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As the new Face of the Giants, Barry Zito would like to clear up something: He is not a flake. He does not bring stuffed animals on road trips or sleep with special pink pillows or God knows what else you may have heard. Rather, Zito is "very normal," as his publicist, Kathy Jacobson, will assure you (hey, would a flake have a publicist?), and he'd like people to stop perpetuating the stereotype. "Anyone who knows me knows that I'm not flaky," Zito says, a bag of ice strapped to his $126 million left arm. "It's just a fun thing to put on a guy"--and here he mimics a chirpy, Entertainment Tonight kind of anchor--"'Hey, lefthanded, long hair, surfer!'" He shakes his head. "But these people don't know, because they've never come in here and talked to me. Because if they did, I'd call them on that s--- in a second."
It's true, Zito is not a descendant of Bill (Spaceman) Lee, for that implies a certain absent-mindedness, whereas Zito is renowned for his work ethic and preparation. Zito is just, well, different. Keep that in mind when you hear how a cactus attacked him last week. Or how he recently flew to watch an Iowa--Oklahoma State wrestling match because Bobby Kielty, his former A's teammate, told him the college competition was "just so intense" that he had to check it out. Or how he arrived for the first day of spring training and unveiled a radically different delivery--beginning with a windup from a deep crouch and ending with an exaggerated stride--that freaked out Giants fans and caused manager Bruce Bochy to think Zito might be pulling his leg. "I know Barry better now," says Bochy, "but when I first saw [the new delivery], I didn't know if part of it was him having some fun with us."
Zito, however, does not joke when it comes to baseball. As unconventional as he is, at least by the narrow standards of a professional athlete--with his interests in surfing, guitar playing, yoga and the Strikeouts for Troops foundation he started to help wounded U.S. soldiers--he is also very serious about the game. That focus is what persuaded the Giants to sign him to that bloated seven-year contract, the largest ever for a pitcher. It's also why, after locking down the deal, he spent the winter focusing on his core conditioning and refining his .delivery. His goal was to add power while reducing stress on his arm, so he incorporated more leg thrust into his windup, then amplified the motion. "It's tough to make fine adjustments," Zito explains. "Sometimes you have to exaggerate the s--- out of it, then you pull back to the original and the original has changed."
What Zito didn't count on--though he should have--was the reaction the new delivery would get. Pitching coach Dave Righetti called it so different as to be worrisome, and the story quickly went national. By the next morning Zito was being bashed across the sports-scape. And he was ticked.
The Zito Wacky Delivery story got "microscoped," as the lefty says. The follow-up story did not. In his next throwing session, Zito displayed the same not-so-wacky, upright form that won him 102 games in six years with the A's, then looked sharp in his first spring training game. All, it seemed, had returned to normal. Only, if you looked closely, Zito's delivery had changed. He's added five to six inches to his stride, which gives him more thrust and, he hopes, more power. (Last year, according to the 2007 Bill James Handbook, Zito had the fourth-slowest fastball in the American League, at an average of 85.8 mph, ahead of only Kenny Rogers, Mark Redman and Mark Buehrle.)
His larger transformation, however, has come off the field, where he's gone from one of many faces in Oakland to being The Face in San Francisco. His mug adorns Giants billboards, ticket schedules and T-shirts. It's part of a conscious Giants makeover from a hitting- to pitching-based club (and away from the p.r. nightmare that is Barry Bonds). Using the Braves teams of the 1990s as a model, G.M. Brian Sabean has locked up his quartet of young pitchers--Zito, Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Tim Lincecum, none of whom is older than 28--through 2010. By marketing Zito in particular, the Giants are taking the risky route of positioning a finesse pitcher as their main draw. (Other than with Greg Maddux, this hasn't been done in the last 30-odd years.) Hey, kids, come watch this guy throw 75 mph! Still, it seems to be working, in part because the laid-back Zito is a perfect fit for San Francisco. As of Sunday, the team had sold 200,000 more tickets than at this point last year.
Apparently he resonates with teammates too. Zito was signed with the expectation that he would act as a mentor to the youngsters, and so far he's delivered. After the Giants held a FanFest in January, Zito took Cain, the 22-year-old ace-in-waiting, out on the town, hitting the Redwood Room at the swanky Clift Hotel. The two talked about music-- Cain is an aspiring guitarist and Zito occasionally sits in with his sister's band--and were "just hanging and partying," as Zito says. At the end of the night, Zito got an idea. "Hey," he said. "Me and my boys are heading to Sundance. Why don't you come?" Cain politely declined. "It would have been too crazy," Cain says.
Regardless, Zito had planted a seed. "I spoke to [Matt] Morris and Lowry later, and they were like, 'You took Cainer out?' They were kind of surprised," says Zito. "They're like, 'He's 22, he might not know how to do things a certain way a veteran would.' And I'm like, 'Well, what am I here for?' If I can open his eyes to new experiences, on and off the field, then all the better."
Zito has also befriended Bonds, thus "keeping Bonds at bay in the clubhouse," according to Giants COO Larry Baer. The two have adjacent lockers, and, as Zito puts it, "We'll rap out a little bit before practice." Over the winter they met while working out at UCLA and hit it off. The upshot: Bonds made T-shirts that read DON'T ASK ME, ASK BARRY, each with an arrow, that the duo wore on their first day together in spring training. Says first baseman Mark Sweeney, the team's clubhouse leader, "Barry [Bonds] understands this is going to be the Zito show. Actually, I think it's refreshing for him."
Of course, some will say that the Zito show better be magnificent to justify the ticket price. The contract has been labeled as a desperate p.r. move to distract attention from Bonds's legal troubles (which in some ways it is) and as an exorbitant price for a pitcher who showed some signs of decline in 2006 (lower strikeout rate, higher walk rate). Sabean, however, cites Zito's durability (he's never missed a start), personality and age (28, when most pitchers begin to peak) as positives, though he admits the cost was excessive. "Any pitcher, no matter what level of expertise or ability he might have, was in a position to get overpaid this year," says Sabean. "We knew we were going to lose [former ace Jason] Schmidt, and we were so attracted to Barry we didn't want to come in second place, so we went as far as we thought we should."