Huston Street hit the nail on the head Tuesday in Minnesota.
Not long after closing out Barry Zito’s monumental victory over fellow Cy Young winner Johan Santana in the din of the Homerdome, Street, asked about Zito’s performance, displayed the same kind of economy with his words that Zito had displayed with his pitches in giving the A’s the home-field hammer in their American League Division Series against the Twins.
“That’s why we want to keep him here in Oakland,” Street said, “and why we probably can’t afford him.”
Correct on both counts.
The A’s, not unlike 29 other teams in baseball, would love to have a young (28) durable (never been on the DL, never missed a start in seven years), marketable (actor, musician, surfer, philosopher), accomplished (2002 AL Cy Young, three-time All-Star, 102 wins, .618 career winning percentage) lefty like Zito in their rotation for years to come.
But as far back as spring training, general manager Billy Beane started making it clear that his modest budget wouldn’t allow him to re-sign Zito when his contract expires at the end of the season.
Since then, Zito’s price has only gone up. And it went up again Tuesday. As center fielder Mark Kotsay caught the final out in Game 1, surely the cash register in the head of Zito’s new agent, Scott Boras, cha-chinged louder than anything the 55,000 fans at the Metrodome could come up with that day.
With Boras running the show, Zito, who will be the belle of the free-agent ball this winter, is expected to fetch a deal that will pay him between $15 million to $18 million a year for five or six years.
The A’s simply can’t commit that kind of coin to one player. So Zito’s seven-year run in the Bay Area — and knock it off with the fantasies, Giants fans; it’s not gonna happen — comes to an end whenever Oakland’s playoff run ends.
And Zito knows that, so he’s determined to make it a memorable finale, and that determination manifested itself in a classic Zito performance in the first stop of his unofficial farewell tour.
“As a baseball player, the ultimate compliment is for people to think of you as a gamer,” he said Tuesday, sitting in a folding chair in the right-field corner of the Metrodome. “That’s what I want more than anything, because gamers are the guys who show up when the stakes are the highest.”
The stakes were about as high as they’ve ever been for Zito on Tuesday, and he stopped Santana’s 23-start lossless streak at home cold. If that’s not enough to make the Bay Area see him as a gamer, nothing is.
Mychael Urban is the author of “Aces: The Last Season On The Mound With The Oakland A’s Big Three — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito” and a writer for MLB.com.