Baseball, Barry, Been Good To Me
By: Noah Frank
When you’re just 28 years of age, as I am, it may seem naïve to suggest that any part of your life has come full circle. And yet, as spring has abandoned us for another scorching summer in Downtown Fresno, that is exactly the position I find myself in this week in regards to my professional life working in baseball.
My first baseball job came in 2001, when I served as the website intern for OaklandAthletics.com in the final season that it operated independently, prior to the league-wide acquisition of team sites by MLB.com. A week prior to being hired for the internship, I was just a recent high school graduate, sitting at Francsesco’s Italian restaurant on Hegenberger Road, a popular family-style joint just across Highway 880 from the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum. I was attending an Oakland A’s booster lunch, which featured a local media member (exactly whom, I have forgotten by now) and an up-and-coming A’s player, a young left-handed pitcher by the name of Barry Zito.
A then-23 year-old Zito charmed the crowd with his upbeat, friendly personality, fielding softball questions from the crowd of a couple hundred fans, most retired season ticket holders. As he answered queries about his hair, his favorite color and the guitar, my mother— a then-A’s fan, who had raised me as such before deserting the Green and Gold last summer for her childhood rooting interests across the Bay— nudged me to ask a question of my own, a real one, that a ballplayer might appreciate.
The summer before, I had attended Northwestern University’s National High School Institute Journalism Program in the northern Chicago suburb of Evanston. I spent five weeks focusing on sports journalism, and even wrote my major trend story about the league-wide increase in power numbers and how they might be related to smaller ballparks, more tightly-wound baseballs, or even (gulp) “supplements” of some sort. Sports Illustrated would publish nearly the identical story the final week of my program.
On one Saturday— July 22, 2000, to be exact— a friend of mine, also in the sports group of the program, grabbed me on my way out the door of my dorm room. This kid had grown up in Tucson, attending many Sidewinders games, the Diamondbacks affiliate, which has since moved to Reno and become the Aces. He had watched a young Athletics farmhand dazzle and baffle hitters with a knee-buckling curveball, and had been predicting great things for him as soon as the Oakland brass would pull him up to the East Bay. July 22nd was that day.
“The A’s just called up Zito, he’s starting today,” he said. “You’ve gotta watch this kid pitch.”
Based on his description of Zito’s successes in the “Coast League”, I agreed. I ditched my plans for wherever it was I was headed and sat down in front of a computer to watch one of the most primitive versions of ESPN’s Gameday to follow the progress. The A’s were playing the Angels that day in Oakland, and jumped out to an early 7-1 advantage. Zito was moving along well into the fifth inning, when he hit a spot of trouble. Facing Anaheim’s 9-1-2 to begin the frame, he sandwiched walks to Adam Kennedy and Benji Gil around a Darin Erstad single to load the bases with nobody out and the 3-4-5— Mo Vaughan, Tim Salmon and Garrett Anderson— coming up. All he did from there was strike out the side, finishing his five innings of work in style for his first Major League win.
That takes me back to Francesco’s, one year later, debating what to ask Mr. Zito. I decided to go for it, and described in detail exactly how that fifth inning of his Major League debut had gone down. I asked him what was running through his head, how he approached the situation, how it felt when it was all said and done. Most of the crowd was caught off-guard, but Zito just sat there and smiled, then gave an honest, thorough answer to the question. I came up afterward and we had a nice discussion about UC Santa Barbara, where he had attended for a year and where I was off to begin school at in the fall, and other non-baseball topics. We wished each other well, and went our separate ways.
A week later, I was hired by the A’s.
The first time I was assigned to collect post-game audio from the home clubhouse, I was instructed by one of my two bosses not to talk to the players while I was down there. Naturally, as soon as I stepped inside the door a spiky-haired Zito came strolling out from the showers and saw me.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” he asked, smiling. “Get over here.”
One quick glance at my dumbfounded boss and I was off, chatting it up with Zito, as I would from time to time throughout the season. He was friendly with me during that summer and once even invited me out for drinks with “Eric” and “Jason”. For those unfamiliar with the 2001 Oakland squad, that would be Eric Chavez and Jason Giambi. The thought alone was thrilling for a young A’s fan, but impracticle for an 18 year-old that looked more like a high school freshman at the time. I thanked him for the offer, but settled for the gesture, one that made a young, aspiring baseball executive feel at home.
Fast-forward 10 years, and here we are. While I’ve seen Zito in passing the past two Spring Trainings in Scottsdale, I’ve never really had a reason to speak with him, as he’s never been a Grizzly. But now, suddenly, here he is in Fresno as part of his Major League rehab as he fights his way off the Disabled List for the first time in his career. It was my duty to organize and monitor his press conference, and on Thursday I will have the chance to watch him start in person for the first time since he left the A’s following the 2006 season.
But there is another piece to this reunion story. My former boss in Oakland, the first of my baseball career, was none other than current Comcast SportsNet Bay Area personality Mychael Urban. Back then, he was the OaklandAthletics.com beat writer assigned to the A’s. As it turns out, Urban will be making the trek south to the Central Valley for Zito’s start, meaning I will fill out the press pass that will allow him in the park and sit next to him in the press box.
So in the end, I guess I could say my baseball life has come full circle this week in Fresno. After all, I might be more naïve to think that my past ever will intersect with my future more completely than it will on June 16th.