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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At 37 and entering the final guaranteed year of his Yankees contract, Giambi arrived in spring training in possibly the best shape of his life, looking not only to impress a new manager, Joe Girardi, but desperately seeking yet another second act, before it was too late, before the brass upstairs told him his time in the Bronx was over for good, before he had a chance to grab one last piece of glory, a good-bye wave of grand redemption.
But as much as he wanted to put up a huge year, his season was a struggle from the start. On Tax Day, he hitting only .094; just .150 on May 4; it wasn't until May 20 that he even managed to lift his batting average over .200 for the first time. Finally, in June, he showed some glimpses of what might be, with a game-winning home run and two more homers 12 days later, while surging to the club's home run lead for the season with 17.
But he's been so scarily bad in the 2008 season that a story surfaced saying, of all things, he was resorting to the wackiest of secret weapons to snap out of his funk: a gold lamé, tiger-stripe thong worn under his uniform. Making the front page of the local papers, it stirred up not only considerable buzz but uncontrollable snickers.
"Where did that story come from?" Giambi eventually says to me privately, opening up his arms—and mouth—wide. "That thing's from years ago. What the fuck?"
Of course, only Giambi, the odd fit on this terribly vanilla team, this notorious, tattooed hell-raiser shoved into the square-pegged world of these straitlaced Yankees, could inspire such an outlandish tale, make something so unbelievable seem incredibly believable. It was simply another piece of strangeness thrown into a Yankees legacy that has offered scant few truly memorable moments and too many years of unfulfilled promise. It is a tale of a painfully endless series of tragedies and triumphs, failures and comebacks, awful slumps and wonderful power surges, signs of the end and teases of a new beginning.
"I know what it's like to be on top of the world and I know what it's like to be dragged in the gutter," Giambi acknowledges from his condo apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side, speaking, typically, in these rapid bursts of words that make them all but collide into each other. "I've been booed and cheered, ripped and praised. But I'm not the type to regret things. I never backtrack. I deal with things and move on. And the journey I've had here has been incredible. Believe it or not, I wouldn't change a thing. I've enjoyed the ride, the whole circus. I've lived a lot of life here—enough for five people."
It was in December of 2001 that Giambi—already an American League Most Valuable Player and MVP runner-up with the Oakland A's, a two-time All-Star, and a brutish-looking slugger who did nothing less than terrorize the opposition—signed one of Major League Baseball's landmark free-agent deals, pocketing 120 of George Steinbrenner's millions to play seven guaranteed seasons for the New York Yankees.
While egregiously over the top, the signing was a natural for Boss Steinbrenner, who worshipped at the altar of the home run. He looked at Giambi and saw the dazzle of star power, envisioned Mantle and Reggie rolled into one, and, most of all, imagined a bulging-bigger-than-life savior who'd feed his insatiable ego the frenzy of more world championships, if not a slew of them. For Giambi, it made him very rich, even more famous, and very relevant very quickly.
And now, with the guaranteed portion of his contract finally expiring at the end of the season, a mere $5 million kiss-off option clause is all that separates the Yankees from not only spitting up a $22 million paycheck in 2009 but, at last, closing the chapter to this uneasy, oft-troubled, unsatisfying relationship forever.
It will sever seven years of such insanely bad luck, on both sides, that you wonder who broke that mirror at the start of all this: the Yankees haven't won a single championship ring the whole time, instead shell-shocked by a devastating string of postseason flops and chokes and upsets. At the same time, Giambi has degenerated from that gushing volcano of a talent that exploded in Oakland into someone hopelessly immersed in the muck of bizarre afflictions, constant pulls and strains and sprains that hobbled him to the disabled list, and being one of the central characters in one of the darkest episodes in baseball history.
Barry Bonds. Roger Clemens. Jose Canseco. Mark McGwire. Rafael Palmiero. Sammy Sosa. And Jason Giambi.
These, for many, fairly or not, are the faces of steroids. They meld into a bloated mass of freakishly muscled flesh that represents an era in baseball that skewed the numbers and screwed the record book for all eternity. They are emblems of a time when rampant cheating ruled the day and moral conscience was nowhere to be found, faded into an addictive haze of swirling dollar signs and blinding self-interests. It is a picture completed with the unseemliness of juiced-up syringes and magic balms and candy-colored pills.
A culture gone wild.
Whatever Bonds and McGwire are doing, get me some of that.
No matter what Giambi says or does from here, whether or not he continues to apologize for his own stake in this mess, he will likely never shake the taint of it for as long as he lives and probably long after that. In the end, he couldn't avoid the truth because his leaked December 2003 federal grand-jury admission revealed that between 2001 and 2003 he indulged in various performance-enhancing substances—injecting human growth hormone into his stomach and testosterone into his buttocks, swallowing what he thinks was the female fertility drug Cloimid, and putting drops of the steroid called "the clear" under his tongue and rubbing "the cream" onto his body. It has made him like a modern-day Shoeless Joe Jackson—and, to some, as sympathetic a character as that gambling-tainted player from the early part of professional baseball history. Unlike the boorish Bonds, Giambi never smirked his way through a flaxseed defense. Unlike the flinty-eyed Clemens, he never glared into a crowd and angrily proclaimed his innocence, while offering unbelievable alibis and inconsistent time lines. Unlike the ballsy Palmiero, he never wagged a finger of denial smack in our face, before almost instantly getting caught with a flunked test. Unlike the relentless publicity-hound Canseco, he never ratted out his teammates, former or otherwise. And unlike Sosa and McGwire, Giambi's friend and mentor, he never acted as if he couldn't remember the past or that the past simply wasn't worth remembering.
