In simple terms, Barry Zito’s baseball story follows an arc much like a curveball — snapping out of his left hand and rising quickly to his profession’s highest achievement, then breaking and tumbling into what he himself has described as “a letdown.”1
Zito spent only a year in the minor leagues and won the American League’s Cy Young Award in just his second full season in the majors. By age 24 he had already won 47 games and was the linchpin of a rotation of young superstars. Despite this early success, the promise of those first few seasons began to elude him. Four years later he was a free agent, and though he signed what was then baseball’s largest-ever contract for pitcher, each season was a struggle. When the contract expired, he was out of baseball and on a quest to find himself.
But there’s much more to Zito’s story, from being born into a family of music professionals to being recognized for his abiding commitment to community and giving. During his playing days he was known for his personality nearly as much as his pitching. He prepared for starts in ways that set him apart from other players. He did yoga poses in the outfield before games. He meditated, played guitar, surfed, dyed his hair. One winter he played a toy soldier in the Oakland Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.
Though his baseball career did not live up to even his own expectations, in its waning days he married and found God. Now, post-career, Zito talks openly about his focus on more personal achievements, like acceptance and redemption, family, and music.
Barry William Zito was born May 13, 1978, in Las Vegas, to Joe and Roberta Zito. Joe Zito was an arranger for Nat King Cole and first met Roberta when she sang backup for Cole. Newborn Barry was the youngest of three children — sisters Bonnie and Sally were 13 and nine years older. The family moved to San Diego, where Zito began developing his velocity and control by throwing rocks at clothespins used to hang the family laundry.
When his son was in Little League, Joe Zito learned that former National League Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones offered private lessons at his home for $50 per session — though Joe had no idea who Jones was.2
Joe Zito had by then quit his job to become his son’s full-time coach and advisor. Without any background in baseball, Joe learned on the job. He videotaped Barry’s workouts with Jones and had Barry train every day. Barry attended El Cajon High School and transferred to University of San Diego High School for his senior year. A private Catholic college prep school, University High’s alumni also include pitcher Mark Prior, baseball executive Billy Eppler, and basketball player and coach Luke Walton.
Barry began his college career at University of California, Santa Barbara. Joe Zito decided that his son needed greater exposure to local scouts, so Barry transferred to Los Angeles Pierce College, a two-year school in Woodland Hills. Later, Barry won a baseball scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he was named Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year. It’s also where he appeared on the radar of major-league pitching coach Rick Peterson.
Peterson met Barry through another connection made by Joe Zito. Peterson, then the Toronto Blue Jays minor-league pitching coordinator, arranged to watch Barry pitch in a high school parking lot on a rainy day in Edison, New Jersey. Barry, who was playing in the Cape Cod League, impressed Peterson with his curve. They talked for two hours after the workout and Peterson later described the day as “magical.”3
Peterson was soon hired as pitching coach for the Oakland Athletics and the team made Zito the ninth overall pick in the 1999 June amateur draft.
After signing, the tall (6’ 2”) left-hander started his professional career with the Visalia Oaks (A, California League), and was soon promoted to the Midland RockHounds (AA, Texas League). He ended the year with the Vancouver Canadians (AAA, Pacific Coast League). His cumulative record that season was 6-1 with an ERA of 3.16 in 13 games.
He began the 2000 season with the Athletics’ new AAA affiliate in Sacramento, on a roster that included future Oakland teammates Eric Byrnes, Jeremy Giambi, AJ Hinch, Terrence Long, and Mark Mulder. Zito made 18 starts with the RiverCats, going 8-5 with an ERA of 3.19 in 101 2/3 innings.
Zito made his major-league debut against the Anaheim Angels on June 22, 2000, at the Network Associates Coliseum in Oakland. He was the winning pitcher in a 10-3 contest, throwing five innings while giving up two hits and only one earned run. Zito finished his rookie season with a 7-4 record and an ERA of 2.72 (ERA+ of 173) in 14 starts. He made one playoff start, defeating Roger Clemens and the New York Yankees, 11-1, in Game Four of the American League Division Series. Only a year and a half since his parking lot workout, Zito held a power-packed Yankee lineup to seven hits in 5⅔ innings, striking out five and giving up only one earned run — before 56,915 fans at Yankee Stadium.
He continued his upward progression the next season, finishing with a record of 17-8 and an ERA of 3.49 in a league leading 35 starts. The Athletics won 102 games, finishing second in the American League West, but lost the best-of-five ALDS in five games to the Yankees. Zito started Game Three and pitched an excellent game, allowing only one run and two hits in eight innings. One of the hits was Jorge Posada’s fifth-inning solo home run; it was the game’s only run.
In 2002, Zito reached his career peak. He won the league’s Cy Young Award in a close vote over Red Sox ace and future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez. Zito received 17 first-place votes to 11 for Martinez. His 23 wins led the league, and he had the AL’s third-lowest ERA at 2.75, (ERA+ 158) and a WAR of 7.2 (Baseball Reference). He held hitters to a batting average of .185 with runners in scoring position, the league’s lowest. Zito also won his only start of the 2002 postseason, a 6-3 decision over the Minnesota Twins.
