By Guest Contributor Kyle McLorg
Many people consider Alex Smith’s career apex to be the final 12 seconds of the divisional playoff, however it’s my belief that the Sunday that followed held an experience more special. In an expected change of pace, the 49ers introduced their offense, rather than their highly touted defense, in the pregame ceremonies. It’s not that this hadn’t been done before, but typically the final player introduced is a fan favorite — in the 49ers’ case, Frank Gore.
The NFC Championship brought something new, something that hadn’t been done in many years. The last player introduced was Smith. He was greeted by a roar so deafening that the PA announcer was drowned out completely. 49ers fans had finally taken to standing behind Smith.
The lone goat
Somewhere, Barry Zito may have hung his head and groaned. Despite being Giants fans’ most hated free agent signing, Zito could always lean on Smith to at least share the title of “goat” in San Francisco. But after the 2011 season that the Smith enjoyed he found a way to shed the title of “bust.” Zito now stands all alone, but time has not run out for him yet.
We all know the stories: In the red corner we have Smith – the first overall pick whose play ranged from mediocre to awful for the better part of a decade. In the orange corner: Zito, for whom the Giants sold off a small island (or their supposed ability to sign a high-profile free agent bat, anyway) to afford. In return, we’ve watch him crumble game in and game out for the entirety of his contract.
At the worst of times these two men were not much different. They both showed up in San Francisco with large price tags and even larger expectations. They both fell apart pretty much immediately. They both displayed flashes of brilliance from time to time, but overall they produced respective bodies of work that equated to failure.
Handle with care
Their most striking similarity, however, is their emotional fragility. Smith, in his darkest moments, seemed almost incapable of believing he could be a winner. His knack for folding under pressure was visible — but after comparing Alex’s season with Harbaugh to those that he experienced with the Mikes, we finally discovered why he lacked in self-belief. Smith needed a strong external backbone to excel, and Harbaugh played that role in Smith’s exoskeleton.
Zito’s meltdowns on the playing field are equally visible. However, contrary to Smith, Zito’s knack for self-degradation seems to come from within. Perhaps it is the pressure of a $126 million contract, maybe it’s a losing mentality spawned from recurring failure, perhaps it’s as simple as a lack of command and below average velocity. One thing is certain with Zito — it doesn’t stem from coaching. The Giants coaching staff has been all too understanding. Zito’s leash was at times probably too long for the good of the team. Dave Righetti, Brian Sabean and Bruce Bochy were loyal to Zito (and his contract) – at times to a fault.
The (forgiving) City by the Bay
It’s time for Barry Zito to unlearn that inherent failure. If Zito can take anything of value from Alex Smith’s redemptive tale, it’s that time has not run out for the lefty. San Francisco is a forgiving town; perhaps the most forgiving sports city in America. This is evidenced from the three game run Zito went on after returning from his injury last season. The sports radio calls were optimistic, but hopes for a turnaround were ultimately unfulfilled.
Zito’s contract ensures that he has plenty of time left to make good with fans. At $19 million in 2012 and $20 million for 2013 (along with either $18 million or a $7 million buyout in 2014), it would be hard to imagine Zito getting dealt or even finding a home in the bullpen. But forget 2013 — he will get meaningful starts this season. He will have to make the most of them.
Exactly how good Zito needs to be in order to be forgiven is a whole different can of worms. Many Giants fans may never allow Zito back into their hearts, no matter what kind of redemption he may end up discovering. But the Bay Area has a rather short memory when it comes to players that they had once branded a “goat.” Smith found a way to overcome the label. Now it’s Zito’s turn.