OAKLAND -– A ticket to the Pacific Coast League can be a deflating experience for a player.
That destination didn’t sound half bad to one 36-year-old veteran inside the A’s clubhouse Saturday.
Barry Zito accepted a minor league assignment with the A’s and will report to the Triple-A Nashville Sounds and join their rotation. That news came after the A’s 2-1 exhibition loss to the Giants, when Zito entered the game to a standing ovation from the Coliseum crowd of 29,553 and responded with a 1-2-3 sixth inning of relief.
“I didn’t stay in shape for a year to come back here and go all in, and (then) go sit at home,” Zito said. “Why should I rush to go sit at home?”
The lefty, a non-roster invitee to camp after taking all of 2014 off, didn’t say how much interest – if any – he received from other clubs. Zito said he got most of his updates from his agent, Scott Boras, and that he tried to stay focused on his own spring performance. He posted a 4.79 ERA over seven appearances, but aside from one bad outing when he gave up three homers to the Angels, Zito generally was impressive.
Now he said he’s happy to wear the uniform of the Sounds, who will open a new stadium in Nashville this season and welcome the A’s as their new Triple-A affiliate.
“Good music town,” Zito said. “I’ll take the wife and kid and have some fun with it.”
The A’s always try to stockpile pitching depth at Triple-A, and they’ve called upon it often in recent years because of injuries or ineffectiveness in the big league rotation. Zito should provide some quality insurance along with right-hander Chris Bassitt.
Zito is aware of the potential opportunity, but more than anything, he said he’s not ready to stop playing competitive baseball. He said he’s talked to former teammates who missed the game after retirement and told him to swallow his pride if he still had the competitive fire.
He also draws inspiration from Rickey Henderson, who played independent ball well into his 40’s after playing his final major league game in 2003. Henderson serves as a spring training instructor for the A’s, and the two spent time chatting.
“Rickey was a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” Zito said. “He didn’t stop playing baseball just because a team didn’t want him. I think that’s really inspiring. So all of us non-first ballot Hall of Famers shouldn’t have more pride than Rickey.”
Zito also said he’s glad to be a sounding board for his younger Nashville teammates. Fellow lefty Drew Pomeranz, who threw five innings for the A’s on Saturday, said Zito has been very approachable.
“Mostly for me I talked about the changeup,” Pomeranz said of their conversations. “I’m working on the changeup and he’s got a great changeup. That’s what you’ve gotta do when you have veterans guys around. You gotta pick their brains.”
After watching Zito over the past seven weeks, A’s manager Bob Melvin came away impressed.
“I had never even met him before, and I’m a huge fan now,” Melvin said. “He works as hard as a rookie does. All he did was go out and perform.”
Saturday’s crowd was treated to two-thirds of the “Big Three” trio pitching at the Coliseum, with Tim Hudson starting for the Giants. Zito texted his former teammate after the game.
“I’m happy for him,” Hudson said. “I really hope this works out for him, and if he’s not putting on the Oakland uniform, that he’s putting on someone else’s in the big leagues.”
A’s equipment manager Steve Vucinich sent a text to Mark Mulder, the final one-third of the “Big Three” group and joked that he should have shown up Saturday to throw the ceremonial first pitch.
Said Zito: “I think Mulder was geographically challenged.”