They play their whole lives to make the big money.
And then, for some of them, they play two or three or four more years trying to deal with it.
"Here's $120 million," Barry Zito said the other day. "Just be yourself."
|Barry Zito was 5-0 with a 1.49 ERA entering Tuesday after going 31-43 with a 4.56 ERA in his first three years in San Fran. (US Presswire)|
And he thinks that may be the biggest reason that he began this season 5-0, rather than 0-8.
It's not that his fastball has suddenly come back. According to fangraphs.com, Zito's average 2010 fastball has zoomed in at 85.8 mph, which is actually a touch slower than last year (although equal to what it was in his final year with the A's).
It's not that he has added a new pitch.
Is he a different pitcher in 2010? "No, not at all," Zito said.
And yet, after three seasons of being the poster boy for money misspent, Zito enters his seventh start of the year Tuesday night with a 5-0 record and a 1.49 ERA -- the fifth-best ERA of any starter in the majors. After three seasons where he held a winning record for exactly four days, he won his first game of the season and has won all but one start (a no-decision that he left tied 1-1 in the eighth inning) since.
He has a long way to go to make the $18.5 million he's being paid this year seem like money well spent, let alone make the Giants feel good about the $64.5 million they still owe him on a contract that runs through 2013 (with an option for 2014).
But in a season where some other highly paid onetime stars are beginning to make their huge contracts look a little less bad, Zito tops the list.
"I'll tell you, everybody in this clubhouse is ecstatic for him," said Aaron Rowand, who is making his own $60 million, five-year contract look a little less bad with a strong start to 2010. "To watch him walk off the mound to standing ovations, that's just great."
Yes, the standing ovation.
It's funny, because Zito mentioned it, too, but in a totally different context. It was April 24, when Zito pitched eight scoreless innings against the Cardinals, allowing just three hits while striking out 10.
"My friend was at the game, and afterwards we're hanging out," Zito said. "And she said, 'Barry, aren't you excited, the whole stadium was chanting your name?' I said, 'I'm just as happy hanging out with you right now.' We were singing karaoke.
"I said, 'That [standing ovation] is gone, I've already experienced it. I can't get any more out of it by talking about it.'"
Ask Zito if the success has lifted a burden for him, or relaxed him in some way, and he'll tell you that you have it backwards. He'll tell you that he had to learn to relax in order to have the success.
And he'll tell you that because of that, he can't depend on the success.
"If I was breaking the ties of being defined by bad performances, then I've broken the ties of being defined by good performances," he said. "I don't operate like a lot of guys. I'm not going, 'Yeah, I'm so confident because I'm 5-0.' I just want to enjoy that next game as an experience.
"I just enjoy the two hours I'm on the mound. I'm not excited that I'm 5-0. I'm excited that I'm enjoying baseball."
Talking with Zito is unlike talking with any other baseball player. And yet, what he experienced after signing the $126 million, seven-year contract with the Giants is what so many other players have experienced, too.
Gregg Jefferies signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Phillies in December 1994, back when that was considered a lot of money. Jefferies struggled in Philadelphia, and years later he talked about seeing the number "20" flash in front of his eyes every time he made an out.
They can tell you that you got the contract for what you are, and that you don't need to change. But as Zito said, "Here's $120 million. Just be yourself."
It's not that easy.
"You were yourself this whole time, and you earned this, so why change," Zito said. "That's an amazing theory -- if you're a robot. Some guys are, and they're not going to know what to do for the next 40 years. They're going to leave this game and be defined by their performance.
"I'm not a robot. I feel things. I'm sensitive to things. I went through things, and if I go back into the [dumps] again, well, then I do. But I'm very well-equipped now to deal with it."
He turns 32 on Thursday. He's not old. He has time for more ups and downs, time for more numbers.
And, perhaps, time to make that $126 million look like a good deal.