Friday, December 29, 2006

Gammons:Zito never misses a beat

Zito never misses a beat

posted: Friday, December 29, 2006 | Print Entry
filed under: San Francisco Giants

The first time I saw Barry Zito was in Bourne, Mass., in 1997. He was going into his junior year, transferring from junior college to USC, but he'd been drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round and was asking for $300,000 to sign.

He was brilliant, but a scout from the Rangers kept telling those around him that Zito's gun readings didn't merit $300,000. "But hitters are swinging and missing at all three of his pitches," I offered, and was told that Zito didn't throw hard enough to get $300,000.

So much for gun readings, and the old argument that eyes tell more than what hitters do and don't do against a pitcher. Zito went to USC, and in June 1999 was taken with the ninth pick in the nation because Billy Beane had the guts and brains to choose players based on performance. Some 16 months later, Zito beat the Yankees in the ALDS. The following October, Derek Jeter's unforgettable relay nailed Jeremy Giambi at the plate to cost Zito a 1-0, eight-inning, two-hit loss to Mike Mussina, and the next year he was the Cy Young Award winner.

Understand that while Zito surfs, plays guitar with John Mayer, does yoga and has the mussed hair of a rock star, former teammate Scott Hatteberg called him "the biggest nerd in America." Look, it takes Zito an hour or two to make that hair look uncombed.

He's a baseball freak. He went to every baseball camp and school he could find as a kid, and his father even tried to hire Rick Peterson as a private coach when he was 17. For his six full years in the major leagues, he leads all pitchers in games started because he loves the game. In those six full years, he is third in innings and fourth in wins because he is the model of responsibility and accountability. He prepares diligently each winter for the next season and takes the four days between starts as if he were cramming for a physics final.

That is why Scott Boras was able to get him seven years and $126 million. "He's only 28," says Giants owner Peter Magowan, "and he doesn't miss a start. That stands for something."

As we should all celebrate the elections of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn to the Hall of Fame for their reliability, so Zito should have folks tipping their caps to him. Are there concerns? Of course. Seven years, $126M? Zito's hits per nine innings have increased from 6.2 to 8.6 since he was a rookie, and where his 2000-2002 ERA was 3.04, it was up to 4.05 the last three years.

But now Zito is out of the American League, and will be on a team that plays more than 100 games in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, all great pitchers' parks. Where from 1993 through 2003 the Giants had the third-best record in the game after the Yankees and Braves, they have had two straight losing seasons and had to reconstruct; Magowan knows that Zito will be the face of the franchise this winter -- and that face is familiar to everyone in the Bay Area.

Zito's work and personal relationships with other young pitchers in Oakland make the Giants believe that he will be immensely helpful to the new generation of San Francisco arms: Matt Cain, Noah Lowry and Jonathan Sanchez. "We believe," says Magowan, "that with Barry, we can compete in the National League West. He makes that much of a difference."

The Giants also need Barry Bonds, reportedly on a very tough workout regimen, to be as healthy as he appears. While the government tries to nail Bonds on perjury charges, the feeling throughout baseball is that lawyers will tie up the 2003 test results in court long enough that Bonds or anyone else would not be indicted before the season, and once the season opens that no indictment would keep someone from playing out the season.

Is Zito worth $126M to the Giants? Who knows. Every time a Daisuke Matsuzaka, Gil Meche, Vicente Padilla or anyone else signs, we hear the gnashing of teeth.

The easy thing is to criticize someone else's decision. Ten years ago, Barry Zito wasn't worth $300,000.

This is from Peter Gammons. Say what you want about this contract but given the money that has been dished out the last 2 offseasons....Zito's money is well worth it.

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