When Jason Giambi comes off the disabled list on Tuesday, many will wonder whether it could be his last day in the major leagues. It would shock no one if the A's, who drafted Giambi out of Long Beach State in the second round of the 1992 draft, released their once beloved star after a first half full of nothing but disappointment.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way though. Not with "G".
Once upon a time in the city of Oakland, Jason Giambi was larger than life. The five-time all-star and 2000 American League's Most Valuable Player was the reason the A's could trade away Mark McGwire in 1997. At the time, McGwire was the past, a remnant of the dominant Athletics teams at the end of the 80's and early 90's. Giambi gave the A's, and new general manager at the time, Billy Beane, a foundation to build around.
Giambi was the "poster boy" for a new look Athletics team that was going through a tough transitioning process. Giambi's free spirit, "born to be wild" attitude became what the Oakland A's were at the turn of the century. He was a natural leader and his care free attitude spread throughout the Oakland clubhouse. As a longtime teammate and friend of Giambi, Eric Chavez credits Giambi as being the reason why it was so easy for Oakland players to strive when they got called up.
"You don't have to earn anything with him," Chavez said of Giambi. "Put on a uniform, and you're part of the family."
That family of players that Giambi helped the A's create thrived on the field. The A's came within a handful of games of getting to the playoffs in 1999. But in 2000, led by Giambi's 43 homers and 137 RBI, the A's made the playoffs for the first time since losing to the 1992 American League Championship Series to the Toronto Blue Jays.
In what would truly be marked as a David vs. Goliath series, the A's would be matched up with the New York Yankees. The Yankees were the defending World Series champions and had won three of the last four World Series titles with stars that every baseball fan in America knew. They had a payroll over three times as much as the A's. But even with that advantage, Giambi gave the A's hope and after the first game, in which the A's beat Roger Clemens at home, people started paying attention. The A's pushed the Yankees to a deciding game 5, but came up short. They were one game away from beating the team that eventually won the World Series for their 3rd straight year.
The following season, there was much talk of whether or not the A's would trade Giambi. He was entering his final year on his contract and after his MVP performance in 2000, it seemed unlikely the A's would be able to resign him. On July 24th of that season, the A's were 18 games out of first place, mainly because the 2001 Seattle Mariners set an AL record for number of wins in a season. The teams only hope of making the postseason would be to beat out the rest of the American League and win the wild card, in which the A's were 3.5 games back. The feat seemed difficult and uncertain. Many expected the A's to trade Jason Giambi.
The very next day, the A's did make a trade, but it didn't involve Jason. Beane sent minor leaguers Jose Ortiz, Todd Belitz, and Mario Encarnacion away for Jermaine Dye. The move was monumental, as it meant the A's would make a run for it, despite Giambi being in a contract year. With Dye on the roster, the A's climbed the wild card standings and finished the season with 102 wins, second best in the American League. Once again, the team found themselves matched up against the New York Yankees in the playoffs.
After jumping to an early 2-0 series lead in New York, a series of incidents happened to lead to the A's demise that year. In game 3, a true pitchers battle between Barry Zito and Andy Pettitte, a brilliant defensive play by Yankees captain Derek Jeter and a decision by Giambi's brother Jeremy to not slide at the plate led to a 1-0 Yankee victory. The following game, the Yankees jumped on Athletics starter Cory Lidle and to make matters worse, Jermaine Dye, the key acquisition for the A's that year, broke his foot on a foul ball, ending his season. With momentum against them, the A's lost game 5 and their World Series ambitions. It seemed only fitting that in the final game of that series, Giambi, a free agent at the end of the season, would go 4-4 in what many thought would be his last game in an Athletics uniform.
Rumors had been floating around that the Yankees could be one of the teams pursuing Giambi after he would become a free agent, but it was also known that the A's were going to at least hope that Giambi would take a hometown discount to stay with the A's. That didn't prove to be the case as Giambi signed a 7 year, 120 million contract to join the Yankees.
As former A's manager Art Howe once said, "[Giambi] breathed life into [the A's]". Him leaving sucked the life out of many A's fans. While many knew the day would come, they felt betrayed because Giambi went to the team the A's had lost to the previous two postseasons.
