Can Zito Turn Back the Clock?
The atmosphere in spring training causes unreasonable optimism, and I do not exclude myself from that. Some of the sappiest columns I ever wrote came when I was bemused by conditions in the spring.
The weather is almost always very pleasant, warm at a time when most of the country is cold. The games don’t count and regulars seldom play past the fifth inning. Just like an All-Star game.
Managers are always optimistic when they talk to writers. Players who have been injured are healthy again – hello, Angel Pagan – and every starting pitcher is a potential 20-game winner. Managers are more realistic than they let on. I talked one time to Dusty Baker about the way he evaluated players in the spring and it was vastly different than what he talked about with the media. Dusty was very cooperative with the media, but he wasn’t totally honest in the spring.
And, of course, the games don’t count.
There was a time in history when they did. In 1954, the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians were the only major league teams training in Arizona, so they played each other all the time, including on the way north to their home cities. As it happened, the Indians and Giants met in the World Series that fall. The Indians were big favorites but the Giants applied the lessons they’d learned in the spring and swept the Series in four games.
Now, there are several teams in Arizona, so teams don’t play each other with that kind of frequency. They’re a time for managers (and general managers) to assess what they have in camp.
One year I remember vividly, 1986 with the Giants. Will Clark had spent less than 100 games in the minors but one look at him in the batting cage, with that sweet swing, and it was obvious he was up to stay. He’d also had the benefit of playing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
There was a surprise to come, though. Al Rosen was the Giants general manager and he was trying to trade for the second baseman they needed, without success. Miday through spring training, manager Roger Craig told him the team already had the second baseman it needed, Robby Thompson, who had been unheralded but really developed that spring, going on to be a vital part of championship teams.
Meanwhile, Jose Canseco was in the A’s camp and he was already astounding people with his physique – which he emphasized away from the field by wearing T-shirts a size too small – and his incredible power. Nobody had any doubt that he’d be a star.
Off the field, though, he was still shy. I know that’s hard to believe now. Obviously, he got over it.
I had been assigned to do a magazine story on Canseco but he was very elusive. I finally cornered him when he’d been taken out of a game in Mesa early and returned to the A’s home stadium in Phoenix to change into his street clothes. When I came into the dressing room, he said, “Well, you’ve got me. What do you want?”
Canseco’s growth in high school had been fueled by steroid use, which enabled him to work out much longer, and that wasn’t a secret. There was at least one newspaper story about it before the ’88 playoffs. When the A’s played in Boston, Red Sox fans chanted “Steroids, steroids” when Jose stepped up to the plate. He stepped out, smiled and flexed his muscles.
In spring training in 1986, I envisioned both Clark and Canseco having Hall of Fame careers. That didn’t happen. Clark’s career tailed off because he did no offseason condition, preferring to hunt and fish near his home in the New Orleans area. Canseco went power-crazy and ignored every other aspect of his game, so he became a joke.
So, returning to my previous theme, can Zito regain his 2003 success?
Zito is a very good person, having often contributed to good causes. He certainly didn’t demand that the Giants go crazy and overpay him enormously with that 2007 contract. But, no matter how much he talks of going back to his 2003 style, he can’t turn the clock back. His spring training story will be just another that gets forgotten during the regular season.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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