Fans expect them to be well-oiled, turbine-thumping, BMW-reliable machines. Never breaking down, never wavering in performance, never changing.
After all, their compensation for one summer of work exponentially exceeds what most of the paying customers earn in a lifetime. In return, baseball superstars are expected to perform with superhuman consistency, undeterred by distraction on or off the field of play.
Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito pitched in consecutive games for the San Francisco Giants against the Toronto Blue Jays last week, two Cy Young Award winners typecast as flaky surfer dudes at the outset of their playing careers, their images frozen in time as California hippies two generations removed.
Zito, the long-haired, guitar-playing, surfboarding lefty dominated baseball for a while, relying on a 12-to-6 curveball that started at a hitter’s waist and dropped devastatingly to his ankles at the last instant.
Lincecum, the shaggy-haired poet to whom the stanzas came all too easily on the mound, won back-to-back Cy Youngs with a nasty fastball that belied his slight build, and a befuddling changeup that moved late and bit hard.
Both have a pair of World Series rings in San Francisco. Both have endured the struggle to be what they once were. Both may be free agents at season’s end. Both got haircuts.
It’s hard to fathom Zito, 35, is in his 14th season, the first seven spent with Oakland, where he won 102 games, never had a losing season, and compiled an earned-run average under 4.00 each season but one. The American League Cy Young Award winner in 2002, Zito signed a then-stunning seven-year, $126-million (U.S.) deal to cross the bay into the National League in 2007. Now, in the final year of that contract, with a club option for one more, he’s put together only one winning record for the Giants (2012).
“Ali lost his legs, went to the ropes, took a beating,” said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti, using Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope victory against George Foreman as metaphor. (In a 1974 fight, promoted as the Rumble in the Jungle, Ali absorbed relentless punches while leaning against the boxing ring’s ropes until Foreman became too fatigued to resist Ali’s counterattack.)
Righetti, who spent the first four years of his 16-year career as a starter before becoming an effective reliever for the New York Yankees and Giants, is reluctant to discuss his pitchers directly. Instead, he talks around the edges, much like Zito frustrated Giants fans for years by nibbling at the plate rather than working it aggressively.
He said slumps are complicated by the public criticism, and the challenge is to “reel it in, latch on to the positives.”
During the playoffs last year, Zito openly discussed the personal impact of being booed at the stadium, gutted on the radio waves, skewered in social media, targeted because his results on the field weren’t living up to the fans’ expectations.
“When you start hating the world, it’s a heavy burden on your shoulders every day,” Zito said at the time. “You can’t hate the world. A lot of times, people make really nasty comments, and I can empathize with them. They’re probably angry or frustrated in their own life. They don’t know me, but they want to take it out on somebody. I’m able to see that now.”
Zito may have felt similarly, as his mother passed away in November of 2008, and his father suffered a life-threatening heart condition in 2010. He’s described himself today as a transformed person. In 2011, he became a reborn Christian and, in 2012, the committed bachelor married Amber Seyer, a former Miss Missouri Teen USA. He still surfs, still plays the guitar, and he’s evolved.
Recently, he explained why he’s learned to shuck questions about the Oakland years and the Giants contract. Simply: that was then.