Jason Giambi. The mere mention of his name was one that brought smiles to A's fans from the late 90s through the early 2000s. Then he left the A's in pursuit of playing for his favorite childhood team who happened to be the most hated team on the planet for anyone who bleeds green and gold. He was roundly booed in Oakland for this perceived act of betrayal. Yet many, including myself, are very happy to have the man many just call "G" back with our beloved team both as a mentor to young hitters and for the powerful stick he continues to wield.
I had the pleasure of having a Sports Illustrated-length interview with Giambi a week ago and, well, I found him to not be what you typically find when talking with a pro ball player. Without further ado, enjoy my interview with, despite his time in New York and my past anger, a man who will forever be an Oakland Athletic to me.
Blez: First of all, how does it feel to be back in the green and gold?
Jason Giambi: Awesome. It's fun to be back. It's just like old times when you grow up somewhere then it becomes like going back to Mom and Dad's house.
Blez: Does it feel a little weird coming back when you have the connection with the older A's and this is a whole new group?
Giambi: Definitely. I felt like a rookie coming in the door because outside of Eric Chavez, I hadn't really played with anyone else. It's been a lot of fun getting to meet a lot of the new guys, but at the same time, there are people like the staff and the front office folks who are all the same. So it's definitely good to be back.
Blez: Was Oakland your first choice when the Yankees released you?
Giambi: They didn't pick up my option.
Blez: Poor choice of words, sorry.
Giambi: No, it's OK. When they didn't pick up my option, I had Tampa as well as Oakland. And Billy and I got on the phone and he said he was going to make some big moves and he went out and got Matt Holliday. That was very tempting to myself. But Tampa also has a young ballclub.
Blez: Yeah they went to the World Series.
Giambi: I enjoy being in that role of tutoring and helping. Before I left we had Hudson, Mulder, Zito and Tejada and Chavy and it was fun to be in that role, but that was the draw that really brought me back here.
Blez: I must imagine it must be pretty sweet to be around Eric Chavez again. But is it tough to get acclimated to some of the younger guys in the clubhouse?
Giambi: I got lucky because the attitude from before I left kind of carried on with Zito and Chavy. Like you said, there was a legacy when I left. So it was kind of cool to see some of those young kids coming up to me and introducing themselves. It made it kind of fun.
Blez: You mentioned Eric Chavez. How much has he changed in your time away that you might've already noticed in the short time you've been back?
Giambi: It's amazing because he was a young kid when I left. So he's been growing up. And it's cool to watch from afar how he's developed into the superstar that he is. He was excited. He kept calling me in the offseason telling me, "We want you back, we want you back!" So it's really great to see him and be around him again. I got to play a little bit with Elly (Mark Ellis) who was on the 40-man (roster) when I left and he had come up for a few spring training games. It's definitely going to be fun.
Blez: Do you have any regrets that you didn't stay in Oakland?
Giambi: No. Trust me, I wanted to stay in Oakland. We had a deal done. You can ask Billy Beane. It was my free agent year before the season started. And ownership at the time pulled the deal off the table. I had flown my parents out, my agent, everybody. A lot of people don't know that.
Blez: It was that close?
Giambi: Oh I thought it was a done deal. You can ask Billy. It was a done deal and ownership pulled it back. The rest is history for when I became a free agent and then New York came after me. I mean it was what it was. I tried to stay but unfortunately it didn't work out.
Blez: Were you bitter about any of that?
Blez: I mean you had flown the family up which was ready to partake in it and...
Giambi: No, I mean business is business and I've never been upset about that. It was a lot of money at that time for the ownership for a small market team. It was six years at $90-91 million or something like that. Unfortunately, it just fell through. At the same time, Billy and I have always remained close friends.
Blez: How different was the experience of being a Yankee versus being with the Oakland Athletics?
Giambi: It's night and day. You go there and you come from a small market it's completely different. I was a little bit of a deer in the headlights. You're a rock star when you play with the Yankees. It's like a traveling rock band. You've got hundreds of media and a sold out stadium everywhere you go. It's fun. If you're an athlete it's a great experience to have one time in your career.
