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Joe Guzzardi: Barry Zito is a great player — who should quit while he’s ahead

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Posted: Saturday, October 5, 2013 12:00 am

During the baseball season’s last week, three players got standing ovations from their fans: the New York Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, the Texas Rangers’ Nelson Cruz and the San Francisco Giants’ Barry Zito.

I can’t add to the volumes already written about Rivera, his skills, graciousness and inevitable Hall of Fame inclusion. But Cruz and Zito are interesting cases worth delving into.

During a do-or-die playoff game against Tampa Bay, more than 40,000 Rangers’ fans stood up and waved flags when Cruz took his first at bat. While it’s common for adoring fans to cheer their favorite players, Cruz was making his first appearance since serving out his 50-day suspension for performance enhancing drugs. And the curious thing about it was that if Cruz had played in some of those 50 games, the Rangers would have assuredly won the division and negated the need for the extra game.

Is sustained applause, I wondered as I watched, the appropriate response for a returning player whose selfish actions cost his teammates direct entry into the playoff? My question takes on more importance since the Rangers lost the game against Tampa Bay and were eliminated from further post-season play.

When it comes to PED abuse, I’m a hardliner. Since all the players know the consequences of using, one and done should be Major League Baseball’s policy.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Barry Zito got a wonderful send off especially considering his up and down performance with the Giants after signing in 2006 what was then baseball’s biggest contract, $126 million paid out over 7 years.

I confess that Zito is a personal favorite. Zito learned to pitch at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of Southern California. His first professional teams were the Visalia Oaks and, in 2000, the Sacramento River Cats. When I lived in Lodi, I was a Raley Field regular when Zito starred. By mid-season, the Oakland A’s promoted Zito to the big club where he eventually had multiple successes, including the Cy Young Award and three All Star Game appearances.

But after what became known as “The Contract,” Zito often struggled on the field. Off the field, however, he founded Strikeouts for Troops, a national nonprofit that’s designed to lift the spirits and morale of injured troops as well as offers support to military families. During his seven-year Giants tenure, Zito embraced Christianity in part to help him cope with his mother and father’s deaths.

In 2012, Zito’s career turned around at the best possible time. During the World Series against the Detroit Tigers, Zito won the opening game. Unfortunately, Zito couldn’t sustain his excellence in 2013. After a good start, he pitched poorly and was taken out of the rotation. But in one of baseball’s many redemption stories, Zito, pitching four days before the season ended, won the last game he started. Then, on the final Sunday, Zito struck out the last man he faced, ironically his former River Cats’ teammate Mark Kotsay. On that final day, Zito got three standing “Os” — when he walked out to the bull pen, when he came in and when he left the mound. Post-game, Zito was given the microphone to address his fans one more time.

Zito’s days with the Giants are certainly over. He’s pondering if he should continue as a free agent with another team. I advise against it. Zito has millions in the bank, won his last game, struck out his last batter and left the field to thundering applause. Mention Zito in the Bay Area and, unlike with cheater Cruz, people only have kind things to say about him. That’s a good place to call it quits.

Joe Guzzardi predicts that the Oakland A’s will win the World Series. Disbelievers can contact Joe at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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