Barry Zito is in unchartered territory

Jun 21 2011 - 6:31pm

One month after his 33rd birthday, when he should be in his prime, youthful energy blending with maturity and know-how, Barry Zito finds himself in a tenuous and very challenging predicament.

He's trying to reinvent Barry Zito.

And this time he's serious.

As he wades through rehabilitation assignments in the minor leagues after a foot sprain, Zito seeks to ditch much of the identity he created through a decade of pitching in the majors in hopes of delivering to San Francisco a new and improved left-hander.

That's the heart of the message Zito offered Friday as he stood in front of his cubicle in the visitor's clubhouse at the O.co Coliseum, the site of his greatest success when he was a member of the A's.

"I've embraced (the concept) of taking a step back and working on some things while coming through the different levels," said Zito, who this month has made three minor league appearances, displaying solid command with moderate overall success.

He is painfully aware of his struggles as a San Francisco Giant. He's 40-58 through four-plus seasons (by contrast, he was 40-13 his first two full seasons in Oakland).

His time in San Jose and Fresno -- he'll make one more rehab start -- serves not only to regain health but also to provide space to rededicate himself in hopes of exorcising the demons that formed when he became a Giant in 2007 and have stalked him ever since.

Something has to change, and he knows it. Hoping to save a career that at one time was quite impressive, radical transformation might be his best chance to survive, much less thrive again, at the highest level.

"I become aware of too many things," Zito said. "And whether that's something I was born with or & for some reason I just focus on the wrong things, I'll be the first to say it. My awareness is probably heightened.

"But that's no excuse. It's not an alibi. For me, it's about focus, about executing my pitch and letting everything else fall second to that. In the past, it seemed there were too many instances when the pitch fell second to other things."

Understand, now Zito is an inveterate self-analyst, constantly engaged in intrapersonal dialogue. That he's a searcher, a restless spirit, has been both liability and asset.

For better and for worse, he has spent his career in the Bay Area as someone who confronts problems with his brain. And if that doesn't work, his response has been to throw more brain at it, perhaps from a different angle. And he'll just keep at it, from different angles.

At some point, this process simply scatters the brain into too many pieces to operate.

Now, though, the man who won the American League Cy Young Award in 2002 wants to dumb it down, to readily trust preparation and talent, and get comfortable being led by them.

"Things can't be so black and white, unfortunately, but that's along the general lines of what I'm trying to do," Zito said. "It's about going out and executing the pitch. Then execute the next pitch. And then execute the next pitch."

Zito, however, has offered this rhetoric before, vowed to "trust his stuff" and "stay in the moment."

And invariably, he has drifted back to tinkering, to those maddening lapses in concentration, as if each was a form of addiction.

Maybe this time will be different. Maybe Zito is different.

He has withstood four years of withering critiques on sports-talk radio and by local columnists, including me, and he has been clobbered by Giants fans frustrated by the poor return on the team's $126 million investment.

"I've been through some things these last few years," he said. "I refuse to get down on the world, the media. You could put up walls, man. It would be easy to do. Someone writes something about and you (say you'll) never talk to them again. Whatever.

"But (criticism) is the nature of the beast, man. If I'm doing something and people don't agree with it, I've learned to just take it as part of the process."

Zito surely is running out of experiments, and there isn't much he hasn't tried, save pitching right-handed.

But there is something else to consider. Zito is in uncharted territory, his first and only trip away from his big-league clubhouse since he arrived in 2000. He has been out of the San Francisco rotation for two months. He has had plenty of time to catch his breath.

When he returns, probably later this month, he will be different. He'll have to work his way back into the rotation.

Only then can he begin writing not just a new chapter but the preface of an entirely different book.

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