With the baseball world looking on in cockeyed disbelief, Barry Zito outdueled Justin Verlander on Wednesday night to give the San Francisco Giants an 8-3 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the 2012 World Series.
Sorry, did I say outdueled?
I meant whupped, pummeled, crushed, bludgeoned.
When Zito—who pitched 5.2 innings of one-run ball—lashed an RBI single off Verlander in the fourth, the bizarro world transformation was complete.
Up was down. Black was white. And the American League's reigning MVP was getting clowned on national television by a 34-year-old soft-tosser muttering strange somethings under his breath between pitches.
Baseball, crazy game.
Few know the sport's whims better than Zito, a man subjected to more turns of fortune over his 13-year big league career than just about anyone who has ever scaled that lonely hill in the middle of the diamond and tried to reason with it.
He's been a stud, a savior, a bust, a burden, a punchline and, this October, a savior once more.
A frequent target of ridicule for his perennial failure to justify the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in December 2006, Zito has, in five days' time, blossomed into one of the most unlikely postseason cult heroes in recent memory.
The tectonic roars rumbling through AT&T Park on Wednesday night said it all:
Barry Zito is a freaking rock star.
Now, that doesn't mean he's a good pitcher.
Over the next few days a chorus of well-read, well-meaning people will try to convince you otherwise. They'll say that Zito has changed. They'll say he's discovered his cutter or learned how to work hitters away or mastered the zen of pitching.
They're all wrong.
Zito is still a replacement-level left-handed pitcher, just as all the data collected over the last six years of his career indicates.
His 1.69 postseason ERA? A statistical anomaly.
Same goes for San Francisco's 14-game winning streak in games started by Zito, a run that includes three outings where Zito failed to pitch past the fourth inning.
It's all good fun and great copy, but it isn't worthy of an explanation beyond, "Stuff happens."
Far more interesting, and telling, is the way Giants fans have embraced Zito over the past weeks. It's not the usual flurry of look-what-he's-done-for-us-lately hero worship, because, as noted earlier, Zito hasn't been all that great.
In fact, the now famous #RallyZito hashtag first surfaced after Zito's worst postseason start, an outing that saw him last just 2.1 innings.
No, Zito's redemption is more a referendum on just how bad he's been. It took a long time and a lot of failure to get here, but the baseball world no longer expects anything from Zito—which is why we can finally love him again.
In the early years of Zito's contract, when it first appeared that his career was on the wane, Giants fans prayed for resurrection. When it became clear that Zito would never rediscover the form that made him a Cy Young winner in Oakland, those humble pleas turned to spite.
Then, as so often happens with the passage of time, folks just kind of...forgot. Inured to Zito's failures and tired of rehashing past mistakes, Giants fans seemed content to let the grudge die.
Of course, it helped that San Francisco was developing a remarkable stable of young talent that would allow GM Brian Sabean to maneuver around Zito's albatross contract and eventually result in the franchise's first championship since leaving New York.
And when the Giants finally won it all, the stage was set for Zito's final act.
Absolved of his sins by virtue of team success, Zito was back where he started: an idiosyncratic underdog with Hollywood looks, Big Sur sensibilities and the wandering mind of a North Beach scribe.
In that sense, Zito always had the essential qualities of a cult hero. He was successful, but not by conventional methods. He was likable, but never in a way that felt put on. He was nutty as all pitchers should be, and yet somehow tapped into a different wavelength of eccentricity.
Until that damn contract ruined it all—a $126 million firewall between Zito and the free-spirit love song that had once defined him.
But Zito has paid for his hubris, been cleansed by the triumphs of his peers and, at long last, earned readmission to the fickle inner sanctum of public favor.
In the year 2012, every Zito strike is a gift, every out a joy, every win a revelation. San Francisco can finally love Zito the way it always wanted to, the way a city and a pitcher that seemed so perfect for each other always should have.
A generation from now, Barry Zito will still be the subject of bad jokes and cautionary tales.
But not this October. This October the postseason baseball gods, as only they can, have granted Zito temporary immunity from his past.
And all of us, even those with 100-mile-per-hour fastballs and trophy cases sagging with flattery, can only help but watch.
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