Barry Zito made 467 appearances in professional baseball from 1999-2013 -- just 37 of which were in the Minor Leagues. A three-time All-Star and 2002 Cy Young winner, the left-hander with one of the most identifiable deliveries and curveballs of his era stepped away at 36 years old before returning for one final season and rediscovering his love of the game, largely in the Minors, in 2015.
Zito's latest return to baseball comes in the form of a memoir released in September and aptly titled Curveball. In it, the ninth overall pick of the 1999 Draft describes his ups and downs on and off the field, his complicated relationship his family (particularly his father) and some life lessons he learned along the way. Zito recently spoke with MiLB.com about his early Minor League memories, his rapid rise to the Majors and more.
MiLB.com: What do you remember about your first days in the Minors, arriving at Class A Advanced Visalia after being drafted by the A's?
Barry Zito: Coming from college where it's kind of rah-rah, school spirit, team spirit into a pro environment where really every guy is fighting against the next to climb the levels of the Minor Leagues and eventually to the big leagues, those are extremely different dynamics. Not to mention in the pros you call the umpires by their first names. You call your coaches by their first names. But I didn't really know what to expect. When you're a bonus baby or a first-rounder, guys just want to kind of sniff you out and make sure you're not too full of yourself and you're actually just going to be a cool guy and fit in like another guy on the team. That was kind of the thing. They accepted me, and I just tried to be a mellow guy.
MiLB.com: What was it like building relationships with teammates early on?
Zito: It was cool. I felt kind of like a fish out of water because for the first time, I was playing with guys who were from a different part of the country than me. I was a SoCal kid and went to school for the most part in Southern California. Now I'm playing with guys from Virginia, Alabama, the northeast ... so it was cool to get to know people from different walks of life, people who thought differently than I did, came from different backgrounds. I established some really good relationships, although I wasn't in any of those [Minor League] cities for too long because I had a pretty quick ascent my first half-season.
MiLB.com: You describe in the book how your mother got really sick during your first season. How difficult was that while trying to start your career?
Zito: My mother was sick for a couple years, and right as I was getting drafted in the first round from USC, my mom was in the hospital waiting for a liver. It was this crazy kind of opposite thing happening in my life. Unfortunately, I don't know if I truly felt everything that was happening because I had lived such an insulated, kind of baseball-focused life for most of my childhood as a result of my father reminding me to be hyper-focused on baseball. I didn't really feel the sadness, and I think it really all hit me finally when I went down there to see her -- they gave her 24 hours to live at one point -- and it kind of hit me like a ton of bricks that day. Luckily she pulled through and got a liver shortly after. It was kind of strange. When you have a loved one who's sick, sometimes we go into this denial thing where we actually don't feel it as much as we should.
MiLB.com: How different would starting your career have been if you had been sent across the country instead of starting close to home in the California League?
Zito: It would've been much different. My parents were definitely in striking distance, and my father had a huge role in my career. When things went kind of sideways here and there, he was able to talk to me like a lot of ballplayers' dads do. He was kind of my main coach and helped me out even to the point, maybe, too much -- he would fly up to Oakland sometimes and hang out for a few days and we'd kind of talk about things. But my career definitely took its trajectory because I was near my family and I had their support.
Barry Zito had 19 Triple-A starts before making his MLB debut in 2000. (Sacramento River Cats)
MiLB.com: What do you remember getting called up to the Texas League and then to Triple-A to finish your debut season?
Zito: It was quite unexpected. I was in A-ball and thought I was going to be in A-ball for at least my first half-season. Shoot, a lot of guys start in low-A, and organizations generally won't move guys up that quick, but the A's were just a different level. If you were pitching good, they were not going to hold back. They just kept pushing their guys until they stopped performing, and on the last day of the Double-A season, I got a call to go up to Triple-A to help them in the playoffs because all their guys had just gotten September call-ups to the big leagues. That was like, holy smokes. We ended up winning the Triple-A Championship that year, and it was a total whirlwind.
