Anyone who thinks bringing Barry Zito to camp was a PR move by the A's has a fundamental lack of understanding as to the way the organization operates.
Billy Beane's next move based on sentimentality, fan interest, media manipulation or anything that might include the descriptor “feel good” will be his first.
That said, it's a hell of a PR move nonetheless.
Let's face it. If ever the A's fan base — which is unquestionably the most intensely loyal, forgiving and steeled against the cold realities of low-budget, business-is-business baseball in the game — were in need of a dream-a-little-dream distraction, it is now.
Now, as in the day pitchers and catchers report. Now, as in coming off an offseason in which more of their favorite-All-Star's-name-on-the-back jerseys were rendered relics than ever before. Now, as in going into a spring training so devoid of captivating story lines that ESPN is leaving them completely off its ballyhooed “Baseball Tonight” bus tour.
Zito's signing to a what-the-hell deal, which will cost the A's little more than meal money should a 36-year-old soft-tosser who's been out of the game for a year meet the prevailing expectation that he'll not be the precedent for such pitchers coming back and making a big-league splash, and a mere $1 million if he bucks the odds, is just that distraction.
There isn't a shred of downside to any of it. No matter how it plays out between now and Opening Day, it will, in fact, merit the descriptor “feel good” in some fashion.
Let's take a look at the feasible scenarios, in what most folks likely consider the descending order of probability:
– Zito makes a few appearances and pitches as he typically, historically, has pitched in Cactus League action, which is to say poorly.
– Zito pitches fairly well, planting himself in the hunt for one of the seemingly open spots in the back end of the starting rotation, but ultimately falls short of winning a spot on the big-league club because a few of the youngsters with whom he's competing are clearly better and ready for prime time.
– Zito kicks mother-loving ass, wins a rotation spot and gets the ball for the first day game of the year, April 9 at home against the Texas Rangers.
Now let's take a look at what each of those scenarios will likely mean, and exactly why they'll all feel good.
– Zito officially retires, closing full circle a career that few in professional sports can match in terms of highs and lows, love and hate, success and failure, right where his long and glorious run — almost exclusively (save those pesky first-round exits) filled with highs, love and success — in green and gold started. He will wax philosophical as only Zito can, and the last memory he leaves A's fans will be a gracious and grateful goodbye.
– Zito is encouraged by the fact that he competed well enough to merit consideration, convinced that more rust will come off with time and accepts the Triple-A assignment he's offered. A's fans, loving Zito as most do, are encouraged as well because they now have some legitimate insurance against injury waiting in Nashville should one of the young studs go down. And as a bonus, Zito will have been in camp long enough to have passed along to those young studs the wisdom and work ethic that surely helped prompt Beane to make the offer in the first place.
– Zito beats the Rangers — he's always owned them — and his return to the big leagues gives the A's at least ONE compelling story line as the season opens. Even those bastards from ESPN will have to acknowledge that. And A's fans can rock that No. 75 they bought back in 2001 for another year with pride and satisfaction. As a bonus, they can look toward the other side of San Francisco Bay, knowing damn well how chapped the hides of many Giants fans are, and say, “He just likes us better!”
That would feel best of all, of course, but here's why this move works no matter why Beane made it and regardless what happens: Zito is a good, decent, community-minded and interesting human being, not to mention an exemplary pro.
Sports needs more of guys like Barry Zito, not less. Good luck, my friend.
Mychael Urban has been covering Bay Area sports for 25 years and has worked for MLB.com, Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and KNBR (680 AM).