Barry Zito officially retired from baseball earlier this week after fifteen years in the major leagues, and in Giants-land the overwhelming sentiment has been "Thanks for the memories, and we're talkin' 2012." A fine Chris Haft article about Zito's Giants teammates' response to his epochal and pivotal NLCS Game Five shutout win over the Cardinals is currently the lead story on the Giants' website, and you all should read it if you haven't already.
Zito went 63-80 in seven seasons with the Giants after signing that ungodly big contract prior to 2007. He had gone 102-63 in seven years with Oakland just prior, without even one losing campaign, highlighted by that 23-5 Cy Young season in 2002. He was coming off a 16-10 year when he signed with the Giants; given that he'd still be in a pitchers' park in the same geographical area, there was no reason to believe another 102 wins weren't waiting for us over the next seven years. Instead, the first four went 11-13, 10-17, 10-13, and 9-14, that last so bad Barry was excused from the postseason roster, a fifth wheel on the pitching express, no more valuable than Todd Wellemeyer. After that came an injury-plagued 2011 in which he started only nine games, and with five years already gone on that seven-year contract, many of us wondered whether the club might just bite the bullet and cut him loose anyway, absorbing the final $36,000,000 as a sunken cost and cautionary tale.
Our first mention of Barry Zito in 2012 was in our annual spring preview, and the comment was brief: "Will Giants release him if he can't cut it?"
From our vantage point, Barry's season of redemption looked like this:
(September 10) "Well, it's been a long time comin'. Six years after signing that embarrassingly large contract, Barry Zito finally won a crucial stretch-drive game for the Giants with a dominant pitching performance against a quality team. His oft-derided fastball settling in at about 85 MPH, the lefty made judicious use of his changeup and big curveball to hit his spots and blank the Dodgers into the seventh inning. ... Zito's performance also has ignited some debate about the Giants' upcoming postseason starting rotation (assuming as always that the wheels stay on the ol' wagon). It was easy enough to dismiss him in 2010, but it won't be if he wins a few more games like this!
"What a pleasure it is to listen to Orel Hershiser and Terry Francona talking baseball and pitching during the ESPN games. Both had insightful comments regarding Zito and the razor-thin margin of command and control that separates his strong starts from his weak ones."
(September 12) "The Giants' best two starts over the past three weeks have both been by Barry Zito."
(September 16) "There's no way around it; right now the Giants' three most effective starters are Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Barry Zito, and the first postseason game is only three weeks away. Zito continued to make his case with six-plus innings of six-hit one-run ball, and the Giants have now won eight consecutive Barry Z starts."
(September 21) " For the second straight night the Giants pounded out 14 hits, including two more (with two RBI) from Marco Scutaro and Buster (.335) Posey's 23rd home run. The beneficiary of all this largesse was Barry Zito, who was gifted with a rare cheap win for his 13th. Heaven knows Barry's earned his share of those with some tough losses even in this, his best year as a Giant."
(October 10, prior to the do-or-die third game of the division series at Cincinnati) "It will be Barry Zito today at 4 PM EDT, finally making a postseason start after six years in San Francisco. As "Boch" has said, Barry Z earned this start with his outstanding effort down the stretch. The club has won his last eleven starts, and also has rewarded him with strong offensive support, which all too often has been lacking in his Giants career. There's nothing cheesy about his first winning season with the team, either: 15-8 with a 4.15 (league average 3.94)."
(October 20, after Game 5 of the NLCS) "Barry Zito pitched the game of his life last night, and should the Giants come back and win this series, Game Five will be remembered as the much-criticized lefthander's moment of personal redemption. Regardless of how the series turns out, Zito's eight innings of five-hit shutout ball stand as the zenith of his checkered San Francisco career. Facing his team's elimination, pitching in a park and against a lineup that has given him trouble throughout the years, Zito worked his way out of two early jams and got better as the game went on. By the time Bruce Bochy came out to relieve him with two out in the eighth, Zito had the Cardinals swinging and missing at everything he threw, and after 115 pitches the only opponent he couldn't defeat was simple fatigue...
(In the Giants' fourth) "That brought up Zito, not now, then, or ever known as a hitter. Barry can bunt, though, and he dropped a beauty up the third-base line. Sandoval came home on the safety squeeze as David Freese, caught flat-footed by the unexpected bunt, threw late and wide up the first-base line...
"Had anyone come up to us back in April and suggested the Giants' World Series hopes would depend upon Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, he'd have been sent on his way with an indulgent pat on the head and a couple of bucks toward the next bottle of "Mad Dog." Yet there it is. Barry Z's apotheosis has sent the NLCS back to San Francisco... The Giants have taken the first step toward doing to the Cardinals what they already did to the Reds, and regardless of what they say, the defending world champions know their best chance to put this thing away evaporated into the vapor last night, like a confused eighth-place hitter flailing helplessly at one of Barry Zito's big breaking curveballs."
(October 25, after Game One of the World Series) " Zito was sharp and economical in his 81-pitch six-inning effort; his best frames were the third, fourth, and fifth, during which the Giants scored five runs, chased Verlander, and established their dominance...
"The final insult came in the fourth. Verlander appeared to have escaped penalty for a leadoff walk to Brandon Belt by fanning Gregor Blanco and getting Brandon Crawford on a fielder's choice. The play advanced Belt to second, but Bruce Bochy let Zito, who was cruising with a four-run lead, bat for himself. The career .097 hitter had fanned helplessly in the third, but on a 2-2 fastball he cued a single through the hole into left as Belt scored for a 5-0 lead. Few would have blamed Leyland if at this point he'd requested a game stoppage to check under the turf for leprechauns."
You can say that absent that 2012 season, Barry's 48-72 Giants record is truly dreadful, and, frankly, it is. We will say that after 45 years of futility, seeing Our Team win three World Championships in five years is truly glorious, and that without Barry Zito, one of those championships would belong to some other team.
This is how we'll remember Barry Zito...
(September 30, 2013) "Barry Zito made his last appearance in orange and black yesterday, to the deafening cheers of the assembled multitude, many of whom probably booed his every breath just a few years ago. ... (H)e leaves with more than enough goodwill to outweigh the cynicism that greeted his arrival in 2007. His glorious redemption in the midst of last season's world-championship charge (it's not hyperbole to suggest that without Barry Z, the Giants would not have won), his consummate professionalism throughout this difficult tenure, his off-field work with veterans and military families, and most of all his quiet, personal blend of courage and modesty are what will be remembered by Giants fans.
"In a sea of self-serving, hyper-sensitive professional athletes, Barry Zito is and always has been that rarity, a true sportsman in the best sense of the word."