SAN FRANCISCO — It’s merely a line from a movie, and Barry Zito isn’t big on fiction. He’s into “the now,” what’s real.
But as Bay Area baseball fans well know, he’s as qualified as anyone to vouch for the authenticity of Kevin Costner’s iconic character’s take on perception and reality as it relates to high-profile pitchers.
When Zito was on top of the world, helping the low-payroll Oakland A’s reach the playoffs five times in seven seasons (2000-2003, 2006) and winning the 2002 American League Cy Young award — with 23 wins — his eccentricities were fodder for a fawning media.
He was a yoga-practicing, wave-riding, guitar-playing, incense-burning megastar athlete. And when he founded Strikeouts For Troops, a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to helping the families of wounded U.S. soldiers recovering in military hospitals, he was lauded as a a yoga-practicing, wave-riding, guitar-playing, incense-burning megastar/patriot/humanitarian.
But after signing a then-record $126 million contract with the Giants before the 2007 season, Zito struggled on the mound. Twenty wins? It took him nearly two full seasons in San Francisco to get there, and the deconstruction of Zito’s colorful, endearing image was swift and predictable.
Heck, ol’ Crash saw it coming 20 years ago. As far as the public was concerned, his shower shoes weren’t the half of it. Zito himself was fungus.
As far as the public was concerned, he was overpaid and underperforming. He was excoriated.
You could practically hear Crash saying it: Knock it off with the yoga and surfing and strumming, hotshot. Win some games, meat.
I’ve been in the game long enough to know how it works, Zito told CSNBayArea.com. Crash was right. If you’re not getting it done on the field, nobody cares about what you do off the field, and that includes Strikeouts for Troops. It’s a little bit sad, but it’s the way our world works.
Only the cruelest of louts went after Strikeouts for Troops (SFT), but there were a few uninformed folks with a platform who suggested that Zito’s patriotism was a carefully crafted public-relations ploy designed to take the focus off his flagging on-field performance.
Like any proud athlete, Zito was stung by some of the criticism. But while the attention that SFT had received while he was very much still a colorful superstar waned, his commitment to the cause only strengthened. Zito’s every-expanding roster of fellow big leaguers contributing is nearly 70-strong, featuring stars such as CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher, Manny Ramirez, Orlando Hudson, Albert Pujols, Rick Ankiel, Dan Haren, Eric Chavez, Dallas Braden, and Giants teammates Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson and Matt Cain.
Several of the SFT players — as well as NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, Giants president Larry Baer, and Giants managing partner Bill Neukom — will be at Knuckles Sports Bar in the Hyatt at Fisherman’s Wharf on Wednesday night for the Strikeouts For Troops Holiday Celebrity Bash, the program’s biggest fundraiser of the year.
“This is the big one,” Zito said Tuesday. “We’re pretty excited about it. We’re going to have celebrity bartenders, a buffet dinner, cheerleaders selling raffle tickets, door prizes, the whole deal.”
Fans are invited to attend the event (6:30-9:30 p.m.), for which tickets ($85 per person) are available at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/90847.
The highlight of the evening? Zito suspects it might come when celebrity karaoke kicks in.
“I’m gonna have to get up there,” he said with a laugh. “My go-to in karaoke is Barry Manilow’s ‘Copacabana.’”
All proceeds will go directly to SFT, which has raised more than $2 million since the program’s inception, with 100 percent of the funds raised being distributed and Zito covering all of the administrative costs associated with ensuring such.
Wednesday’s bash is the “big one,” but Zito’s efforts are year-round. This March, he continued his annual tradition of bringing to Spring Training a large group of wounded Marines who’ve been recovering at Balboa Naval Hospital, in his hometown of San Diego. In addition to providing them with transportation, hotel room and tickets to games featuring the Giants, Angels and Dodgers, he hosted a dinner in their honor at Frasher’s Steakhouse and Lounge in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The latter event, attended by many of Zito’s Giants teammates and fellow SFT participants, struck an emotional chord with the honorees.
Rick Williams of the Marine Corps League of San Diego addressed the crowd at Frasher’s and recalled one of Zito’s several visits to Balboa.
Twelve Marines just came back who had literally been blown apart,’ Williams said. “Barry went from room to room, talked to them and listened to them and looked them in the eye and said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ He spent 45 minutes with one kid who had lost an arm and a leg and was just devastated, [but] Barry somehow had him laughing.”
Zito asked each of the Marines to stand and introduce himself. One by one they gave their names, some too emotional to say anything more.
“This reminds us of why we did what we did,” one Marine said in a cracked voice. “It shows all of the Marines that America really cares about them.”
On the last day of the trip, more Americans — baseball fans, not players — provided another moving reminder at a Dodgers-White Sox game in Glendale, Ariz.
Zito had secured for the Marines a section of seats directly behind home plate, and when the Marine Corps Hymn was played during the fifth inning, the Marines stood at attention. The crowd followed suit with a standing ovation.
What happened next was detailed in a letter that Williams sent to Zito upon getting the troops back to San Diego:
When we all left the game in the seventh inning to get back to the airport, the injured Marines had to walk up, directly behind home plate, about 75 stairs to leave. Of course, it took a while because several had canes, and even more could not walk fast because the guys with the canes were at the head of the line.
As they filed up the stairs out of the stadium, in a single-file line, spontaneously the crowd again all stood up and gave the Marines [another] standing ovation until the very last one reached the top of the stairs. Had to take 3-4 minutes.
It was loud. It was crazy. The players on the field were even clapping. It was truly a proud moment for me. When the Marines got to the top of the stairs, several were crying. It was very, very emotional. Emotional for them, for me, for the crowd.
… To be taken out of the hospital, out of rehab and told “Thanks” by the very same people they are fighting for, it is truly overwhelming for them. To watch them hobble up those stairs, with 12,000 to 15,000 people cheering for them and then them having tears streaming down their cheeks, it made me very proud.
… [Barry], I want you to know that you made it possible for them to receive the recognition that they deserve. You should be very proud for what you are doing for our military and, especially, my fellow Marines.
That fungus doesn’t look so bad anymore, now, does it?
“Baseball is my job,” Zito said, “and as much as it hurts me when I’m not living up to the standards I have for myself as a professional, Strikeouts for Troops is personal. Baseball is a game, and I’m fortunate to be living my dream by playing it for a living. But would any of us be living any of our dreams if not for what our soldiers are doing and have done in the name of our country?
“No, obviously. And nobody should ever lose sight of that. Strikeouts for Troops isn’t about me. It’s about baseball showing appreciation for the men and women who put their lives on the line.”