Veterans group highly personal to Zito

Veterans group highly personal to Zito

"Your shower shoes have fungus on them. You'll never make it to the bigs with fungus on your shower shoes. Think classy, you'll be classy. If you win 20 in The Show, you can let the fungus grow back and the press will think you're colorful. Until you win 20 in the show, however, it means you are a slob."
--Kevin Costner as Crash Davis, in "Bull Durham," 1988

SAN FRANCISCO -- It's merely a line from a movie, and Giants left-hander Barry Zito isn't big on fiction. But he loves the line nonetheless, in part because he's as qualified as anyone to vouch for the authenticity of Kevin Costner's iconic character's take on perception and reality in the Majors.

After making his big league debut with the A's in 2000, Zito spent the better part of seven seasons on top of the world. He beat Roger Clemens in a playoff game at Yankee Stadium as a rookie. He helped Oakland reach the postseason five times (2000-2003, 2006). He won 23 games and the American League Cy Young Award in 2003.

Off the field, he was thoughtful. Quirky. Accessible. A little strange, even. He was winning, though, so the eccentricities were fodder for a fawning media.

He was portrayed as a yoga-practicing, wave-riding, guitar-playing superstar. And when he founded Strikeouts For Troops, a non-profit, non-political organization dedicated to helping the families of wounded American soldiers recovering in U.S. military hospitals, he became a yoga-practicing, wave-riding, guitar-playing superstar who also was a patriot and humanitarian.

After signing a then-record $126 million contract with the Giants before the 2007 season, however, Zito struggled on the mound. Twenty wins? It took him nearly two full seasons in San Francisco to get there.

It didn't help that he spent his offseasons living the TMZ life in Hollywood Hills. To Giants fans, he might as well have been living at Dodger Stadium.

The deconstruction of Zito's colorful, endearing image was swift and predictable. Heck, ol' Crash saw it coming 20 years ago. As far as the public was concerned, his shower shoes weren't the half of it. Zito himself was fungus.

As far as the public was concerned, he was overpaid and under-performing. He was booed off the field at home, excoriated by the national and local press, mocked in blogs and on message boards.

You could practically hear Crash say it: Knock it off with the yoga and surfing and strumming and candles and stuffed animals and whatever else it is you freaks in Hollywood do. Just win some games, meat.

"I've been in the game long enough to know how it works," Zito says. "That quote from Crash is dead-on. If you're not getting it done on the field, nobody cares about what you do off the field, and that includes Strikeouts for Troops.

"It's a little bit sad, really, but it's the way our world works."

Only the cruelest of louts went after Strikeouts for Troops (SFT), but there were a few uninformed folks with a platform who suggested that Zito's patriotism was a carefully crafted public-relations ploy designed to take the focus off his flagging on-field performance.

Like any proud athlete, Zito was stung by some of the criticism. But his commitment to SFT only strengthened.

Zito's ever-expanding roster of big league contributors is nearly 70 strong, and more than $2 million has been raised since the program's inception, with 100 percent of the funds distributed; Zito covers the administrative costs associated with making sure the money goes where it's supposed to go.

The money comes primarily from the participating players, who donate per strikeout, home runs or RBI or make flat donations. Among them are CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and Nick Swisher of the Yankees, Manny Ramirez and Orlando Hudson of the Dodgers, Albert Pujols and Rick Ankiel of the Cardinals, Jake Peavy of the Padres, Dan Haren and Eric Byrnes of the D-backs, Eric Chavez of the A's, Jermaine Dye of the White Sox, and Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson and Matt Cain of the Giants.

"You get a chance to really help some people," says Sabathia. "[The soldiers] need a lot of help. When they come back and they're wounded and they're sitting in the hospital, they're trying to get their families to them and things like that. It's good to be able to help those guys."

Several of the players who help SFT do so despite having their own charities. Recently retired Curt Schilling, whose "Curt's Pitch for ALS" fights Lou Gehrig's Disease, is one of them because he knows that Zito isn't just a figurehead for his foundation but an active leader.

"Those are the fun ones to be involved in, because Barry has a direct influence, impact and control of the money," Schilling said. "And it's going to the families. It's a very neat charity."

Some of the SFT players have gotten to see the impact of their work firsthand; Zito often takes teammates to local hospitals with him.

This March, Zito continued his annual tradition of bringing to Spring Training a large group of wounded Marines who've been recovering at Balboa Naval Hospital in his hometown of San Diego. In addition to providing them with transportation, hotel rooms and tickets to games featuring the Giants, Angels and Dodgers, he hosted a dinner in their honor at Frasher's Steakhouse and Lounge in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The latter event, attended by many of Zito's Giants teammates and fellow SFT participants, struck an emotional chord with the honorees.

Rick Williams of the Marine Corps League of San Diego addressed the crowd at Frasher's and recalled one of Zito's several visits to Balboa.

"Twelve Marines just came back who had literally been blown apart,'" Williams said. "Barry went from room to room, talked to them and listened to them and looked them in the eye and said, 'You're going to be OK.' He spent 45 minutes with one kid who had lost an arm and a leg and was just devastated, [but] Barry somehow had him laughing.''

Zito asked the Marines to introduce themselves. Some were too moved by the moment. Some barely got the words out.

"This reminds us of why we did what we did," one said. "It shows all of the Marines that America really cares about them.'"

On the last day of the trip, more Americans -- baseball fans, not players -- provided another moving reminder at a Dodgers-White Sox game in Glendale, Ariz.

Zito had secured for the Marines a section of seats directly behind home plate, and when the Marine Corps Hymn was played during the fifth inning, the Marines stood at attention. The crowd followed suit with a standing ovation.

What happened next was detailed in a letter that Williams sent to Zito upon getting the troops back to San Diego.

When we all left the game in the seventh inning to get back to the airport, the injured Marines had to walk up, directly behind home plate, about 75 stairs to leave. Of course, it took a while because several had canes, and even more could not walk fast because the guys with the canes were at the head of the line.

As they filed up the stairs out of the stadium, in a single-file line, spontaneously the crowd again all stood up and gave the Marines [another] standing ovation until the very last one reached the top of the stairs. Had to take 3-4 minutes.

It was loud. It was crazy. The players on the field were even clapping. It was truly a proud moment for me. When the Marines got to the top of the stairs, several were crying. It was very, very emotional. Emotional for them, for me, for the crowd.

... To be taken out of the hospital, out of rehab and told "Thanks" by the very same people they are fighting for, it is truly overwhelming for them. To watch them hobble up those stairs, with 12,000 to 15,000 people cheering for them and then them having tears streaming down their cheeks, it made me very proud.

... [Barry], I want you to know that you made it possible for them to receive the recognition that they deserve. You should be very proud for what you are doing for our military and, especially, my fellow Marines.

That fungus doesn't look so bad anymore, now, does it?

"Baseball is my job," Zito says, "and as much as it hurts me when I'm not living up to the standards I have for myself as a professional, Strikeouts for Troops is personal. Baseball is a game, and I'm fortunate to be living my dream by playing it for a living. But would any of us be living any of our dreams if not for what our soldiers are doing and have done in the name of our country?

"No, obviously. And nobody should ever lose sight of that. Strikeouts for Troops isn't about me. It's about baseball showing appreciation for the men and women who put their lives on the line."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.