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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In a spare clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, before a standing-room-only media gathering, Giambi sat in a black shirt and dark-striped suit, like some kid forced to stay past school hours. In folding chairs next to him were Torre, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and Giambi's agent, Arn Tellem; Kristian was out of the spotlight, off to the side and in a dark corner.
For 40 minutes, Giambi twiddled his thumbs, crossed and uncrossed his legs, fiddled with his cuffs, fidgeted to no end in his seat. He said he was sorry a handful of times, apologized not once, not twice, but three times, and eventually said: "I'm not a bad person. I'm a man . . . and that's why I'm sitting here today."
But despite the prodding of question after pointed question, Giambi never said what he was apologizing for, never once uttered the word "steroids," and never offered a smidgen of detail.
The media reacted with a collective rolling of the eyes, felt hoodwinked and almost universally blasted him for producing a contemporary version of Being and Nothingness.
"I figured they would," Giambi would tell me much later. "I'm still glad I did it. It was a circus already and I wanted to get that first part out of the way before I got to spring training. I didn't want my problems to become a distraction to my teammates."
Says Kristian: "Jason was trying to move forward and [the media] jumped on him [for not saying the word]. They would really have to be under a rock if they didn't know what he was apologizing for. If you listened to his voice, you could tell he felt bad. That's my frustration, that no one acknowledged his honesty. I'd like to think that someday he'll be embraced for that."
By mid-May of that season, Giambi plummeted into the valley of his professional life. He was batting just .195, with a piddling three homers and six runs batted in.
The Yankees, unsuccessful at finding a loophole to make Giambi's contract null and void, came up with another way to make him disappear: they—being Torre and Cashman within the closed doors of the manager's office—asked him to take a mental breather in the minors to get his head together.
"They asked me how I felt," he says, "and I said I felt my swing was coming around, that I don't think I'm that far away, and that I wasn't depressed or worried about it.
"I'm not going to the minors," Giambi, with a right of refusal, told them flatly. "If I need to be anywhere, it's here."
And that was that. That is, before June rolled around and, out of nowhere, a miracle happened.
In June, when the baseball world deemed Giambi just a heartbeat away from dead, he suddenly hit a pair of game-winning homers, as well as a game-winning two-run single; then, in July, he out-and-out blasted off the radar screen, batting .355 with 14 homers, the most by a Yankee in a single month since Mantle in July 1961.
He finished the year at .271, with 32 homers and 87 runs batted in, and was voted the AL Comeback Player of the Year.
"I always felt I had the strength to fight through something like that," he told me in spring training of 2006, at Tampa's Legends Field, "but until you're tested, you never know for sure. The thing is, I kept working. As bad as I ever got, I never said to myself, 'My God, I'm done. My career is over.' "You don't become a superstar in this game without working hard, or being special. That's why it hurt so much when people said I only reached that level because I did this or that. I wasn't going to let people diminish everything I've done all these years.
"I don't run around and tell everybody my problems. When things aren't going right, I don't walk around sad or go into a shell and sulk. Psychologists might say it's a bad thing, that I'm not good at identifying my problems, or opening up and sharing my pain. That I'm probably in denial at times. Maybe they're right. Maybe it's one of my downfalls. But that's how I've always pushed myself through tough times. Even as a kid. No matter if I did something bad, or anything bad happened to me, or anything bad was said about me, I'd keep smiling and telling myself, 'You're good, Jason, you're good. Don't worry.'
"I wasn't supposed to go further than Little League. Then I wasn't supposed to go further than the Pony League. Then I had to try out for my college baseball scholarship. I've always believed what others couldn't believe I could do." Like what happened this June.
After that nightmarish two-month start that compelled everybody in Yankeeland to look forward to a merciful end to the Jason Giambi era, he did what he's done so many times before: tease you into believing there's yet still greatness in him. In the first week of June, he pinch-hit a game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth, then, in a game two weeks later, he belted out two more, lifting his home run total for the season to a team-high 17 and raising his batting average to .268.
Defying the early odds, he was, indeed, on the way to achieving his last wish in this likely last season in pinstripes. "I know I have a lot left in the tank," he says. "I know I can play until I'm 40."
He came to the Yankees as one of the best in the game, and if he exits the Bronx after this season, he will do so only hanging on to what's left after the scandal of all scandals and all the injuries, trying elsewhere to regain his good name and get back that great respect he once commanded through sheer terror and prove that his stardom didn't just come from some pill or balm or syringe. "I've had problems and I've come back from them," he says. "I hope that's what people remember." He pauses, sighs. "I guess if you could go back and change everything to make it perfect, life wouldn't be as much fun."
Then, another pause, only longer; another sigh, only louder.
"The one thing I feel good about," he says, "is that when I've played, I've given the Yankees everything I've got. I stayed on the field beat up, sick. And I sacrificed my numbers doing it. I kept my promise.
"And I can honestly look you straight in the face and tell you I've never played even one day for the money. I just love playing the game, love being out there. I've always found it to be my three hours of therapy, where I didn't have a care in the world.
"Being a ballplayer is all I ever wanted to be as a kid. I didn't want to be a cop. I didn't want to be a fireman. I wanted to be a ballplayer. And I enjoy every minute of it."
Freelance writer Michael P. Geffner lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Details, USA Today, FHM, The Village Voice, and been acknowledged several times by the annual anthology Best American Sports Writing.
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