|The Giants have yet to get much return on their $126 million investment in lefthander Barry Zito. (FILE/ERIC RISBERG/Associated Press)|
SAN FRANCISCO - The boos began before Barry Zito even took the mound for the San Francisco Giants' home opener.
The idiosyncratic lefthander, brought in with a gaudy $126 million contract to be the face of the Giants in the post-Barry Bonds era, delivered an underwhelming first season in 2007, going just 11-13.
This year, the heckling has only grown louder.
Zito has lost all six of his starts and posted a 7.53 ERA. Earlier this week he was demoted to the bullpen, and today he will miss what would have been his seventh start - the first time in his career he's missed his turn to pitch.
Zito plays guitar, observes a personal dress code that's quirky, to say the least, and has practiced yoga. The latest turn in his career is a lot to meditate over.
"From my standpoint, this is a bump in the road, and it's a big bump," Zito said. "It's a battle. It's stuff that I've gone through, but there hasn't been the scrutiny around it because of the market or the contract. But I've gone through this."
His velocity is down significantly, his command has been off, and his trademark nasty curveball is fooling hitters less than ever.
It's a far cry from the dominant 23-game winner who won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award with Oakland and outdueled Johan Santana in the playoff opener in 2006, just two months before signing his contract with the Giants.
Today, Santana owns the only pitching contract richer than Zito's, at $137.5 million. He's 3-2 with the New York Mets - or three more wins than Zito has notched this year.
When the Giants open a weekend series at Philadelphia, Pat Misch will start in Zito's place. Zito will be available out of the bullpen tonight for the first time.
"We don't have a target date when he's going to go back into the rotation - I think sooner than later," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's had slow starts before, maybe not to this extreme. He'll come out of this, and I think he'll be stronger for it, too."
Before Zito signed his contract and crossed San Francisco Bay, his eccentric personality was well-established.
He's been known to pair garish, pulled-up striped socks with plaid shorts. He's taken special pillows, candles, and bath salts on the road to help soothe himself the day after a start.
In a single offseason while he was with Oakland, he managed to play guitar on late-night TV, appear on "The Howard Stern Show," and guest star on "Arli$$."
He's used to being known more for those personal quirks, and for winning.
So far, he has faced the setback with his typical positive mind-set and answered every question from reporters.
"I'm not going to get the attitude of sequestering myself from the team, you guys. I take everything in stride," Zito said. "I don't resist the microscope. It's a new challenge. There's a lot of growth and strength that comes out of these things."
In May 2006, the Giants did something similar when Matt Cain struggled, skipping his turn in the rotation once and using him in relief before he returned to his starting role.
But Cain was a rookie at the time, not a nine-year major leaguer who's headed for his 30th birthday May 13 - nor was Cain making anything close to Zito's $14.5 million salary for this year.
"Zito's a guy we're always going to look up to," Cain said. "He's a different kind of leader. He's a quiet guy. I think it will be good for him. He's having a rough time right now, but he's a competitor and this is not going to stop him. He's not going to quit. We want him to have the same success he had in Oakland."
The Giants will reevaluate Zito's situation Monday, but can go with a four-man rotation for now because of offdays.
"I can't say enough about how Barry's handling this," Bochy said. "It's not easy to make a move with a guy who's had the success he's had. Sometimes you've got to make a change. He totally understands what we're doing, and he's fine. He wants to do what's best for the club. He's a class guy, a professional."
Whether the Giants are regretting making a seven-year commitment for so much money to Zito isn't the focus within the franchise right now. It's to get Zito fixed, and as fast as possible.
"I'll give a better answer to that in four or five years," owner Peter Magowan said. "I'm obviously very disappointed. Barry is, too. Neither one of us signed up for this, frankly, and we both know that."