Many former MLB players spend their retirement years as “baseball lifers,” remaining around the game as coaches, scouts or front office personnel. Barry Zito, ever the individual, went in the opposite direction.
The 2002 American League Cy Young Award winner racked up 165 wins in a terrific career with the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, but those years in uniform weren’t the happiest of his life. Zito now spends his days working at a different craft: music.
Zito first picked up a guitar as a minor leaguer in 1999, playing and improving throughout his professional career, which wrapped up in 2015. Now he’s a full-time musician, and a successful one at that – his debut EP, “No Secrets,” was released in January and reached the top 40 of the Billboard country chart earlier this year.
“I think I’m just genuinely more in love now with what I do more than I ever have been,” Zito said on NPR’s Only A Game.
Those are surprising words from a player with so many career accolades. Selected by the Athletics with the ninth overall pick in the 1999 draft, Zito wasted no time advancing through the minor leagues and received down-ballot MVP support following the 2001 season, when he was just 23. He made three All-Star teams with Oakland, then hopped across the Bay Area to San Francisco, where he won two World Series rings. He finished his career having earned over $137 million in salary.
But for all his success, Zito never felt completely at ease with his teammates.
“You know, you kind of get boxed in, I think, as a professional athlete to a certain stereotype,” Zito said. “A lot of times, I think my whole career, I felt a little bit out of place in a locker room. And I would say things that were probably a little bit different or maybe making myself more vulnerable than most, and I got labeled as flaky or eccentric. If you don’t fall right into that stereotype now, you’re just kind of an outcast.”
Nowadays, Zito is much happier – it’s almost as if he was born to go into music. His mother worked as a singer, while his father was an arranger and conductor; they met while working for Nat King Cole.
But Zito’s father didn’t want him to go into the music industry, seeing it as an insurmountable mountain to climb. Instead, they focused on baseball, with the elder Zito devouring books on pitching technique and helping his son through the youth ranks.
“He knew how difficult it was to make it in the music world,” Zito said. “And his approach was always, you know, ‘You master three pitches, and baseball will send out these scouts to the ends of the earth to find you.’ Whereas, you could be the greatest musician ever, but if you don’t have the right people behind you, pushing you, and the right machinery, you may never go.”
Now, with the wealth of a 15-year big league career to fall back on, Zito is making up for lost time in a big way.
“I started co-writing here in Nashville, literally, the week that I retired,” he said. “And haven’t stopped since.”
Below, check out one of Zito’s best-known songs, “Secret to Life.”