Could you please send me your autograph? Because me and my dad think you are great. We used to think you were pretty crappy but we don't anymore. Keep doing great and please do not go back to being crappy. Thank you.
Every day brings lefthander Barry Zito a new batch of letters, more than 150 in a typical week. They come by e-mail to his website and by snail mail to the Giants' offices, and many of the writers make the same admission: They used to think he was permanently, irreversibly crappy. "I don't blame them," Zito says. "That's how fans are. The way I was pitching, I wasn't doing anything to convince them differently."
He didn't pay much attention to his correspondence back then, in his first three seasons with San Francisco, when he went 31--43 with a 4.57 ERA. He didn't need to read all the letters in his in-box to know that they were no friendlier than the hitters in the batter's box.
Now it's as if everyone who wrote Zito a nasty letter when he was struggling feels compelled to write again and own up to it. Zito is back to being the pitcher the Giants thought they were getting when they signed him to a seven-year, $126 million contract in December 2006. Through Saturday he was 5--1 with a 1.90 ERA, numbers more befitting the 2002 Cy Young Award winner with the A's, and he has regained the affection of the San Francisco faithful, who freely accept being charged with an E-Fan. Rarely have so many been so happy to admit being so wrong about a player's prospects.
There are nothing but cheers for Zito at AT&T Park these days. Callers to a Bay Area sports talk show recently spent about 20 minutes debating whether "Barry! Barry! Barry!" or "BARE-ree ZEE-to, clap-clap, clap-clap-clap!" is the more appropriately worshipful chant on days he pitches.
But the louder the roar of approval and the more positive and apologetic the fan mail, the more determined Zito is to avoid basking in it. "I blocked it all out when I was going badly," he says. "I can't start listening to those outside voices now just because things are better. I appreciate the fans, but I've learned that you can't live your life trying to make everyone else happy."
That's an understandable approach, but it's a shame, if only because there is such fascinating reading in Zito's mailbag. It's a mixture of adulation and advice, of questions and quirky theories. A recent batch included a letter from a woman who desperately wants to deliver Zito some tamales, and another from a female fan who wants to set Zito up on a date with her former daughter-in-law. (Hardly necessary. The 32-year-old bachelor may have experienced slumps, but not in that arena.)
Zito attributes his resurgence in part to changing his throwing regimen—more long toss has improved his arm strength, giving his fastball more late movement—and in part to using his slider more often. But many of his admirers dismiss such pedestrian explanations. They seem to think their advice made all the difference.
During the hard times Zito received every suggestion imaginable from fans: Let your hair grow. Go surfing. Wear your socks higher. Wear your socks lower. Burn a sage stick to rid the clubhouse of negative energy. Bathe your hands in white light (whatever that means). A few correspondents suggested drugs, and not the performance-enhancing kind. Dear Barry—I'm the guy who implored you to smoke the ganja. Well it must have worked, as your game has come around, giving us something to look forward to instead of dreading. Keep up the good work.
As for how to keep his new mojo, one admirer suggests a musical quest abroad. This offseason, you, your guitar, Asia. Just travel and play. It'll cleanse you and keep your pitching in tune.
Then there are the fans who claim they never hopped off his bandwagon. Hey Z—It was a rough coupla years, glad the tide has changed. I knew it would. Now everybody loves ya, not just your stalker. Kidding. I kid. I'm a kidder. (Somebody call security.)
Maybe Zito gets so much fan feedback, in good times and bad, because he's always presented himself as a free thinker who's open to alternative ideas. There is a certain powerlessness to being a fan, and making a suggestion to a favorite athlete, however unlikely he is to follow it, at least creates a possibility of affecting the outcome. So the fans keep writing because they have to, and Zito reads selectively because he has to. He fulfills autograph requests but doesn't often reply to the messages themselves.
Last week in the Giants' clubhouse Zito reached into his locker and pulled out his BlackBerry, on which he had saved a quote from author Richard Bach. "'Anybody who's ever mattered, anybody who's ever been happy, anybody who's ever given any gift to the world has been a divinely selfish soul, living for his own best interest, no exceptions,'" Zito read. "People might take that the wrong way, but I think it's completely true."
In other words, Justin, Barry Zito has no intention of being crappy again, and the best way for him to avoid it is to forget you mentioned it.
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It's as if every Giants fan who wrote Barry Zito a nasty letter when he was struggling seems compelled to write again and own up to it.