Could you please send me your autograph? Because me and my dad think you are great. We used to think you were pretty crappy but we don't anymore. Keep doing great and please do not go back to being crappy. Thank you.
Every day brings lefthander Barry Zito a new batch of letters, more than 150 in a typical week. They come by e-mail to his website and by snail mail to the Giants' offices, and many of the writers make the same admission: They used to think he was permanently, irreversibly crappy. "I don't blame them," Zito says. "That's how fans are. The way I was pitching, I wasn't doing anything to convince them differently."
He didn't pay much attention to his correspondence back then, in his first three seasons with San Francisco, when he went 31--43 with a 4.57 ERA. He didn't need to read all the letters in his in-box to know that they were no friendlier than the hitters in the batter's box.
Now it's as if everyone who wrote Zito a nasty letter when he was struggling feels compelled to write again and own up to it. Zito is back to being the pitcher the Giants thought they were getting when they signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2006. Through Saturday he was 5--1 with a 1.90 ERA, numbers more befitting the 2002 Cy Young Award winner with the A's, and he has regained the affection of the San Francisco faithful, who freely accept being charged with an E-Fan. Rarely have so many been so happy to admit being so wrong about a player's prospects.
There are nothing but cheers for Zito at AT&T Park these days. Callers to a Bay Area sports talk show recently spent about 20 minutes debating whether "Barry! Barry! Barry!" or "BARE-ree ZEE-to, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap!" is the more appropriately worshipful chant on days he pitches.
But the louder the roar of approval and the more positive and apologetic the fan mail, the more determined Zito is to avoid basking in it. "I blocked it all out when I was going badly," he says. "I can't start listening to those outside voices now just because things are better. I appreciate the fans, but I've learned that you can't live your life trying to make everyone else happy."
That's an understandable approach, but it's a shame, if only because there is such fascinating reading in Zito's mailbag. It's a mixture of adulation and advice, of questions and quirky theories. A recent batch included a letter from a woman who desperately wants to deliver Zito some tamales, and another from a female fan who wants to set Zito up on a date with her former daughter-in-law. (Hardly necessary. The 32-year-old bachelor may have experienced slumps, but not in that arena.)
Zito attributes his resurgence in part to changing his throwing regimen—more long toss has improved his arm strength, giving his fastball more late movement—and in part to using his slider more often. But many of his admirers dismiss such pedestrian explanations. They seem to think their advice made all the difference.