I’ll admit it: Barry Zito’s curveball makes me feel things. It made me feel things when I was six and it still makes me feel things 13 years later. His awkward leg kick is endearing, and I’m certain that the big, looping arc of a pitch defies all properties of space and time.
In some ways, the hook feels much like his career — way too drawn out to be effective, and yet you turn away and look back and it’s still hanging there, suspended in the air, just floating along. A quick path up and a long path down toward home. It has felt like this for some time now, where every couple years his name would resurface and I would think to myself, “I can’t believe he’s still around.” And yet he still is. Just barely.
Now, Barry Zito crosses the plate.
Every child needs something to root for — for me, that just happened to be the Oakland Athletics of the early 2000s. That team was a mix of rising stars and fading castaways, the perfect combination to defy expectations, evoke the word “magic” and grab the attention of a young boy figuring out what he really cared about in the world.
I credit the 2002 team with really creating what would remain such a big part of my life, the love of a game that is so meaningless and yet seems to hold all the meaning in the world. The team featured an MVP shortstop, a breakout first baseman, a Gold Glove third baseman and a defensive wizard of a second baseman. But leading the way was the three-headed monster of a rotation: Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder.
Aside from the statistical achievements in a steroid-infested league, it was their poise, their grace, their dominance on the mound that awed me and so many others. The 2002 team made 6-year-old me feel like there was something that mattered, something I could be just a small part of as a fan. As I became aware of the world around me, this team — these players — gave me that something to root for.
It is admirable, if not a little painful, watching those who used to be major league players take a fall from grace and have to work their way back up through the minor leagues. What used to be so guaranteed for them now is as trivial as anything else in the world.
After hitting free agency in 2006 and signing a deal for boatloads of money with the San Francisco Giants, Barry Zito was never quite the same. He took the 2014 season off and signed a minor league contract with the A’s at the start of 2015.
Now 37, he finally made his return to the big league club on Sunday. He pitched in relief and gave up two runs in one inning of a losing effort. I didn’t care, and neither did a single A’s fan. This was his curtain call, and all we could do is cheer and think about the glory days.
It’s hard watching your heroes turn into humans. The ones who you used to see as invincible are now perfectly vulnerable, struggling and normal. It is a shift in the foundation of your childhood, the part of you realizing that some things do not last forever, especially the players you watched be in the driver’s seat 10 years ago.
Barry Zito remains. Tim Hudson does too, but for the other Bay Area team. They are both done after this year. The remaining pieces of that perfect puzzle of a team so long ago finally put to rest.
Of course, I knew this day was coming. A never-ending stream of players flows through the system, changing year after year, old faces bowing out and new ones striding in. That’s how it works. It is not designed to last.
But that doesn’t make it any easier. As I settle into my 19th year, this feels like a period on the chapter of my childhood, as if baseball is ushering in adulthood, telling me to grow up, let go, just let the pitch cross the plate.
And yet the memories remain, as they always will. I’ve turned away and looked back, and on that long, looping arc there hangs a childhood not forgotten; the heroes turned human; and a curveball, tumbling end over end into the soft leather of a glove.
Email Alex Bazeley at [email protected]