two weeks into his professional baseball career, on his way to attaining his childhood dream of pitching in the majors, Zito, crying uncontrollably, was undone by the notion that his world away from the diamond was coming apart. He felt as though the words of Ben Folds Five, coming from the CD, were meant specifically for him.
Lying awake in my hospital room....
And the doctor just came by and told me the news.
I need a second opinion.
I don't believe that it's true.
Zito had been raised by his parents to believe that positive thought and faith in oneself could supersede and even influence external forces, but now he faced the prospect that nothing could prevent his mother's death from liver failure. It was June 1999 and Roberta Zito was in the intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, suffering from primary biliary cirrhosis. Her condition had worsened, and doctors had given her perhaps 12 hours to live. When Barry finally arrived at the hospital, Roberta was as yellow as a retro A's jersey, semiconscious and unable to recognize him. Like his older sisters, Bonnie and Sally, Barry was overcome by emotion, but their father, Joe, was devoid of fear or grief—"like he was sort of in denial," Barry recalls. Against all empirical evidence, Joe kept telling his children, "Your mother isn't sick. She's healing, and this is part of the process." Barry spent the night in a chair near Roberta's bed, bracing himself for the inevitable.
Nearly five years later Zito, the A's 26-year-old lefthander, is still awed by the events that followed his bedside vigil. "She made it through that night," he remembers, "and about two weeks later we got the call that a donor liver had become available. When they opened her up for the transplant, three doctors in the room agreed that given her condition the operation was too much of a risk. But the way we heard it, the anesthesiologist, of all people, said, 'No, it's O.K. I have a feeling it'll be all right.' One of the doctors told us later that in 30 years of practicing my mother had been the sickest patient he'd ever seen who bounced back to make a full recovery."
These days, as he struggles to regain the pitching form that in 2002 made him the seventh-youngest Cy Young Award winner, Zito believes more ardently than ever in mind over matter. The fifth-year hurler is convinced that anything he hopes to accomplish—from striking out Alex Rodriguez to nailing a sizzling guitar solo to forging a sincere and stimulating romance with a club-hopping Hollywood lingerie model—is within his grasp. "We're all physical bodies, but basically everything we do is determined by what goes on in our heads," Zito says. "The only person who ever stops me from achieving something is me."
Says A's first baseman Scott Hatteberg, "He's constantly bombarding himself with the mental part of the game. Everybody's trying to get a mental edge, but he takes it to another level." Oakland righthander Tim Hudson worries that his friend is "too analytical when it comes to baseball. It's a sport that'll drive you crazy, and he puts too much thought into things that sometimes have no rhyme or reason."
There have been times when Zito appeared to have it all figured out. From July 24, 2001, through his stellar 2002 season, Zito was 34-6 with a 2.50 ERA. Call it mind over batter: His unrivaled curveball with the roller-coaster drop and his crafty changeup set up a sub-90s fastball that isn't nearly as hittable as it appears. "He throws strikes and dares you to hit it," says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, "and because you have to wait so long for that curve, it makes his fastball that much faster."
Yet Zito's march toward pitching immortality slowed after he won the Cy Young. Last year he went 14-12, mostly because of poor run support, but early in 2004 he morphed into Barely Zito. On April 23 he surrendered a career-worst nine earned runs in four innings of a defeat to the Anaheim Angels; six nights later he gave up four homers, double his previous high, in a loss to the Yankees. At week's end Zito was 4-3 with a 4.74 ERA.
With small-market Oakland in a battle to make the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season—the A's led the AL West by 2� games over Anaheim and the Texas Rangers through Monday—Zito's run of mediocrity is magnified. To former Cy Young winner Randy Jones, from whom Zito took weekly pitching lessons during a four-year stretch of his childhood, it's a matter of Zito's pitch placement. "Fundamentally, he looks pretty good, and the curve-ball and the changeup are working," says Jones, now a spokesman for the San Diego Padres. "But he's really falling in love with the cut fastball, which jams righthanded hitters, at the expense of the two-seam fastball, which tails away from them. He used to throw the two-seam pretty well when we worked together, but now he's sort of one-dimensional, always trying to cut the ball in against righties. When you miss and the ball goes over the middle third of the plate, you're going to give up some long balls."
Zito's explanation: "Some of my change-ups have been flat, and guys have hit them for home runs. When a changeup doesn't have any finish, down-and-away to a righthander or down-and-in to a lefty, it's basically just a batting-practice fastball."