By Janie McCauley
SAN FRANCISCO — Barry Zito rushed from an appearance and autograph session with homeless children straight to the ballpark weight room. He was short on time and needed to fit in his second workout of the day.
The 30-year-old out of Pierce College and USC has committed himself to his fitness and offseason program like never before, eager to turn things around as he heads into his third season with the San Francisco Giants. The 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner, who received a $126 million, seven-year deal before the 2007 campaign, is a disappointing 21-30 in his two seasons with San Francisco.
“The workouts are awesome,” said Zito, who has been training all winter with fitness guru and fellow Giants pitcher Brian Wilson. “We’re working out six days a week, two-a-days.”
Wilson, the team’s closer who has been living with Zito in the Hollywood Hills, has witnessed his teammate take some major strides. When they started back on Nov. 1, Zito could do all of three pull-ups. Now he can do 16.
“You can see a good difference,” said Wilson, who adheres to the most intense workout regimen and strictest diet of anyone on the Giants. “As far as strength goes, I don’t think he’s done this kind of work before. The gains are tremendous.”
Zito thinks so, too. All of this from someone who once joked that you “can’t pull fat” to explain why his routine didn’t include weight training.
From band work to yoga, high-intensity karate and weight lifting, they have been doing it all. Their throwing program has consisted of playing catch across a canyon, a distance of more than 200 feet.
“We’ve had some expensive days losing balls,” Wilson said.
While Zito showed signs of his old self late last season, he would like nothing more than to return to the form that defined his seven-year stint across San Francisco Bay with the Oakland Athletics and his dominant time as part of the “Big Three” that also featured Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.
Zito’s 23-5 finish in 2002 seems long ago, but the Giants are pleased the left-hander with the nasty curveball is trying to redefine himself. He watched as Tim Lincecum won the NL Cy Young award this past year in just his first full major league campaign.
After beginning last year 0-8, Zito bounced back for a respectable finish and won four of his final six decisions for a 10-17 record. Still, his velocity dropped and he tinkered with what might be wrong. The Giants even skipped his turn at one point and talked of using him out of the bullpen as he tried to work things out.
Zito acknowledged that all of this took its toll. He knows he’s underachieved and not met his own expectations or those of the franchise and its fans.
Manager Bruce Bochy is looking forward to seeing Zito in camp when the club opens spring training Feb. 14 at Scottsdale Stadium in Arizona.
“I know Brian’s been doing his workout for a while and Barry wanted to do it this winter,” Bochy said. “I saw him up in San Francisco about three weeks ago and he was really excited about what they’ve been doing. He’s in the best shape he’s been in, not just his condition but how he feels. He’s a lot stronger. I think it can really help.
“After Barry got off to a rough start, he rebounded well and was much more consistent on the mound in the second half. He should feel good about going into the season. To be where he’s at physically, that should only add to the confidence he has.”
Zito became used to getting booed by his home crowd and it wasn’t fun. Former owner Peter Magowan even said publicly when he announced his retirement last May that the Zito signing so far had been a “failure.”
Zito’s deal was the richest ever for a pitcher at the time. Johan Santana topped it when the New York Mets gave him $137.5 million before the 2008 season, then the Yankees signed CC Sabathia to a $161 million,
seven-year contract in December.
“The Barry Zito signing, you have to say at this point, is clearly a failure,” Magowan said at the time. “That doesn’t mean that I believe at the end of the day, and the day is a long way off — a seven-year contract — we will say it was a failure.”
Zito has done his best to put all of the criticism and skepticism aside.
“I’m just ready to get after it,” he said. “I don’t care anymore. I stopped caring about everything this season. If I (stink), if I’m good, I don’t care. I’m just going to bust my (butt) and stop stressing.”
Things have been going so well with Wilson and Zito that they decided to allow themselves a “cheat” day each Sunday. That means gorging on pizza, chicken parmesan or dessert. One night, they ate themselves sick on about a 4,000-calorie meal.
“I’ve lost a lot of body fat. I’ve gotten a little skinnier but only lost a pound of weight,” Zito said. “I’ve added muscle, so it’s really paying off.”
Zito also dealt with the death of his mother, Roberta, during the offseason. She was 65. Having the daily workouts with Wilson seems to have helped in the healing process.
“I’m in a good place,” Zito said. “She’s all around me.”