Interview: Barry Zito

Baseball Hall of Famer Al López once said, “Do what you love to do and give it your very best. Whether it’s business or baseball, or the theater, or any field. If you don’t love what you’re doing and you can’t give it your best, get out of it. Life is too short.” Award-wining All-Star baseball pitcher Barry Zito knows that better than just about anyone. After 15 seasons spent playing for the Oakland A’s and the San Fransisco Giants, and a World Series Championship under his belt, the budding songwriter was ready for a career change. “I got drafted by the Oakland A’s at 21, right out of college; I bought a guitar to keep me sane on the road. I always had the ear, but the technical skill I didn’t have,” Zito explains. “I don’t know how an athlete came out of an entire family of musicians, but it makes way more sense that I’m in music now.”

“My father was a master musician, a jazz pianist, arranger, and conductor for Nat King Cole. My mom was a classically-trained singer who had plans for the opera but ended up singing with Nat King Cole’s Merry Young Souls in the 50s and 60s,” he recalls. “There was so much music in our house.” After years spent on the field, Zito was presented an opportunity, which he firmly believes was nothing short of divine intervention. “Baseball was about really high highs and really low lows. Lots of people were watching, you get paid a good amount of money to do the job, but it’s a rollercoaster,” he reveals. “I was humbled on many fronts—my ego was out of control early on, and was tempered by adversity later in my career. I was living in Hollywood, and thought I was king of the world, making a lot of destructive decisions. I’m grateful for what I went through, because the humility I learned has only made my songwriting better.” So, in 2014, Zito, who had taken a year off from the game, came back to baseball, and the A’s conveyed their plan to send him to the minor leagues—to the Nashville Sounds. “The media thought I was going to back out and go sign somewhere else after 14 years of pitching in the big leagues. I had always wanted to go to Nashville, and was excited to get there, I was so curious about it,” he says. “It was so cathartic to come play for the Sounds, to be under the radar, and enjoy the game again like I did when I was a kid.” Counting down the days to retirement, Zito, who was spending 10 hours a day on the field, kept a stack of books on the art of songwriting in his locker, and would read anytime he had time in the clubhouse. “I was counting down the days until I could start my next career,” he recalls.

Robert Filhart from performance rights organization ASCAP, had read an article about Zito in The Tennessean in which he had where I’d mentioned his hopes to become a songwriter, and asked Zito to send him some songs he’d written, which opened another door. “I was able to get into rooms with other writers for the first time, several days a week,” he says. “When you’re on a baseball team, you work with 25 guys who could be some of the biggest jerks ever, but you’re still going to go out there and do your job on the field, because baseball performance doesn’t really rely on their character or morality. When you try to write with someone who is an egomaniac, nothing of substance is going to come from that. It’s interesting how interpersonal relationships effect the process in such a big way,” he continues. “It was really cool to know that the writers wanted to keep working with me, and now, I’ve built a circle of great friends to write with.”

These sessions have culminated in the recent release of Zito’s country-tinged debut EP, No Secrets. “My songs are very personal; the ones on the album tell my story, I reference my wife in some of the songs, and lessons I learned in my baseball career—that material possessions don’t hold the secret to life—my personal struggles from my San Fransisco days, they’re all my stories. I probably share too much,” he laughs. “I’m excited I get to show who I am.”

Purchase No Secrets

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