Barry Zito will start Game 1 of the World Series for the San Francisco Giants, and you probably had to be inside AT&T Park on Aug. 28, 2010, to understand just how utterly unfathomable it will be to see him taking the mound in a game like this, at a time like this, in a place like this. He can be forgiven if he walks on top of the mound to begin his warm-up pitches, looks out at the scene and breaks out laughing. Or crying. Strictly his call.
On that August night in 2010, Zito pitched against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He got hit around like a guy who would have been released if he didn't have a big-money, long-term contract. He gave up nine runs (seven earned) in 3 2/3 innings. The Diamondbacks had six hits and Zito walked five. It was one of the worst and most dispiriting performances I've seen on a big league mound.
But it wasn't Zito's pitching that sticks with me. It was the reaction of Giants fans, who unleashed a prolonged, vicious attack on Zito when he walked off the mound. I was at the ballpark to do a story on Zito's troubles -- a story I didn't end up writing -- and it was an angry scene. I left the press box to walk around and hear the reaction, and I was standing down the right-field line when Zito was taken out of the game. They were yelling about his contract and his work ethic and other things you'd be disgusted to let your kids hear. The vitriol was borderline scary, one of those moments when you could almost feel the social contract straining at the seams.
Zito had started that season 6-1 with a 2.15 ERA before it unraveled, and unraveled fast. After that loss to Arizona, he was 8-10 with a 4.07 ERA. The loss put the Giants 1½ games behind in the wild-card standings in a season that would improbably end with them winning the World Series.
Money has always been the undercurrent of the fans' perception of Zito -- their expectations, their disappointment, their appreciation. Seven years and $126 million will do that to a guy. And on that night against the Diamondbacks, it was as if every fan performed a cost-benefit analysis every time he threw a pitch. It wasn't their money and never has been, but they've always acted as if it were.
There are scapegoats in every city, legendary guys who remain in the public consciousness forever. Zito was that guy in San Francisco, and he seemed destined to remain that way. It's a terrible, difficult label to lose, and yet Zito did it. He could very well go out there in Game 1 and look more like the guy who took the mound against the Diamondbacks than the guy who threw 7 2/3 shutout, season-saving innings in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. No matter, though -- he turned it around, and that might be the greatest achievement of his career.
Might be only because there's little doubt that Zito's greatest achievement is the manner in which he has handled himself as a Giant. Even after that night against the Diamondbacks, he held his head high and answered every question that came his way. He never ducked blame. He never became bitter. He never criticized the fans or showed any outward indication that he felt unduly singled out because he signed the contract that was placed in front of him. He retained the respect of his teammates even when he couldn't get anybody out. He kept working to get better. On the day he was told he was left off the 2010 playoff roster, he grabbed a catcher and threw a bullpen session in case something changed.
And that's why the idea of him starting Game 1 of the World Series in AT&T Park is far more of an upset than the Giants winning three straight in Cincinnati in the NLDS, or winning three straight from the Cardinals in the NLCS. Those are mere random occurrences, but Zito's second act is more than that. Before his 15-8 season this year, he'd never had a winning season in five previous years as a Giant. Wins aren't an accurate measure of a pitcher's performance, of course, but in this case, it works symbolically, especially since the Giants have won his last 13 starts.
At Tuesday's World Series news conference, Zito addressed the issue of his changed fortunes by saying, "To look at the whole story doesn't really help me."
We tend to throw around superlatives loosely. Something's always amazing or remarkable or incredible. And then when we really need those words, when they fit the occasion, they're watered down and meaningless.
But Zito's journey to this point is remarkable, regardless of what happens in the World Series. He kept working, kept being a gentleman, and somehow, some way, he's starting Game 1 of the World Series.
He will take the mound, and he will be cheered. Wildly. From that point forward, there are no guarantees.