Whether you feel it was because he was threatened, cajoled, backed against a legal wall or otherwise, Giambi, aside from one glitch of fabrication, has seemed to try to do the right thing, even if there were awkward moments when he found himself fumbling for the right words. He fessed up to his anabolic transgressions in the BALCO case. He was the first player to formally apologize for his sins (despite never using the word "steroids"). He was the first active player known to talk with the Mitchell Investigation, and last year had the guts to tell USA Today that not only was he "wrong for doing that stuff" but "what we should have done a long time ago was stand up—players, ownership, everybody—and said: 'We made a mistake.' " He added that "we should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. . . . But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid."
For a while, this was even Giambi himself, who denied up and down in 2004 that he had ever used steroids, as well as making sure never to blurt out the dreaded s-word in public. He claims now that these evasions were based on strict orders given to him by his legal handlers, who were apparently nervous about the ramifications in the then-pending BALCO trial.
"Now [that BALCO is] over, I could say the word a thousand times and it doesn't matter," Giambi says, adding: "I did the best I could possibly do, and when the right time comes, I'll talk all about it." But he won't do it for a buck or in a tell-all book, won't take down anybody else along with him. "After I retire," he says, "I'd like to go around to schools and lecture kids about it."
One gorgeous, breezy night in the Bronx, after a round of batting practice in which, as usual, Giambi swatted one baseball after the other into the right-field stands as if the wall were only yards away, shrinking the place's dimensions as few can, he and I chat in a secluded nook within the dank, shadowy lower corridors of Yankee Stadium, far enough beyond the team's clubhouse to have some rare privacy.
His massive arms are folded across his massive chest, his bat leans between his legs, and, as always, even through the worst of times, he assumes the look of a Smiley Face come to life.
The reason for this clandestine Woodward-and-Deep-Throat moment: I've asked to see his tattoos up close and personal, the huge pair of stark, eerie-looking ones that spread over his round mounds of shoulders and stretch down those gorged-vein biceps that look as if someone stuffed softballs into them.
At the beginning of Giambi's tenure in Yankeeland, these tattoos were such a taboo that Steinbrenner, during his unannounced visits to the clubhouse, would constantly, with a burning gaze and belching bellow, order him to pull down his sleeves or put on a shirt.
"Jason!" the Boss would suddenly boom. "Cover those things up, for crissakes!" So much for Steinbrenner's gentle words to him, given within a bear hug, on Giambi's first day of spring training as a Yankee: "Be yourself." Yeah, right. True to his blithe nature, Giambi never once fought with the Boss but complied with his soft, dimpled smile, just as he had agreeably lopped off several inches of his long, tousled hair, just as he had first shaved his goatee, then dialed back his five o'clock shadow to somewhere around noon, just as he had contractually agreed to cut out all the death-wish stuff—which meant, among other things, leaving four custom-made motorcycles back in California to do nothing but collect dust.
"There was tension at the start," Giambi concedes. "But I really think the Boss eventually became cool with who I was."
Nevertheless, for eight months a year, from February to October, for the last seven years, the Yankees have owned him, body and soul, if not neutered him the way they sucked all the Idiot Caveman routine out of Johnny Damon's once-glorious persona. Giambi has needed to summon up all his willpower to tamp down that wild-eyed spirit that's dying to wiggle to the surface. The tattoos were the one thing that nobody could take away from him, and every now and then, whenever sensing the need, he admits to lifting up his sleeves to sneak a peek, if not for a spark of inspiration, then to merely remind him of a part of who he is at his core, albeit temporarily sublimated.
He got the first tattoo, the one along his left arm, when he was 25 and playing for the A's. He had it done after a day game, in a single session, sitting in a chair for seven straight hours, six of which he swears he was fast asleep. "It wasn't painful at all," he says. "It felt like when you move your arm back and forth over a flame."
The design is drawn in plain black ink: a melting skull within a bursting sun. "I wanted to be different," he says, "and I thought it looked cool." The meaning: "It's my out-of-control tattoo. Live life, taste death." And he giggles a giggle that settles somewhere between playful and ghoulish.
He then picks up his right sleeve and reveals on his biceps an open-mouthed dragon, again in black ink, with seven small skulls scattered around it, including one in the middle of a pointed tail. This was done a couple of years after the first, when he was still in Oakland. "It represents intelligence, power and wisdom," he says, suddenly staring at the tattoo and stroking it with the tips of his fingers. "This way," he says, "I have both sides of me, because even though I'm a nice guy I still have . . ."
He doesn't finish that sentence. He doesn't have to.
"Don't paint me as St. Joseph," he once said, and for good reason.
Giambi is an unabashed, walking gob of oozing testosterone, once donning a T-shirt that read the in-your-face hedonist philosophy: "Party like a rock star, hammer like a porn star, rake like an all-star." He loves telling and hearing salacious jokes, loves scarfing down greasy pizzas and greasier burgers, loves pumping iron at the gym for hours on end, loves club-hopping with the boys in the off-season and partying the night away ("I'm not as bad as I used to be," he claims. "I've cleaned it up a lot.").
Who's his favorite actress?
"Jenna Jameson," he says without flinching.
What five movies he'd want if stranded on a deserted island? "The Outlaw Josey Wales, Gladiator, and three of Jenna's."