Ironically, many Yankees fans at the time didn't respect Giambi's decision either and he was roundly booed when introduced as the newest Yankee on opening day of the 2002 season. It wasn't until much later in the season that Giambi earned the fans respect. Giambi was supposed to continue the Yankees tradition of winning a keep them in the World Series each and every year.
Initially, the investment looked sound. Giambi's 2002 season was everything the Yankees could ask for. With 41 home runs, 122 RBI's, and a .314 batting average, Giambi's Yankees had the best record in the American League. However, despite Jason hitting .357 in the series (only teammate Derek Jeter batted higher), the Yankees lost the series in four games.
In 2003, Giambi's batting average began to decline, but his power was still there and the Yankees were still winning ballgames. The team went to the World Series, but lost to the Florida Marlins.
Giambi was injured for much of 2004 season and only hit .208 when he was healthy, his worst mark ever as a pro. The Yankees during the postseason (in which Giambi did not participate) lost the ALCS to the Boston Red Sox, after blowing a 3-0 series lead. It was the first time that has ever happened in baseball and it ended the Red Sox's 86 year drought of not winning a World Series. To make matters worse, a grand jury leak of the testimony Giambi provided the Federal Government regarding BALCO, a Bay Area sports supplement company, got out to the public. In the testimony, it stated that Giambi admitted to using steroids.
And just like that, Giambi went from being the "poster boy" of a new look Oakland Athletics team, to being one of a different sorts. Jason's face was all over every sports magazine in the country. Next to it lie the word "cheater" in large ink.
Unlike many of the athletes today, Giambi endured the most criticism for his steroid use. He received a lound round of boos everywhere he went, including the entire New York fan base. Giambi's performance suffered, so much so, that when he was hitting below the Mendoza line in early May of that season, the Yankees asked Giambi to go to the minor leagues, something that Giambi refused.
He vowed to get better....and he did. Amazingly enough, Giambi finished the season batting .271 and even finished 18th that year in MVP voting. The Yankees faced off against the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS and Giambi led all Yankee hitters in that postseason series with a .421 average. However, the Yankees fell short once again and much of Giambi's "success story" was lost when the Yankees couldn't advance.
Giambi played out the final three years of his contract with the Yankees and the team never got back to the World Series team they were when Giambi first joined the team. In those years though, much of the pressure to succeed was transferred to Alex Rodriguez, whose inability to perform in the postseason lost him much respect from Yankee fans.
In his last season with the Yankees, Giambi still managed to hit 32 home runs and had 96 RBI's to go along with it. Despite those numbers, there was no real demand for Giambi on the open market and Giambi's original team, the Oakland A's, the team he spited in 2002, came calling and signed him to a 4 million dollar contract for 2009.
Giambi was brought in to help the youngsters the A's were developing as they attempted to rebuild. With the A's having back to back losing seasons, acquiring Giambi for 2009 was bittersweet to many A's fans who still wonder to this day what "could have been" of their team.
It seemed like Giambi would be in Oakland to end his career. On May 24th, Giambi hit his 400th career home run. However, his age has finally caught up to him. Many scouts have said that Jason can't catch up with a 95 mile an hour fastball anymore. He is only hitting .193 on the season, ironically, the same figure he was hitting during that miserable start to his 2005 season.
At that time Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports wrote for everyone to "give Giambi credit for staying mentally strong while others perceived him to be weak". While many would like this to be true this time around, it may not happen. Like Mark McGwire in the 1997 season, Giambi might have to go to make room for the next star in the Oakland clubhouse.
The stories that many tell of Giambi are still legendary to this day. From his standoff with management over the ability to ride his Harley motor cycle, to bungee jumping with his brother Jeremy, to late night fast food adventures, golden thongs, and "porn star" mustaches, Giambi always brought something new and exciting to the clubhouse. His leadership was exemplified by his strong performance wherever he played and his mental toughness is something that can't be taught.
Let's just hope whoever replaces him makes the same impact.
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