At this point in his career, Zito was among the best pitchers in the game. Zito’s curve mystified hitters. In his book K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner captured the pitch in the words of former Athletics pitching instructor Gil Patterson: “When Barry Zito threw his curve, Patterson says, ‘If the catcher didn’t catch it, you felt like it would boomerang and come back to you.’ ”4
Zito was the ace of the Big Three, a trio of young “homegrown” pitchers drafted by the Athletics. He and teammates Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder played together from 2000 until 2004, when Hudson was traded to Atlanta and Mulder to St. Louis. The Big Three led the Athletics to four consecutive postseason appearances, including three division titles and one wild card.
In his four remaining years with Oakland (2003-2006), Zito’s record was 55-46; still above major league average in pitching value but not close to his prior excellence. Characteristically open about his struggles, Zito and two teammates spoke openly with Sports Illustrated reporter Michael Silver in a 2004 article:
“We’re all physical bodies, but basically everything we do is determined by what goes on in our heads,” Zito says. “The only person who ever stops me from achieving something is me.”
Says A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg, “He’s constantly bombarding himself with the mental part of the game. Everybody’s trying to get a mental edge, but he takes it to another level.” Oakland right-hander Tim Hudson worries that his friend is “too analytical when it comes to baseball. It’s a sport that’ll drive you crazy, and he puts too much thought into things that sometimes have no rhyme or reason.”5
Zito’s first stint with the Athletics came to a close in 2006 with two postseason starts: He threw a four-hitter to beat the Twins in the ALDS, 3-2, and gave up five runs in a 5-1 losing effort against the Detroit Tigers in first game of the ALCS.
A free agent, Zito signed a seven-year, $126 million contract with the San Francisco Giants — then the largest contract ever for a pitcher.
In his first spring training with his new team, he announced he had made a significant change to his pitching motion. In a dispatch from the San Francisco Chronicle, reporter Henry Schulman wrote: “While clearly a bit nervous about Zito’s windup going from “one extreme to another,” (pitching coach Dave) Righetti expressed support and a willingness to let Zito try a change that the left-hander believes will make him better.”6
Zito went 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA in his seven years with the Giants and was heavily criticized in the context of the lofty expectations that came with his contract. He finished the 2008 season losing a NL-high 17 games with a 5.15 ERA (ERA+ 85).
In 2010, though he started the year pitching very well, his performance declined down the stretch as the Giants fought to win the division. He was left off the postseason roster — a move that would devastate him emotionally, as he wrote in his 2019 memoir.
Two years later, he pitched the game of his Giants career — with the team facing elimination against the St. Louis Cardinals in National League Championship Series Game Five at Busch Stadium, Zito spun worked the first 7 2/3 innings, allowing six hits, striking out six, and walking only one batter as the Giants went on to shut out the Cardinals, 5-0. The Giants won the series in seven games. He started Game One of the World Series at home against the Detroit Tigers, defeating Justin Verlander and the Tigers 8-3, yielding six hits and one run over 5 2/3 innings. The Giants went on to sweep the Tigers in four games for their second World Series championship in three years.
In his last year with the Giants, Zito was recognized nationally for his charitable giving — which first came to prominence in 2005, when he founded Strikeouts for Troops, a national non-profit that helps wounded American troops and their families. Zito started the program after visiting a military hospital as a way to lift spirits and improve morale. His other humanitarian awards included:
- He was named the 48th Hutch Award winner, which goes to the player who “exemplifies the honor, courage and dedication” of former major-league player and manager Fred Hutchinson.
- He won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, presented annually by Phi Delta Theta to a major-league player who best exemplifies the giving character of Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, a member of the fraternity’s Columbia University chapter.
- The Giants nominated Zito for Major League Baseball’s Roberto Clemente Award, which goes to the player “who best represents the game of baseball through positive contributions on and off the field, including sportsmanship and community involvement.”
In an article for MLB.com, reporter Chris Haft wrote that although Zito seeks no recognition for his efforts, that hasn’t stopped others from lavishing praise upon the Giants left-hander for his dedication. Haft quoted Richard Williams, a San Diego attorney who coordinates a non-profit for insured Marines: “What Strikeouts for Troops does is help families lesson the financial burdens of the war … Barry is doing the Lord’s work. I don’t know how else to say it. He’s providing a service to real-life situations.”7
When the Giants declined their $18 million option on Zito after the 2013 season, he took a year off to travel, surf, and enjoy life away from baseball — to reset, as he described it.
He returned to the game in 2015 by signing a minor-league deal with the Athletics, who sent him to their AAA club in Nashville. He won eight games in 22 starts with the Sounds and was called up to the Athletics on September 16. Ten days later he started at home against the Giants and his old teammate Tim Hudson.
Zito pitched his last major-league game on September 30, 2015, against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — the same franchise he faced in his major-league debut 15 years earlier. He did not get a decision in a four-inning start, giving up four hits, striking out two and walking four. Weeks later he announced his retirement.
