SAN FRANCISCO – The first thing Barry Zito planned to do, after the expiration of his seven-year contract with the Giants, was to paddle out beyond Point Loma and ride a wave.
It happened sooner than he imagined.
What other way to describe what swelled and soared through Zito’s chest, what crashed against his senses, what washed over him in his farewell game at AT&T Park?
In an appearance that couldn’t have been designed with any more deft, Zito took the mound with two outs in the eighth inning. He faced Mark Kotsay, his former teammate with the A’s, who already had announced he would be playing in his final big league game.
Suddenly, to a sellout crowd, a pitcher with a 63-80 record as a Giant became an ace. And suddenly, a team 11 games under .500 became playoff-bound.
“That was surreal -- more adrenaline than the World Series,” Zito said. “It was a difficult thing to control myself in the bullpen. I was missing high all the time. The hardest thing to control in this game is emotion.”
Zito controlled it in 2010, when he faced the emasculating news that he, the team’s highest paid player, would be left off the playoff roster. He controlled it last October, when the team turned to him in a desperate hour and he won Game 5 of the NLCS to drag the St. Louis Cardinals back to the shores of McCovey Cove. He even controlled it in Game 1 of the World Series – an assignment that nobody who maligned or maimed him over the years could have ever envisioned.
Zito won that start, too. Along with so much else.
The Giants paid $126 million and received a 4.62 ERA. But if Sunday proved anything, it’s that Zito’s visage in franchise lore won’t be printed on clown currency. He will be remembered as a professional, through and through, and not as the punch line.
Then again, you knew that much on Wednesday, when the outcry over Zito’s odd exit against the Los Angeles Dodgers threatened to blow the hinges off Bruce Bochy’s office door.
The curtain call came, though. Bochy wasn’t going to deprive Zito of what he wanted, and what the fans seemed to want even more.
“If it didn’t work out where he would face Kotsay, I’d have gotten him in there,” Bochy said. “I wanted to get him the sendoff he deserved, and what the fans did is something I won’t ever forget.”
It was an emotional day that even included a surprise visit from Bryan Stow, the Giants fan who was beaten within an inch of his life in the Dodger Stadium parking lot in 2011. Stow is never expected to make a full recovery from the brain damage he sustained that day, but he appeared alert and genuinely moved by the standing ovation when he was shown on the video board. He waved a cap, gave a thumbs up, and appeared to say the words, “no way” and “thank you.”
“It was great seeing him,” Bochy said. “And he looked great, up on the board tipping his hat. What a story to have him here.”
Giants fans knew one more dramatic act would play out. At the first sign of Zito trotting to the bullpen mound, they were on their feet.
“When he came out, it was powerful,” Hunter Pence said. “It was one of the best moments of the year. He was like a different animal in that at-bat. It was awesome.”
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Was it weird to come in and face Kotsay?
“It was weird coming in for a lefty,” Zito said. “In 14 years, I’ve never done that, come in a game in the late innings. I told the boys, `You better watch out. I’m making a name for myself as a lefty specialist.’”
He controlled his emotions one more time. Cutter for a strike. One of his signature 12-to-6 curves, for a strike. Another that Kotsay tipped foul. And then a fastball, looking like 84 mph shot out of a cannon.
“You know, the 84 sneaky fastball,” said Zito, showing both rows. “I’ll never forget that. That was so special. “
Then came the wave: the walk off the mound, the wad of teammates who clogged the dugout steps, shoving him back onto the field, and the sustained surge of applause and appreciation.
“That was so special,” said Zito, of his teammates coming out of the dugout to support him. “This game is all about what your peers think of you. There will always be the view from outside of the lion’s den. But when your peers respect you in here, there’s nothing that’s more validating as a player.”
And the fans?
“You know, just being through everything here in San Francisco and having that way to go out as a Giant, it was, `wow.’” Zito said. “It was a lot to take in. It’ll probably be a few months and a gradual absorption process. Nobody can take that in. It was just too intense. It was very special.”
Maybe Zito will rock on a surfboard and the crash of applause will come back into his ear. He acted and spoke like a player trying to soak up his last moment as a major league player, but he insisted that’s not on his mind. He wants to keep pitching. He wants to start again. He knows if that opportunity comes, it will come somewhere else, though.
These seven seasons as a Giant have been enough, from the scrutiny to the loss of both his parents to the World Series he celebrated with polite applause to the World Series when he dashed headlong into the champagne bucket, knowing he was an indispensable part of it.
It wasn’t the end of his career, per se. But it felt like the end of a lifetime. Maybe that’s why this day meant so much to him, why he tripped over his words a bit when he addressed fans afterward.
“I don’t remember what I said,” Zito said. “I was terribly nervous. I didn’t want to screw that up. I think I did. I didn’t thank my teammates. I didn’t thank the front office. I don’t know. I’m not quite sure what I said.”
There will be time to reflect, time for more words.
For now, the white noise of the waves was enough.