Freshly drafted by the Oakland Athletics, 21-year-old Barry Zito purchased his very first guitar.
Traveling on the minor league circuit, Zito toted around his Ovation Celebrity instrument, learning to play and fine tuning chords in various hotel rooms.
His guitar, which had a plastic curved back, would slip off Zito’s lap if he played it without a strap but it still “sounded incredible when plugged in.”
A career in music lingered in the back of Zito’s mind after he made that purchase. After a baseball career that spanned 15 seasons in the major leagues, the former A’s and San Francisco Giants pitcher is fulfilling his musical passion.
“I was like I’m going to be in buses and hotels, I need something to keep me sane,” Zito said by phone Friday morning. “Ever since I had that guitar, I said I’m definitely doing this full time after I’m done playing baseball. I didn’t know how or where or if it was writing or playing or singing, I just knew that this was definitely going to be the thing.”
On Wednesday, Zito, a country acoustic artist, will be opening for LeAnn Rimes’ You, Me and Christmas show at Laxson Auditorium on the Chico State campus. The show begins at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s solo acoustic and very intimate, so if I screw up there’s no hiding it,” Zito said with a laugh. “I get to sit up there with my guitar for 30 minutes which is my thing and it’s such an incredible experience.”
A week after retiring from baseball in 2015, the 2002 Cy Young award winner committed to a career in music. But, music wasn’t a fresh avenue for Zito, it had been part of his family.
Both his parents worked with Nat King Cole but when Zito was born, his mother retired from music to work as a pastor in a church and his father was a talent manager. The family moved to San Diego and there was no entertainment industry in San Diego at the time, Zito said.
“When I was growing up there wasn’t a whole lot happening other than my dad having his own home studio,” Zito said. “It was dad making songs and making recordings in the house. That was as much music as I was seeing on a daily basis.”
Growing up, Zito pursued baseball instead of music. He ended up being a first-round draft pick for the Oakland A’s in 1999. His repertoire included a menacing curve ball which became his specialty. His third year in the big leagues, Zito won the Cy Young award. Later in his career, he would sign as a free agent with the San Francisco Giants. His deal was for seven years and $126 million, but he didn’t find the same kind of success with the Giants.
“Baseball has influenced me in a major way mostly because in a lot of ways it shattered my ego,” Zito said. “I was so ego driven early in my career. That whole thing got pulverized through a lot of difficult times, not performing well and people being mad about it. I take all that pain and struggle and I feel like I’m better able to write songs and relate to painful and emotional experiences because of all that.”
In 2010 during the Giants World Series run, Zito was dealt the curveball. He was left off the 25-man active roster for the postseason. It was the hardest reality Zito had to deal with but he turned to music as a way to cope.
“2010, that entire experience of being left off the roster was so traumatic for me,” Zito said. ” I would drive around every day in San Francisco and listen to one of my favorite composers Ryuichi Sakamoto. I would literally drive around and listen to his solo piano recordings and they literally were calming my anxiety every day and my depression. It’s incredible what music can do.”
Zito was able to find success and redemption later in 2012 during another World Series run. In game five of the NLCS, Zito threw 7 2/3 shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals for his first postseason victory since 2006. After trailing 3-1, the Giants won in seven games and later captured the Word Series with a four-game sweep over the Detroit Tigers.
Zito’s final baseball destination was back in Oakland when he was signed to a minor league deal with the A’s. He’d end up with the A’s minor league team, the Nashville Sounds. After his stint in Nashville, Zito never returned home to California. His family relocated to Nashville which is where he calls home.
“We’re never leaving Nashville,” Zito said. “It was mind blowing how perfect it worked out.”
Since transitioning from the mound to the stage, Zito admits he still deals with nerves before a show. However, it’s nothing like playing baseball.
“When you’re on stage playing music you’re opening up your heart and trying to be as absolutely authentic and vulnerable to your audience as possible,” Zito said. “Where as in pitching… it doesn’t matter if people are watching or not. You’re up there… you’ve got this hitter that’s trying to essentially dethrone your career and get you sent down to the minor leagues, you’re going face to face fighting for your life every day.”
Despite his turbulent career in baseball, Zito is still grateful for all the experiences since it helped lead to a career in music. Zito said he’s blessed to be able to pursue a second career.
“I’ve got to be honest there’s a part of me — I would never change anything — there’s a part of me that’s just a little jealous of the people around me who I’m working with in Nashville because these guys have been doing it since they were 15,” Zito said. “I’m starting to learn production, engineering and certainly song writing, and I’m like oh my gosh I’m 40. I need to catch up.”