I first saw Barry Zito, San Francisco Giant pitching star, during the summer of 2000.
Zito, then a Sacramento Rivercat, was going through his unique pre-game stretching yoga exercises in a secluded corner of Raley Field. A handful of young women spotted Zito. They raced out to left field, hung over the wall and cried out at Zito, "Barry! Barry! Up here, Barry!"
Zito smiled at them. But he stayed on task, getting ready to pitch in another minor league game that would take him one step closer to his inevitable arrival in the American League where he would immediately become a stand out in the Oakland A's pitching rotation.
That was eight summers and $126 million ago, when Zito's life was much simpler.
In 2000, everything pointed straight up for Zito, a first round draft choice from the University of Southern California. Rivercat fans knew to appreciate Zito while we could. Scouting reports predicted that his curve ball would soon devastate big league sluggers.
So it did. By October, Zito, a long way from Sacramento, won game four of the championship series for the A's in New York against the Yankees. And in 2002, Zito reached his apex when his 23 wins helped him capture the Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher.
By that time, I had adopted Zito as one of my favorite players - and not just because he fooled the hated Yankees when they fished for his breaking ball.
I admire Zito because he was then - and remains now - a thoroughly likeable player in a (steroid) era when the game has too few of them.
As a Zito fan, I'm troubled when I hear the criticism directed at him. To be sure, Zito's results since signing what was then the largest contract in baseball's history have been disappointing. This year Zito is winless in his first five starts.
And the booing unsettles me too. Late last year, I traveled to Pac Bell Park to watch Zito pitch against and lose to the hapless Pittsburgh Pirates. When Zito walked the first three batters in inning one, the raspberries started.
Zito, fortunately for him, has human qualities that will help him weather the current storm - his substandard performance versus his $18 million annual salary - that engulfs him.
To Zito, others come first.
Space limits me to the number of Zito's charitable acts that I can list. But among them are Zito's "Strike Outs for the Troops" to comfort wounded U.S. soldiers during their hospitalizations at Walter Reed and other military hospitals. Since 2005 the organization, which Zito funds, has raised more than $1 million.
Zito further reaches out to recovering troops by asking them to join him on the field as the Giants travel throughout the U.S.
Less publicized but equally important is Zito's work for the UC San Francisco's Children Hospital, his time donated to UNICEF and Mont Blanc on their joint "Power to Write" campaign to fight global illiteracy, his participation in St. Louis Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation and his support of breast and prostrate cancer research.
For all this and more, in 2006 the Sporting News voted Zito baseball's number one "Good Guy."
Refreshingly Zito, unlike so many superstars, doesn't take himself seriously. He loves skateboarding, surfing, playing his guitar and once dyed his hair blue. Twice, Zito danced in the Oakland Ballet's "Nutcracker" benefit.
When asked why he bids on eBay for his own autographed baseball cards Zito answered: "Because I know they're authentic!"
Zito is more troubled by his poor pitching that any fan or teammate. But he takes criticism in stride. Baseball fans, as Zito knows, can be merciless even toward the greatest players in the game.
In 1986, before the tax evasion and gambling scandal, Cincinnati Red fans brutally hooted one of their most beloved players, Pete Rose, when his average slipped all the way down to .219.
Luckily for Zito, we're only in April. The baseball season has five months to go.
In the meantime, fans should remember that Zito is not just a pitcher, he's a person - and one who has done a world of good for people he's never met.
Joe Guzzardi will soon turn his attention to the Lodi GrapeSox, whose season begins June 6. Send him mail at email@example.com.