Zito strives to return to Cy Young form
In final year of contract, A's lefty insists it's not about the money
PHOENIX -- Whenever there's talk of an athlete being poised for a huge year entering the last season of his contract, it's not an Olympic snowboarding-sized jump to conclude that the athlete is motivated by money.
Make that jump with A's lefty Barry Zito, however, and he'll have you land like Lindsey Jacobellis, catch an edge and face-plant out of the conversation.
"I understand why people think that way, but anyone who knows anything about me knows that money is not what drives me," Zito says. "My drive has always been toward being the best pitcher in Major League Baseball, and that will be my drive right up to the day I hang up my spikes."
In the final five months of the 2002 season, just his second full year in the big leagues, Zito essentially reached his lofty goal, going 22-3 with a 2.39 ERA in his last 29 starts. He was rewarded with the American League Cy Young Award, making him, at 24, the youngest Cy Young winner since 1986.
Looking back, Zito stops short of saying it might have been too much, too soon. But he suggests that the Cy Young created somewhat unrealistic expectations of him.
"It's jarring to get to that level that early; it's almost like it's a curse," he says. "When you do that in your second year, people want you to do it year after year after year, so you always feel like you have to get back there. But getting to that level that young, it's so rare. And it's rare because it usually takes a few years to really figure out what pitching in the big leagues is all about.
"I had this great success right out of the chute, and yeah, it was unreal. But even I knew that I had a lot to learn."
Now entering his sixth full season, Zito, who turns 28 in May, finally feels like he has his MLB Ph.D.
"You learn more from your lows than your highs," he says. "And I've definitely had my share of lows."
Since being the young toast of the game in the winter of 2002, Zito hasn't won more than 14 games in a season, and in 2004, his ERA was 4.48. But he's also flashed that Cy Young form at times, including a stretch last season during which he went 8-0 with a 2.33 ERA and was named the AL Pitcher of the Month for July.
"Anyone who says self doubt isn't a big factor in this game is lying to you, and I've been honest. I've had doubts," he says. "Last year, though, I had a little bit of a breakthrough mentally. It was the first time I really proved to myself that I could get back to that place I got to early in my career, and I'm definitely taking that confidence into this year."
A's catcher Jason Kendall expects Zito to thrive in 2006, too. And like Zito, he says it doesn't have anything to do with dollars.
"He's not that guy," Kendall says. "He's a team guy, not a me guy. Barry cares as much about his teammates as anyone I've ever seen. The way he mentored the young guys last year, guys like Dan Haren and Rich Harden and Joe Blanton and Huston Srteet, that said everything you need to know about him.
"His teammates are what he plays for, and that's pure. That's why he's going to take it to a new level."
Zito's future with the A's is murky at best, and it has been for some time. He was the focus of winter-long trade rumors, and while Oakland general manager Billy Beane surprised a lot of people by bringing him back, Beane also has made it clear that it'll be difficult for the A's to keep Zito beyond this season.
"Let's see ... he's left-handed, he's never missed a start, he's 27-years-old, and he's won a Cy Young," Beane says. "Now look at the money that some guys who aren't any of those things have gotten lately."
Or, as third baseman Eric Chavez puts it, "He's going to be filthy rich at the end of this year."
But first Zito will have to answer questions about his impending free agency in every city the A's visit.
"And my answer will always be, 'Let's just talk about pitching,'" Zito says with a smile. "I'm not going to get into any of that other stuff. It's not going to have any impact on my season whatsoever. Trust me."
Haren, for one, believes him.
"No matter how much other people are going to talk about his contract, or trade rumors or whatever, Barry is the last guy who will be affected by it," Haren says. "He's just so mentally strong, and that was one of the ways he really helped me last year. He's the same guy every day, win or lose, and that's how you have to be. It's not easy, but he's got the mental side of the game locked down. Nothing bothers him."
What will bother Zito is if he doesn't help the A's clear the first-round hurdle that's tripped them up each of the four times they've reached the playoffs since he made his big-league debut in 2000. Well aware that it could be his last year in green and gold, he wants to make it as memorable as possible.
"I look at my career like I'm hiking in the mountains," Zito says. "The Cy Young was many, many mountains ago. Now I have new mountains I want to climb, and I know how to climb them. If there's another Cy Young up there somewhere, great. But I want there to be a World Series ring up there, too.
"And I want to it to say 'Oakland' on it."
Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.