By the third inning, it sounded as if the beer had begun to take hold at Chuckchansi Park in Fresno. “Bar-ry,” a few fans began to yell from down the right-field line. “Zi-to,” they answered from the left.
The call and response intensified before every pitch, on a night when Zito threw 32 of them in the third inning and gave up three runs. The sing-songing grew louder in the fourth inning Thursday night before Zito, who pitches these days for the Nashville Sounds of the Pacific Coast League, hung a platter of red meat over the plate for Fresno Grizzlies stud shortstop Carlos Correa, who barbecued it.
Correa’s homer landed at the base of the scoreboard in left-center. It traveled at least 430 feet from home and a thousand miles from 2002, when Zito won 23 major-league games and the American League Cy Young Award for the A’s and later parlayed his success into a huge contract with the Giants.
Time and space may be catching up with Zito, who took last year off before coming back this season on a minor-league contract with the A’s. He’s expected to start Tuesday night when the Sounds play the River Cats at Raley Field.
Zito recently turned 37, but many have pitched beyond that, including Warren Spahn, who won 123 games after he turned 37. Spahn, however, never had to pitch in Fresno.
So if age isn’t plaguing Zito, then it has to be the placement of his pitches and their lack of velocity and the trajectory they are taking into what PCL batters are turning into a kill zone. They’re hitting .291 off Zito. To avoid their bats, he plays the edges but has missed them often enough to walk 26 in less than 50 innings. In nine starts, he is 1-4 with a 5.29 ERA.
Zito’s mastery of the laws of physics once made his curveball one of the prettiest in baseball. But the other night in Fresno, it lacked definition. Besides the impressive Correa, other Grizzlies enjoyed their cuts. On Zito’s first pitch, Robbie Grossman drove one into the fence in left for a double. In the third inning, Jon Singleton one-hopped a liner over the fence in right for another double. In the fifth, Nolan Fontana’s sharply struck triple down the line in right ended Zito’s night.
The fans gave Zito a nice hand as he walked off the field. Nice, but the other guys still had a slugging percentage of .850 against him.
“Yeah, I’m definitely frustrated,” Zito said, “certainly tonight, and with a couple other games I’ve had where I feel like I’m better than that. I don’t feel like I’m out there at my best. If I was at my best and things weren’t panning out, OK, well maybe it’s time to think about it. But if there’s still some disparity between what I’m doing and what my best is, then that’s up to me.”
For a guy who already has had considerable success in the major leagues and made several million dollars as a result of it, it is a testament to the human spirit that Zito has challenged himself in this setting to continue the pursuit of his art.
He knows he has a life after it, in music, in the spirit of his father, the late Joe Zito, who used to conduct Nat King Cole’s orchestra. Music is in his soul, Zito said, and in time he will attempt to pursue it as a profession, probably as a jazz-influenced songwriter.
Zito travels the PCL circuit with his guitar as he did in the American and National leagues for the A’s and Giants. He’ll have it with him in Sacramento, too. But he’ll also have it on hold, as well as his probable music career, while he tries to rediscover the sharpness to his curve and add speed to a fastball that topped out around 85 mph in Fresno.
“For me, it’s just about the game, embracing the game,” Zito said. “Not so much the external factors around it, but you know, just enjoying the game, enjoying the competition. Obviously, some people are like, ‘Well, why don’t you just ride off into the sunset, shut it down?’”
Here’s why not: “It’s good to continue to challenge myself, with something I love to do,” Zito said.
His manager, Steve Scarsone, calls it “a pretty cool story.”
Let’s wait awhile to see how it turns out.