Suddenly, through a side entrance, as if sneaking into the room, Jason Giambi sweeps into the New York Yankees clubhouse and fast-steps it to his back-wall locker on what is the start of another bizarre day for him in pinstripes. His hair is wet and slicked back and he's wearing his normal off-duty garb: faded jeans and a black T-shirt.
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."
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.
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.