Blez: Was it what you expected?
Giambi: It was what I expected and more. I don't think you really understand it until you're thrown in the middle of it. Being there and getting to do it every day is amazing. You travel here and you have 3,000 people waiting in the hotel lobby. It's pretty cool and pretty incredible.
Blez: Was it a really different experience for you though because you went from being unquestionably "The Man" in Oakland to sort of having to take, and I don't want to say backseat, but you've got Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez there...
Giambi: The thing is when you're in New York, you're one of 25 superstars. That's the way it works. I've never really worried about that, even when I was in Oakland. I didn't really feel like I was more important than any other guy. I think that's why we won here because I gave those kids a feeling that we were going to win because of them. I wasn't really stressing out about where I was going to fit in because we had great teams. And I had great teammates over there in New York and it was a lot of fun.
Blez: There's been a lot of speculation that you changed your swing when you were signed by the Yankees. People said that as a left-handed hitter, you were tempted by the short right field porch. Did you alter your swing to try and pull more pitches when you played there?
Giambi: Yeah, a little bit. I used to hit the ball all over the field in Oakland because the gaps are very reachable in Oakland, so I used to use the opposite field a whole lot. When you look out at the way Yankee Stadium is configured, it just makes a lot of sense. Early in the season, when it's cold the gaps seem so far away and I was hitting a lot of balls out there and not getting much for it. It gets tempting when you look out there and you have 300 feet down the right field line. You do kind of change a little bit. But I think I can change back. I've been working on my swing a bit and working on hitting the ball the other way. So I think it should come back.
Blez: Did the pitchers adjust to what you were trying to do and realize that you were trying to pull balls? Essentially did they change the way they would pitch you and try to hit the outside of the plate more than anything?
Giambi: Yeah everyone makes adjustments. They'd mix it up. Go outside and inside. The only thing that they changed in New York was that they played more of a shift on me where I didn't really have that here in Oakland because I pulled the ball a lot more (in New York). I think that's what teams do a lot more now for guys like myself and Big Papi who pull a lot of balls through the hole.
Blez: Speaking of stadiums, you always seemed to hit pretty well at the Coliseum whereas the stadium has reputation for being a place where most hitters dread hitting because of the huge foul territory and the dead air at night. Do you like hitting at the Coliseum and if so, why?
Giambi: I love it. I don't know why, but I've always had that feeling. It's kind of like where you grow up and you go to that little league park and everything is so familiar. Even as a visiting player when I went to New York, I loved coming to Oakland and hitting there. I like to look out there and see all that green grass everywhere. It just feels like I can get a hit anywhere. I really enjoy hitting there.
Blez: Is it just because it feels more spacious to you?
Giambi: Yeah when I look out there I feel I have plenty of places where I can get a hit. Like you said, there is a little bit of dead air, but most of these guys don't realize I played in the old Oakland Coliseum. Talk about spacious, now that was spacious.
Blez: You mean before Mount Davis.
Giambi: Oh yeah.
Blez: Experts have also speculated that your batting average could go back up because of the change in parks and your willingness to use the whole field again. Do you anticipate that happening?
Giambi: I hope so. I've been working on it since I got back. I went out and tried to purposely hit the ball to left field more. I tried to get back to being more of a complete hitter.
Blez: This is sort of an off topic question, but will we see the radio-controlled cars on the infield again?
Giambi: (laughs) I don't know about that. It wasn't really my doing the first time I was there. That was more the younger guys like Chavy. But that's why it's going to be interesting now that we have those younger guys. Those new 20-year-olds on our team. A lot of them seem to be into video games and stuff like that. So it's kind of moved on from the cars to the video games now.
Blez: Do you like video games?
Giambi: No, there are too many buttons now (laughing).
Blez: That makes you an old school Nintendo guy, huh?
Giambi: Yeah I guess so.
