“Dream big, and dream always.” Those words, the words of his father, are what Barry William Zito remembers most clearly from his childhood. Born in Las Vegas on May 13, 1978, he was a late-in-life baby for Roberta and Joe, a show biz couple who met and married while working for Nat King Cole in the 1960s. Joe was Cole’s conductor and arranger, Roberta (a classically trained violinist and pianist) was a singer in the star’s backup group, the Merry Young Souls.
The Zito’s were in the making-ends-meet mode by the time Barry arrived. His first instrument was a Cookie Monster drum set, but his interests were already varied. Barry could read at three—the same year he received a red plastic bat that ignited his passion for baseball. Soon the family’s front hall was a makeshift baseball diamond. In second grade, Barry’s teacher asked her students to draw a picture of what they wanted to do when they grew up. The 7-year-old colored a baseball pitcher and scrawled the words “Make a million dollars” above it. He happily made the trek to the ball field every day to work on his game.
One thing Barry would never lack in his quest for that first million was a rooting section. Barry likes to say he had three “moms.” There was Roberta, of course, but also two much-older sisters, Sally (already nine when he was born) and Bonnie (13 years his senior). They spoiled him rotten, and encouraged any and all of his interests. But in the end it was Barry’s relationship with his father that led him to fully explore his athletic ability.
Though Joe knew nothing of baseball, he could see how serious (and good) his son was when it came to the sport. The solution for the elder Zito was to approach the game as he would any new subject. He read all he could about technique and history, and discussed these topics with his boy at length. Talking was a big part of the Zito family culture—acquiring and sharing knowledge was something of an obsession, in fact. Thus as Barry’s physical skills were developing, his mental approach to baseball was already in full bloom.
Baseball was like music. It was something you practiced and studied. Two hours, every day. Barry and his dad honed his skills while his friends had fun outside. He was like the kid in the cartoon taking violin lessons while watching his friends play baseball in his front yard. Only he was playing baseball, too—but on a far more serious level.
By his early teens, Barry was excelling as a pitcher. Joe, now 57, decided to give up his musical career and devote himself to his son. Roberta found a teaching job in San Diego, and the family moved to El Cajon. No one in the family enjoyed their new neighborhood, a washed-out area marked inhabited by tough, blue-collar families.
By this time both girls were out of the house—Bonnie was a fashion model and Sally was finding success in the music industry. Joe built a mound in the backyard and Barry began pitching simulated games. They would review each imaginary hitter, every situation, talk about what they were trying to accomplish at various stages in the count—the kind of things other hurlers don’t usually start thinking about until they’re a good 10 years older. Joe also videotaped each session, and he and Barry watched and discussed the tapes together.
Barry had other interests, of course. San Diego had a serious skateboarding culture in the early 1990s, and he became a part of it. He did the clothes and the hair and the ’tude. At the same time, he also fooled around with various musical instruments, although none all that seriously.
Nat King Cole, CD
When Barry’s body began to mature, his father decided it was time to hire a professional coach. For one hour a week, he worked with former Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones, who still lived in the San Diego area. Jones, a supreme tactician during his pitching days, had a unique coaching style. Whenever Barry did something wrong, he would cover the boy’s Nikes with a stream of tobacco juice.
The sessions cost $50, which came out of the family’s already-stretched food budget. Joe and Roberta figured it was a sound investment—they would not be able to afford college tuition for Barry, but he was on track for a baseball scholarship, so the money was well spent.
Under Jones’s tutelage, Barry starred for the Grossmont High School varsity and gained valuable experience pitching in top-tier summer league tournaments. In 1995, he switched to University High—a private school—and earned all-league honors with an 8-4 record, 2.92 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 85 innings. Despite those numbers, he garnered little interest from the top west coast colleges. Barry’s pitching style scared them off. Although he had a devilish curve and an advanced understanding of his craft, he threw across his body, thus cutting the velocity on his fastball, which topped out in the low 80s.
Barry got three scholarship offers—from Wake Forest, UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Northridge. He was also drafted by the Seattle Mariners, albeit it in the 59th round. M’s scout, Craig Weissmann, believed Barry could be a special pitcher, but cringed at his mechanics. He worked with Barry on the backyard mound for a few weeks and straightened out his delivery. Suddenly, the ball was popping into Joe’s glove at over 90 mph.
Weismann called the Mariners and told them with great excitement that they had uncovered a gem—a potential front-line starter for a famously pitching-starved organization. On his word, Seattle tendered Barry a $90,000 bonus offer, which is unheard of for such a low pick. The lefty turned down the offer as a flabbergasted Weismann listened to the reason: He thought he should be a first-round pick.
That summer, Barry began working with Rick Peterson. A pitching coach in the Toronto organization, Peterson had a reputation for thinking outside the box. Joe Zito called him out of the blue and convinced him to meet with Barry. The two hit it off immediately. For Barry, it was like looking at himself 20 years later. He and Peterson talked about everything from the Zen of pitching to Yoga. Peterson told him that success on the mound came down to bridging the gap between potential and performance. This involved three things: solid fundamentals, physical conditioning, and mental discipline.