OAKLAND — Money may not change the man, but it does change our perception of the man. And sometimes of himself, which is where the problem may lie.

Alex Rodriguez understands what it is like to be the highest-paid player in baseball, with that $252 million contract. We heed his words about what it will be like for Barry Zito to be the highest-paid pitcher, with that $126 million contract.

If others are critical, or skeptical, of what the Giants last winter gave Zito to join them as a free agent after seasons across the Bay with the Athletics, A-Rod believes both team and player not only did what was right but also what was required.

"I thought San Francisco made a fantastic move in picking up one of the best pitchers in the game," said Rodriguez. "He's a committed player, one of the most durable pitchers in the game.

"Barry is a very good friend, and I have the utmost respect for him."

Zito has started his National League career 0-2. Been there, done that for A-Rod, metaphorically because when you play for the Yankees, as does Rodriguez, comparisons with the real world, San Francisco variety, are unreliable.

But Rodriguez had an 0-for-16 patch against the Red Sox during his first season in New York, 2004, and last year, even though batting .290 and hitting 35 home runs, A-Rod was treated, perhaps unfairly, as an underachiever.

He knows the burden, the constant references to numbers in his salary more than the ones in his statistics.


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That comes with the territory, territory that for every athlete who gets a boost in pay is uncharted.

Joe Torre, the Yankees manager — and like Rodriguez a Most Valuable Player, if in a different era, 1971, and a different league, National — entered the territory briefly and subsequently watched as others did so in a mixture of frustration and confusion.

"My first year after my MVP year, when I had signed a two-year contract, wasn't real good," Torre remembered. "I heard guys say, 'Well, he doesn't need to do well.' You have to know what drives somebody to begin with, and it's not the money.

"What the money often does to people is make them think they've got to be something more than what enabled them to get the money. It's just pressure they put on themselves. They feel more responsibility. They start piling on themselves. I think a lot of that is what Alex has gone through the last couple of years."

What's an athlete worth? What he can get. The long-held belief here is that with cars, wine and ballplayers, you get what you pay for.

If you can't afford it, then don't spend. It isn't as if the Giants had an alternative.

"Any pitcher, no matter what level of expertise or ability he might have," Brian Sabean, the Giants general manager, told Sports Illustrated last month, "was in a position to get overpaid this year. We knew we were going to lose (Jason) Schmidt, and we were so attracted to Barry we didn't want to end up in second place ..."

A fatal attraction? Hardly. But Zito, as did Rodriguez, must become comfortable.

"When Alex got here," Torre recalled, "I told him, 'You don't have to do everything. Look around. There are guys to help.' But in Zito's situation, it's a little tougher. A batter goes out every day and gets four or five at-bats. A starting pitcher has to wait five days."

Zito has been waiting even longer to show what Rodriguez and we believe he is capable of doing. Barry's scheduled start Saturday against the Pirates was postponed because of rain.

"One trouble with getting a big contract," Torre said with a chuckle, "is that when you make money and hit home runs, it's because you're supposed to, because of the contract. Nobody pats you on the ass and says, 'Nice going.' And if you don't do it, people say you stink."

Nobody's saying that to Zito. Not yet. What they're saying is the Giants took a chance on a left-hander who is not a power pitcher, and since Barry wasn't successful in his first two starts, it's a bad deal. Rodriguez thinks the opposite.

"Yes, I think we all try to do a little too much," A-Rod conceded, "but Barry's an incredible talent. He's going to be just fine."

If Alex Rodriguez doesn't know, then nobody knows.

Art Spander can be reached at

typoes@aol.com.