Former San Francisco Giants pitcher and Oakland A’s ace Barry Zito is returning to Fresno.
But not for a rehab start — and obviously not to the Fresno Grizzlies.
Instead, the three-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner is pitching for the A’s Triple-A team, the Nashville Sounds, while he looks to reboot his big league career after a year away from baseball.
And through a month-plus of the season, that means working his way back through the minors.
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Zito didn’t play baseball last season
“Coming back to the game feeling refreshed, I do believe I can still contribute,” Zito said Wednesday in a telephone interview with The Bee. “It’s been a humbling process. But I understood that I wasn’t going to have anything handed to me.”
Curiosity surrounds Zito’s comeback attempt and why he would put himself through the drudgery of minor league life when he’s already achieved fame and fortune as a 14-year veteran.
There are the early wake-up times to catch commercial flights to Triple-A cities, meaning long lines and airport security checks.
There also are games played before sparse crowds at times, and the tight quarters in crowded clubhouses — with some teammates a decade or more younger.
Zito’s other option was to continue doing what he did last year, enjoying life away from the game with his wife, former Miss Missouri Marie Seyer, and son Marsden, who was born last year.
Zito spent a lot of time traveling and surfing. But his mind always wandered to the burning question: remain retired or a try a comeback?
Zito, who turned 37 last week, is already well accomplished with a career 165-143 record and a 4.02 ERA in 430 games (419 as a starter).
He won the American League Cy Young with the A’s in 2002 and captured two World Series championships with the Giants in 2010 (though not on the postseason roster) and 2012.
Zito also has earned millions after signing with the Giants for what then was the largest contract for a pitcher in baseball history at $126 million in 2006.
Still, Zito said he realized during his break from baseball that he wasn’t ready to retire.
“I wasn’t having fun in 2013 and took a year off to clear my head,” Zito said. “I just feel refreshed. I want to keep playing.
“I don’t play baseball because of the money or because there are lots of people in the stands and fans saying my name. I just enjoy playing the game because it’s what I love.”
Zito, with help from agent Scott Boras, in the offseason rejoined the A’s — the team that drafted him in the first round in 1999. Working with a fastball that clocked only in the high 80s with the big league club, Zito finished spring training 1-0 with a 4.79 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 202/3 innings and a 0.97 WHIP.
The A’s went with younger options for their opening day roster and reassigned Zito to Nashville.
165-143 Zito’s career record and ERA
Back in a starting role after mostly working out of the bullpen during spring training, Zito is 1-3 with a 4.84 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 44 2/3 innings in Triple-A.
Not exactly numbers that warrant a call-up.
But Zito isn’t fretting. And he isn’t complaining about minor league life, though he admits it took him about a month to get used to the environment, particularly the travel.
The Sounds (15-24) make their first trip to California starting with a four-game series against the Grizzlies (22-17) at 7:05 p.m. Thursday at Chukchansi Park. Zito gets the ball in the opener against lefty Luis Cruz (0-2, 5.40) and a Fresno lineup featuring top Astros prospect Carlos Correa and sluggers Jon Singleton and Domingo Santana.
This will be Zito’s fourth game in Fresno after suiting up for the Grizzlies for three rehab starts in 2011.
Zito believes he’s coming closer to reaching his old form.
“I feel like it’s getting better with each start,” Zito said. “It’s all about personal growth for me at this point. I’ve had a lot of experiences put in front of me and have come to realize there are things that don’t really serve me, like feeling a sense of entitlement.
“You go through something like this, it keeps the ego in check. It’s humbling. For me, staying low key and working hard and being a regular guy and playing baseball, that’s what I enjoy.”
The PCL: Fresno vs. Nashville, 7:05 p.m. Thursday at Chukchansi Park