Zito finished his major-league career with a record of 165-143 in 433 games, including 421 starts. His ERA was 4.04 (ERA+ 105) in 2,576 2/3 innings pitched. He struck out 1,885 batters and had a WHIP of 1.337. He was a three-time All-Star (2002, 2003, 2006). His career WAR is 31.9 (Baseball Reference). Zito’s postseason record is stellar, with 10 starts in six years of post-season baseball — five with Oakland and one with San Francisco. He won six of nine decisions, compiling an ERA of 2.83 and a WHIP of 1.210 in 60 1/3 innings.
Zito’s autobiography, Curveball, was published in 2019 by Nashville-based Thomas Nelson, a subsidiary of HarperCollins.8 In the book, co-written with Robert Noland, Zito reveals his struggles with his own ego and a complicated relationship with his father, who passed away in 2013. Zito also confessed to rooting against the Giants in the 2010 postseason after being left off the playoff roster.9
In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, he described the Giants’ 2010 World Series title as “bittersweet” and offered this self-analysis:
“There’s nothing I wanted more than to lead the team that paid me all that money and to fulfill my obligation to the job I was paid to do, and I couldn’t do that. As a result, because I was reeling internally, part of me was hoping I was so needed on the team, that the team wouldn’t have as much success without me as with me. That was just me being so selfish and self-centered.”
Also in that interview, Zito also outlined a spiritual breakthrough he experienced in 2011, after baseball and personal turmoil had come to a head:
“I was reeling so hard at that point. I was sort of worthless in the baseball world, or so I thought. My father had had a stroke during the Atlanta series and was unconscious and in the ICU for two months. That was taken from me and I really had nothing left, so I started this humble path, this humility I never had. I realized I couldn’t rely on my own strength. I tried for years and I was coming apart at the seams … I came to Christ and realized there was something more than baseball. That’s my relationship with God.”10
A few months later, in an interview with San Francisco radio station 95.7 on September 18, 2020, Zito openly acknowledged that his career fell short of his own expectations:
“Being kind of a perfectionist, probably too much, it was a letdown. My career was a letdown, just to be totally honest. What I was prepared to do in the game and really on pace to do after my first seven seasons in Oakland and what I had expected of myself to do in San Francisco. I wanted to win 300 games. I wanted to pitch 20 years and do all these things … I just didn’t have the foundation that was prepared to hold the pressure, and to be sturdy under the pressure of pro sports and money and all of that. I thought I did but I didn’t really have any foundation really.”11
Zito’s post-baseball life is focused on family and music. He lives in Nashville with his wife Amber and the couple’s three young sons. He is a songwriter and musician with a professional studio in his home. He released an EP, No Secrets, in 2017, with songwriting credits on all six songs. In 2020, Zito was a contestant on The Masked Singer, a singing competition show airing on Fox, with his identity concealed in a head-to-toe rhinoceros costume.
In an interview with his new hometown newspaper, The Tennessean, Zito gave reporter Brad Schmitt the context for baseball’s role in his spiritual journey: “I had it all. It still didn’t fill the hole in my heart.”
Schmitt wrote of Zito, “He said he still struggles with bouncing between glorifying God and glorifying himself.” But, Zito added, “I do my best and painfully admit I can’t control stuff. I have a truth now that’s always tapping me on the shoulder.”12
Last revised: March 17, 2021
This biography was reviewed by Bill Nowlin and David H. Lippman and fact-checked by David Kritzler.
2 Lee Jenkins, “Conducting a Pitching Career,” New York Times, December 4, 2006.
4 Tyler Kepner. K: A History of Baseball in 10 Pitches (New York: Knopf- Doubleday Publishing Group, 2019).
5 Michael Silver, “Inside the Head of Barry Zito,” Sports Illustrated, June 21, 2004.
6 Henry Schulman, “Zito is aiming to improve with his new delivery,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 16, 2007.
7 Chris Haft, “Zito has impact on veterans year-round,” MLB.com, November 11, 2010.
8 Barry Zito and Robert Noland, Curveball: How I Discovered True Fulfillment After Chasing Fortune and Fame (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019).
9 Chris Bumbaca, “Barry Zito admits to rooting against San Francisco Giants in 2010 World Series,” USA Today, September 19, 2019. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/mlb/giants/2019/09/19/mlb-barry-zito-rooted-against-s-f-giants-2010-world-series/2373994001/
10 Henry Schulman, “10 Giants from 2010: Barry Zito’s rise from misery to a sweet life in music,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 2020. https://www.sfchronicle.com/giants/article/10-Giants-from-2010-Barry-Zito-s-rise-from-15296379.php
12 Brad Schmitt, “Bouncing between shame and fame: Baseball star Barry Zito gets real in his new book,” Tennessean, September 18, 2019. https://www.tennessean.com/story/sports/baseball/2019/09/18/baseball-star-barry-zito-autobiography-curveball-shares-story-finding-god-freedom-home-nashville/2293643001/