His seven-year Yankees tenure has been marked by scandal, physical afflications and unfulfilled expectations. Now Jason Giambi, the wild-eyed but eminently likable renegade, hopes for one last hurrah in the Bronx.
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What five movies he'd want if stranded on a deserted island? "The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gladiator, and three of Jenna's."
What would he have been if not for a baseball player? "A bouncer at a strip club."
What turns him on? "Sex and going fast in anything."
What the fastest he's ever gone? "170 in my Ferrari."
Doesn't that scare him? "I don't think I ever take into account that something bad might happen. Maybe that's why I've gotten into trouble sometimes. Because I've never played the other side of the coin."
What hasn't he done in life? "I've tried everything. That's my problem. If it sounds fun, I want to try it."
Cigars? "Hey, during the mid-1990s, Mark McGwire and I hit every top cigar bar on the road for two seasons straight."
Cigar of choice? "Romeo & Julietas."
What's his worst trait? "Zero patience."
What do therapists tell him? "'You're fucked up.' I say, 'I know that.'"
And? "So I don't try to fix it anymore. I've embraced it." He giggles. "Why? You're waiting for me to have a nervous breakdown?"
Giambi says that once he retires—and if his wife lets him, which is asking a lot—he'd love to add one more tattoo, on his back: an iron cross with blue flames shooting out of it. He's not sure what it means and, frankly, doesn't really care; he saw it on a T-shirt once and, well, it just looks cool, which is always the operative word for him.
"I feel sorry for my parents," he says. "They're such conservative people. They don't drink or smoke. Every time they see me with my tattoos, they shake their heads and sigh, 'Where did we go wrong?'"
His mother, Jeanne, who's essentially Carol Brady, wishes there were some kind of industrial-strength eraser to wipe them both off. His father, a retired bank president who was once a repo man, said after the first tattoo: "I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" But after the second one, the only person that Jason has ever feared narrowed his eyes and said firmly: "That's enough, Jason."
His parents didn't go wrong. He simply has a problem for which even therapy couldn't make a dent. "I'm one of those guys," he says, "who colors outside the lines and doesn't like to be told to color inside."
What does that say about him? "That I need help," he says with a chuckle.
This is the thing about Giambi: he's impossible not to like. In his company, with that big, flushed, open face and those eyes that are so charged he looks perpetually stoned, everything is always surfer-dude "cool" and "awesome," everyone is "buddy," everything has a wink and a grin and a giggle attached to it, everything concludes with a warm tug across the shoulder and a sturdy, feel-good high-five. "If you don't like Jason Giambi," someone once said, "you don't like M&Ms."
Says teammate Johnny Damon, who also played with Giambi in Oakland: "Jason is so fun-loving and down-to-earth, he makes you feel comfortable right away. And as a friend, he'll do anything for you, won't let you pay for a thing and will give you the shirt off his back."
This profound likability is a quality that has helped shield Giambi from a lot of bad vibes these last handful of seasons, especially with his Yankees teammates, through all the slumps and piled-up days on the disabled list, through all the steroids rumors and never-ending controversy. In that unforgiving Yankees clubhouse, he has, amazingly, come through it all without his rep being pummeled to a pulp, without being loathed or resented or the subject of mean-spirited whispers, with, of all people, the infinitely straitlaced Derek Jeter always guarding his back.
"He never whined or felt sorry for himself," Jeter says. "He just stayed upbeat and kept working. You got to respect that."
"Jason is so engaging that just five minutes into talking to him, you know how great a guy he is," says his second and current wife, Kristian, a fledgling fashion designer on the verge of starting her own women's sleepwear business and who describes herself as Jason's opposite. "He has something that a lot of people want, a charisma. He has this little sparkle in his eyes that makes you really curious. I think that's what pulls people in. He has something there that everybody wishes they could have and be a part of."
Giambi and Kristian met in 2000, at a Bay Area PF Chang's on a night that Kristian's family was celebrating the birthday of her grandmother. Jason eventually made his way over to Kristian's table, wished the grandmother a happy birthday, had his picture taken with the group, and by the time it was over, he had Kristian's phone number. Two years later, on February 2, just before Giambi's first Yankees spring training, they married in San Francisco.
"There's a lot more to Jason than his party-animal persona," she says. "I mean, he definitely likes to have a good time and he's intrigued by the dark lifestyle—I think he'd love to have been a rock star. You should've seen him playing his Guitar Hero with his tongue hanging out—but as he's gotten older, he learned that there's only so much that your body can take and he doesn't partake as much as he used to. Of course, being a Yankee, he's had to curb his behavior. He still likes to push the envelope, live on the edge, but he picks his spots better now."
She pauses, and then adds a tad solemnly: "Jason would never do anything malicious to anybody. But . . . he might've done things in the past that would've been harmful to himself."
What the fuck is wrong with me? This was in the spring of 2004, amid growing rumors that Giambi had testified in BALCO. He began feeling sick, with symptoms of extreme weakness, lack of appetite, occasional nausea and a bad case of light-headedness. At first, he simply figured he had some nasty bug—except it only got worse.
It reached the point where, rather than springing out of bed in the morning, Giambi would prop himself up on the edge for a good long while, planting his feet until he felt strong enough to make a move, until convinced that when he rose, the room wouldn't conspire against him and spin around like crazy.
He was growing paler by the day, losing weight by the week and becoming more and more a wan shell of his former happy-go-lucky self.
Former Yankees reliever Tanyon Sturtze, who roomed with Giambi during this period, once told me: "There would be times Jason would come into the living room while I was watching TV and just plop on the couch and sit there like a zombie. Not saying a word. Not able to carry on a conversation. That's not like Jason."
In a desperate attempt to keep the weight on, he force-fed himself spoons of oatmeal and at least twice a day gulped down huge glasses of turbo-charged protein shakes. But nothing worked. The weight continued to come off. He sweated constantly. And the nausea progressed to vomiting.
Eventually, his vision became so blurry at times that he didn't trust himself to drive to and from the ballpark, instead asking his wife or Sturtze to do it. One game at Fenway, as he stood on second base, he felt as if he was going to pass out. Another day, in a private meeting with Joe Torre in the manager's office, Giambi told Torre he could barely sit up in the chair. "I wasn't scared about dying," Giambi says now. "Because there were days I felt so miserable I wished I would die."
He finally went to a doctor in June. Then to another doctor and another. He took tests for HIV and cancer and mononucleosis and hepatitis and various parasites. Nobody had an answer. Finally, within a space of a month, he was hit with a double whammy of a diagnosis: first, in late June, he was told he was suffering from an intestinal parasite (which his wife also had), then, in late July, he was informed that he had a benign tumor growing on his pituitary gland.
He didn't play another game the rest of the season and ended up with numbers that made him look cooked right to the bone, if not the victim of his overindulgent life: a .208 batting average, 12 homers and 40 runs batted in. Four months later, on a plane from Vegas to New York City, Kristian tried everything she could to soothe her husband, who was decidedly skittish about doing this apology thing.
"Jason, you're not the only public figure that's ever had a problem," she said. "I know it's not going to be an easy road from here, but at least after you do this, you can live with yourself."
She says now: "He didn't know what to do—you can't help but have apprehension when you're ready to step into a room full of aggression—but he knew he had to do something."
It was a Thursday afternoon, just before the start of spring training for the 2005 season and two months after the San Francisco Chronicle had reported that Giambi admitted before a federal grand jury that he used steroids for three seasons, including two as a Yankee. Everybody, from the fans to the media to sports talk radio, was calling for his head; the Yankees were even exploring ways to get out of his contract—and save themselves a still-owed $82 mil.