Former Major League Baseball all-star Barry Zito was a baseball standout at an early age as he developed his signature curveball from the time he was 7, with his father intensely pushing him to pursue his dream of becoming a World Series champion.
It didn’t take long for Zito’s dream of playing in the MLB to become a reality once he was drafted out of the University of Southern California in 1999. The following year at the age of 22, he made his Major League debut with the Oakland Athletics and had little reason to look back.
In just his third big league season in 2002, Zito won the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the American League. And by the end of his seventh season, Zito had become one of the game's better pitchers as a three-time all-star with hall-of-fame aspirations.
Although he gained the fame and fortune he dreamed of early into his career and even became part of a celebrity couple when he dated actress Alyssa Milano, Zito's career took a drastic turn toward rock bottom after he signed a contract of historical proportions with the San Francisco Giants.
Despite the early successes in his career, the struggles he experienced as a member of the Giants altered Zito's mental state to the point that it made him question the worldview he held since childhood. It was a worldview that enabled baseball to be turned into somewhat of an idol due to the fact that success in the game is what Zito used to measure his value as a human being.
“Being that there was no kind of steady rock outside of my own thoughts and my own willpower, life got pretty turbulent,” Zito recalled in an interview with The Christian Post. “I think the whole reason why I had such a hard time in baseball was because baseball was my god in a lot of ways.”
Last month, Zito released his memoir titled, Curveball: How I Discovered True Fulfillment After Chasing Fortune and Fame. The book goes into detail about how Zito came to faith in Christ during one of the lowest periods of his 15-season playing career
Living up to the contract
Growing up in Southern California with a mom who pastored a religious sciences church, Zito told CP that his upbringing led him to believe that his success on the diamond during his first seven seasons was something that he created through positive thinking and willpower.
Zito said he rarely expressed gratitude during his reign of success in Oakland because he felt that he was just following the career path he and his father established for himself. According to Zito, he believed that he was a superstar who was worthy of the success and fortune he attained.
But such a worldview shook Zito’s mental state in the latter part of his career as the southpaw desperately tried to live up to the hype of what was at the time the largest contract for a pitcher in MLB history — a seven-year, $126 million deal signed with the San Francisco Giants in 2006.
But no matter how much Zito anguished mentally, he never attained the same level of individual success as a Giant that he did as a member of the Athletics. To this day, many Giants fans considered his giant contract to be nothing but a bust.
Zito said his ego took the biggest hit in 2010 when he was left off the Giants' playoff roster despite his massive contract. He could only watch as a spectator as his teammates won the World Series that year without him.
"Sadly, a part of me was hoping they would lose because my ego was on death row," Zito said of his emotions during the 2010 World Series. "My ego was kind of shattering and I thought my ego would be glorified if they could lose without me and I could say, ‘Well, maybe they needed Zito.’"
In his book, Zito reveals that he began attending a 12-step program for people with the desire to develop functional and healthy relationships called Co-Dependents Anonymous after he was left off the playoff roster in 2010.
For Zito, he was codependent on the approval of Giants fans, many of which didn’t like the fact he wasn't living up to his mega-contract. Zito admitted that he had such a strong desire to be accepted and liked by everyone that he wanted so desperately to change Giants fans’ opinions of him as a player.
Putting enormous pressure on himself start after start, Zito said it came to the point where he “dreaded” every fifth day during the baseball season when it was his turn in the starting rotation to pitch.
“When I went home, I just knew that whatever I believed about the world literally cannot be true because I was completely miserable,” Zito said about his mindset following the 2010 World Series.
“I think in this rock bottom experience, it's the most incredible place of power because you're actually putting your ego aside and you're willing to listen to what else is out there. You got to get to your knees, you gotta drop to your knees to really listen.”
As part of any 12-step program, participants must come to a belief that they are “powerless” over their hangups and that there is a “power” that is greater than themselves. Such a higher power can vary depending on the religion or background of the person going through the program.
But for Zito, admitting to a power greater than himself was a foreign concept to him at the time.
“I never had lost my sanity up to that point. But I definitely needed something to restore this because the way I grew up was if I thought correctly, I could restore my own sanity. And so, in a lot of ways I was my own god,” Zito explained.
“And so the idea of a Christian God really made sense because the girl I was dating at the time had always been praying to a God that was like a loving father, almost like she was like praying to a friend. And I just thought that was the coolest thing because I used to pray to a force: this nonperson, just this thing out there that would give me back what I selfishly needed from it if I prayed the right way.”
Zito said that during the 2011 season with the Giants, he read a number of self-help books to try to get over his codependency issues. During the 2011 season, however, Zito injured his foot. That was the first time in Zito’s career that he spent time on the disabled list.
While injured, Zito recalled his girlfriend at the time asking him if he thought God was trying to send him a message.
Zito said that his girlfriend then gave him a Bible and encouraged him to read it instead of the self-help books he surrounded himself with.
“She said, ‘lock your books up, and just read this book,’” Zito recalled. “And she handed me a Bible.”
In his early 30s at the time, Zito said that was the first time in his life he had ever picked up a Bible. However, he didn’t even know where to begin.
Zito said he began attending team Bible studies that were held every Tuesdays before games.
“I would just go and listen and three or four months later, it all just made sense to me,” Zito said. “And then I just gave my life to Christ in August of 2011 because it really just added up completely to me.”
Zito said that among the Bible verses that impacted him the most were Proverbs 3:5 (lean not unto your own understanding) and Ephesians 2:8 (by grace you have been saved, not works).
“It took a while and I still struggle with it, but I really stopped caring about what people thought about me anymore,” Zito said. “I stopped defining myself by the opinions of the Giants fans. And that was monumental. I don't know how I ever could have done that without Christ.”
Despite being left off the playoff roster in 2010, Zito got a chance at redemption when he made the Giants’ playoff roster in 2012.
Zito got the start in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and pitched 7⅔ innings of shutout baseball en route to a victory against a dominant St. Louis Cardinals offense.
Days later in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series, Zito again got the start and outdueled Detroit Tigers Cy Young Award contender Justin Verlander by pitching 5⅔ innings of one-run baseball en route to another victory.
The Giants went on to win their second World Series in three seasons by sweeping the Tigers.
“These magical two games happened that literally redeemed the crappy contract,” Zito said. “Two games reversed it and now when I go back to San Francisco, they cheer for me, which is pretty mind-blowing.”
While Zito would have offered little to no gratitude for successes during the early stages of his career, he said that his success in the two playoff games in 2012 would not have been possible if it were not for his newfound faith and confidence that he is already validated in the eyes of Christ.
“I ended up going out in 2012 and pitching in these big games and helping the team win the World Series, but if I cared about my approval ratings or that my value as a baseball player was riding on those games, I would have suffered miserably as I did for years,” Zito contended.
“But finally, I actually only cared what God thinks about me and I just did my best. If I gave up 10 runs then so be it. But I just really wanted to do my best because I had a gift and I really wanted to honor that gift.”
To commemorate his faith in Christ, Zito said he got a tattoo of a golden calf on the inside of his bicep.
“The golden calf is the symbol of idolatry and the story in Exodus when Moses comes down from the mountain and everybody's worshiping the golden calf and they found another God because they didn't think God was real,” Zito explained.
“Baseball was my god for so long but I tend to put other things in God's place at times, whether it's my relationship with my wife or success in the music industry or something financial. The Holy Spirit always is there to remind me.”
Today, Zito attends Journey Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is pursuing his music career.