Blez: Does it matter to you whether you're playing first base or designated hitting?
Giambi: No. I'm at the point in my career where I'll do whatever the A's need. We've got a lot of great young players. They've asked me and I've said, whatever you need from me. Whatever the ballclub needs from me, I'll do whether that's at first or DH. You want to get as many great bats in the lineup as possible. If it takes me playing first and we can get Jack Cust and Travis Buck in there, then I'll do whatever it needs.
Blez: Do you feel any different, hitting-wise, when you're in the field as opposed to being a DH?
Giambi: When I play first, I definitely feel like I get in more of a rhythm of hitting. The toughest thing for me is when I'm bouncing back and forth between being a DH and a first baseman because you can't really get a rhythm anywhere. It's just challenging to DH for a couple of days and then go out in the field. I just feel it's easier if you just do one or the other.
Blez: Do you find it tougher to play in the field if you take a couple of days off too?
Giambi: No it's just tougher if you keep bouncing back and forth. If you play the field, it's better to play for a long stretch, take a few days to DH and then play for another long stretch. That's what I found for myself in my career.
Blez: How do you view yourself as a defensive first baseman? There have been a lot of people who have said that you've had better days as a defensive first baseman, yet your fielding percentage is pretty high. So how do you view yourself?
Giambi: I view myself as great. I get the job done and that's what I'm out there for. The one thing that I know that I'm good at and you can ask Chavy and the younger guys and even Jeet (Derek Jeter) is that I've helped win a lot of guys gold gloves because I'm really good at picking balls out of the dirt. I think it's because when I was younger and playing in the Coliseum I got tired of running for the ball around all that foul ground.
Blez: (laughing) Anything to avoid that aerobic exercise.
Giambi: Yeah. Me and Wash (Ron Washington) would get out there and just practice picking the ball out of the dirt.
Blez: Have you altered your swing or approach as you've gotten older or has it remained largely the same?
Giambi: We touched on it a little earlier but I did change because of Yankee Stadium, but I have the same stance and same approach at the plate. Get a good pitch, hit it hard and let the rest take care of itself. Make sure you keep your on-base percentage up and when you get a good pitch, try to drive it.
Blez: You mentioned this earlier, but you seem genuinely excited about mentoring some of the younger kids the A's have; whether by making a trip to the mound with Curt Young or helping some of the younger hitters learn how to make adjustments. What can some of the younger guys learn by being around you?
Giambi: The biggest thing is that this is going to be my 15th year in the big leagues and when I was that young guy just getting to the big leagues, I wanted to talk to McGwire and Steinbach and Eckersley and Rickey Henderson. I've learned a lot from being in this game even from Derek Jeter and A-Rod. I still believe that no matter how many years you've put in you don't have all the answers. So you always want to take a little bit from here and there. I think the biggest thing I can offer is to help get that consistency for a younger player. You know, when they don't have as many ups and downs. The biggest thing I've learned from all of those guys is to try and be more consistent and figure out what you need to do. A lot of these guys have already started asking me questions like, when you face this guy, what are you looking for? Or when you take an at-bat, how should you approach it? Or even some of the kids on the mound just trying to get them to calm down a little bit and help them get back in their rhythm. That's the hardest part of this game is to not spin out of control.
Blez: Do you find that any of them were a bit in awe of you when you first arrived here this spring?
Giambi: I think there were a few of them were kind of nervous to talk to me a little bit.
Blez: Well you are kind of a living A's legend at this point.
Giambi: Thank you, but I think the biggest thing is that having played for the Yankees and been away for a while and coming back, it just made some of them nervous. But I'm kind of like Frank the Tank. I really try and have a good time and have fun. I try to knock down that barrier so the young kids feel comfortable coming up to me and talking to me.
Coming on Monday after the A's game with the Dodgers: Part II with Giambi where he discusses the improved A's offense, gives his thoughts about whether clutch hitting exists or not and what he has to say about that infamous Letterman bit about Oakland.