MiLB.com: Did you ever have a "welcome to pro ball" type of moment?
Zito: When I got called up to Double-A, that was really for me, like, OK. I had always heard that the biggest difference in the skill level was between A-ball and Double-A, and it was true. I went to the Texas League in Midland after playing six weeks in the Minors and, man, those guys were so good. I was playing against huge prospects I'd read about, and that was kind of when I had my wide-eyed moment.
MiLB.com: How did reaching Triple-A so quickly prepare you for the Majors?
Zito: I don't know if you can get prepared to get called up to the big leagues, but for me, I knew they wanted to give me a good few months at least in Triple-A (in 2000). I remember pitching pretty well in Spring Training in 2000, and Art Howe, the manager of the A's, told me 'Hey, we love how you're throwing, but you've just got to get more innings in Triple-A.' There's always a drawback to rushing a guy too much because you don't want to destroy a guy's confidence. You want to move him up at a level that stays with his momentum, but you don't want to kill his confidence. That's always a fine line to play.
Barry Zito made 24 appearances for Triple-A Nashville in 2015. (Bobby Stevens/MiLB.com)
MiLB.com: Except for some rehab starts in 2011, you didn't pitch in the Minors again until 2015 with Nashville. What was that like?
Zito: Going back to the Minors, and this came from a real spiritual transformation that I went through when I got left off the [postseason] roster in 2010 as a San Francisco Giant and watched my team win a World Series, something I wanted to do my whole career. I was really just failing under this huge contract I signed in San Francisco, so this transformation came where I stopped caring about being important. I stopped caring about what people thought about me. I tried to define myself more by 'What does God think about me?' and really just living my life not for my own glory. When I eventually went back and played in the Minor Leagues after 14, 15 years, that was something I would've been embarrassed to do when I was kind of a young kid who didn't really know anything, but I got to really soak up baseball for what it was, which was just such an enjoyable experience to be out there with the guys and pitching every five days. I was having a blast out there and was so glad I could really fall back in love with baseball before I walked away.
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MiLB.com: You helped open Raley Field in Sacramento in 2000 and did it again with First Tennessee Park in Nashville 15 years later. What do you remember about those experiences?
Zito: That was fun, man. Nashville obviously had a new ballpark and that's something they loved in 2015, and that place is thriving now. They've got a great group of front office people over there, so it was fun to kind of be the maiden voyage there. Back in the Sacramento days, I remember the field actually wasn't done when the season started, so we opened that season with a seven-week road trip, which was pretty intense, but it was just wonderful on both sides.
MiLB.com: When you were with Nashville in 2015, how did you see your role being an older guy with a Cy Young Award and two World Series rings on a Triple-A roster?
Zito: My role was just to mentor the guys, be a good older guy, a good veteran and teach the guys, if I could, any of my wisdom I'd accrued over the years. Generally you can't tell young upcoming athletes too much, but the least you could do is say something that they might remember later if they go through some adversity. They might remember a word or two you say, and it might help them steer clear of some bad times.
MiLB.com: What would you say is the biggest challenge for prospects these days?
Zito: It's way harder now. You've got way more people who know what's going on with social media, and they're more involved in your life. That is what it is, but you've got to have a certain mental outlook to block that out and realize that most of these people are never going to actually interface with you one-on-one. You can't let them influence what you're doing on a day-to-day basis because it's just not healthy. You can get lost in the world of trying to look impressive to your fans. And that's a whole celebrity thing, but as an athlete, you can get derailed pretty quick when you're just too worried about what people think. In my book, I wrote all about how screwed up I got in my head from worrying too much about the fans approving of me and trying to always be so important in their eyes, and I think that's where guys can really just go wrong. They stop just trying to be great on the field, and they start trying to be some big fancy thing off the field. That has some really dangerous consequences.