MESA, Ariz. (AP) — Barry Zito did a lot of things during his year off from the major leagues in 2014.
He worked out in Houston, got in some good surfing near his home in San Diego, spent a lot of quality family time with his wife and newborn son and even threw pitches into a portable net that he carried around to various public parks.
One day, the left-hander who won the 2002 AL Cy Young Award with the Oakland Athletics saw a Little League team practicing at a park in Southern California. He went over to shake the coach’s hand, but got a dose of attitude from one of the 10-year-old players.
The kid knew Zito had pitched for the San Francisco Giants. Maybe that had something to do with it.
“He must have been a Dodger fan or something,” Zito said. “I was like, ‘I thought I got away from this.’”
It certainly wasn’t enough to deter him from his goal of returning to the majors.
Now, with his body strong and his mind clear, the 36-year-old is back with his original team, invited to Oakland’s camp as a non-roster player. Zito signed a minor league contract and will get $1 million if he is on the Opening Day roster.
Zito threw a bullpen session for the first time on Saturday under the watch of manager Bob Melvin and general manager Billy Beane, and all were pleased with the results.
“It was a good first step for him,” Melvin said. “I thought he threw the ball well. He was very focused. All of his pitches looked good.”
The velocity might dip a bit with age, but there are ways to make up for it.
“That’s where experience comes in,” Melvin said. “He understands the opponent and can read swings.”
Zito, with a career record of 165-143, said he has been watching tapes of the early days, “and get back to the things that made me who I was. The lower body is more efficient and it seems like I have more life on the ball. ... I feel great. Now I have a fresh perspective and the passion is back.”
Melvin has penciled Zito in for one start early in the Cactus League season and possibly more. The manager indicated that some relief work might be possible, but Zito is not approaching it with that mindset.
“I’ve conditioned my body, my mind, my arm to be a starter,” Zito said. “I have an arsenal to get through a lineup three or four times.”
Zito worked with non-roster catcher Luke Carlin on Saturday. Zito threw fastballs, changeups and curveballs, but has put the cut fastball on the shelf for now.
The delivery appeared to be smooth and easy. Zito would occasionally stop and reach over to a plastic bottle of water lying on the ground.
“The ball had a lot of life,” Carlin said. “He did a good job of commanding his pitches. As the bullpen progressed, it appeared noticeably better to me. We talked a little bit before he threw, letting me know where he wanted me to set up, and it worked out fine.”
Zito doesn’t concern himself much with what other pitchers are doing in their attempts to land a spot in the rotation.
“It’s me against myself,” he said. “I want to be as good as I can be every time out there. The rest will take care of itself.”
NOTES: Melvin said he also was impressed with the bullpen sessions of RHPs Chris Bassitt, Tyler Clippard and Ryan Cook on Saturday, but was quick to caution, “You get impressions but don’t really start evaluating until they get into the games.” ... The A’s hosted “A Day at the Diamond” at their new HoHoKam Stadium home and 20-year-old rookie infielder Renato Nunez put on a power show for the fans, hitting a couple of shots over the large new scoreboard in left field and hit the board with a few more. “When I was that age, I was hiding in the bullpen,” Melvin said. ... Position players continue to arrive in preparation for the first full-squad workout on Tuesday. Among the new faces was first baseman Ike Davis, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates.