Occasionally, the line between sports and music blurs a bit, and it’s generally been a net positive for country and Americana music. Roy Acuff and Charley Pride turned to music as a career when injuries ended their pro baseball dreams. More recently, The Baseball Project, an all-star group of indie rockers and R.E.M alumni, has released three excellent albums of baseball-related songs. While the baseball world has occasionally thrown a wild pitch to the music world (the less said about Sean Casey singing “How Do You Like Me Now,” the better), the average is still fairly high.
The latest crossover into country music comes by way of Barry Zito, the Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants. While he used to be known for his dominating curveball, he’s gaining a reputation today for his singing and songwriting abilities. Zito recently released a six-song EP called No Secrets, and it charted on the Billboard Americana/Folk, Heatseekers and Top Country Albums chart on its release week.
While Zito is best known for his baseball career, he’s no rookie to the music world. Not only did he come from a musical family (his father and mother both worked with Nat King Cole, and his sister is a singer), but he’s played guitar in hotel rooms for years as a means of stress relief.
“I enjoyed my baseball career, but there were times I wanted to dedicate weeks or months to music and never could,” he says. “I’m so elated to be able to pursue music every day and create from nothing every day, to really have something that never existed before each writing session.
“The part about country music that I love is that it’s lyrically driven and story driven,” he adds. “I think it’s the last genre, at least commercially, to have a compelling story and lyric, so I’m so stoked that I get to write those stories.”
Zito had been writing songs before moving to Nashville, but it took some intervention from his wife, Amber, to kindle a love of country music.
“I remember the first time she played me one of her favorite songs,” he recalls. “It was “Stupid Boy” from Keith Urban. After we heard it, she said, ‘Can you believe that story? It was so interesting.’ Actually, I didn’t hear the words. Coming from a jazz/R&B background, I was more akin to the music and the rhythm. I had never really listened to lyrics in my whole life!”
After that, Amber filled his iPod with some of her favorite songs, including “Stupid Boy,” “Strawberry Wine” by Deana Carter and “Mississippi Girl” by Faith Hill. He was hooked from there.
Zito’s journey to Nashville was a bit more circuitous than most. He was of course aware of its music scene and even had a painting of the city skyline in his Los Angeles home. However, his baseball career took precedence, and he spent a total of 15 years playing baseball in Oakland and then San Francisco. He had never visited Nashville until 2015, when he ended up pitching for the Nashville Sounds – the AAA affiliate of the A’s – after taking a year off from baseball.
“I ended up in Music City, and I loved it so much after I started writing here that we sold our home in California, and we’re here to stay,” he says. “I now have that picture here in my studio here.”
During that year playing for the Sounds, Zito expressed his interest in songwriting in an interview in The Tennessean. Shortly after the article was published, he was contacted by ASCAP, submitted a few demos, and was told that they could help him set up co-writing sessions once he was ready to focus on songwriting full time.
The songs on No Secrets reflect his songwriting talent, as well as his appreciation for country music. The quiet, folky arrangements complement the thoughtful lyrics composed by Zito and a group of co-writers, including Rick Brantley, Trent Willmon and Jameson Rodgers. While none of the songs directly reference Zito’s past career, several of them are based on the ups and downs of his baseball career.
“My Own Path,” for instance, came from a rough period where Zito was struggling with the San Francisco Giants. He consulted a sports psychologist named Michael Gervais to help him.
“I was going through a lot mentally, and I felt like the whole city of San Francisco was mad and up in arms. They’d given me this large contract, and I was really underperforming in a major way,” Zito recalls.
In the correspondence between the two, Gervais told him to keep carving his own path.
“He said, ‘This path may not be pretty, but it’s yours and yours alone. Nobody else has this path. You have to take pride in what this is.’” Zito says. He related that story to co-writer Brantley, and the two turned it into one of the highlights on the album.
“The song is so important to me, because it brings it right back to that living room of the big house I used to own and being completely miserable,” Zito says.
“Secret to Life,” the opening track, comes from the point of view of someone who’s spent some time searching for that secret without any success. “I may not know the secret to life, but I know what it’s not,” he sings.
“Undiscovered You,” written with Willmon and Tommy Karlas, is a love song for his wife. “Home,” the closing song, is one Zito wrote by himself and dates back to 2011, several months before he became a Christian.
“I was super low, and “Home” was about searching, searching, and being lost, and eventually finding the thing that I was searching for and realizing it was never too far away. It was right under my nose the whole time,” he explains.
With the release of this EP, Zito has performed some concerts, but his primary focus will remain on writing songs and pitching them to other singers in Nashville. The songwriting allows him to use his creative side as well as explore the emotional depths that baseball players aren’t supposed to do. As the line from the movie “Bull Durham” goes: “Don’t think; it can only hurt the ballclub.”
“Unfortunately, I was not able to turn that off as much in baseball,” Zito admits. “I think I was known as… they would say ‘eccentric,’ but for me I think it was more introspective. I think I had awareness levels that were a little more heightened compared to most, which came back to bite me a lot. It really did. Being too lucid out there on the mound and too aware of things that are happening can really hurt you, as opposed to don’t think and let it fly.
“But I do enjoy that I get to use that part of my brain now and not worry about tempering it, because I love being vulnerable with people and being open and introspective and analytical,” he adds.