The following was written by Noah Frank, the Digital Sports Editor for WTOP in Washington. Noah is an A's fan, and he interned for the team during his younger years.
There are moments in our baseball lives that are simply perfect, preserved in amber like a talisman, memories of a time when everything was sublime and nothing was wrong in the world.
For some, those moments are championships. But championships are messy and nerve-racking and almost never as simple as a singular moment of joy. Even 1989, with Stan Javier leaping onto the vortex of green and gray and gold surrounding Eck on the mound at Candlestick will always have the shadow of the earthquake looming behind it.
But one moment will always stand out to me for its unparalleled, absurd bliss, its perfect conclusion to a perfect series. That moment's hero was Jason Giambi, and it cemented my lasting memory of him, so given the news of his retirement today, it seems like the right time to share it.
Before Giambi betrayed Oakland for the dreaded Yankees (and well before he later made at least partial amends in his return), he was the Athletics' shining star. Coming off his 2000 AL MVP campaign, Giambi slashed .314/.435/.598, setting a career high with 41 home runs in his final pre-free agency season in 2001. I saw a lot of those games, because I was working as an intern for the team at the time, in my summer between high school and college.
It was impossible to fully realize it then, but having seen thousands of games since, I have come to the conclusion that the 2001 A's were the best team I've ever seen. It's a sentiment that has been shared by a member of that team, F.P. Santangelo, in conversations we've had in the past couple of years. And that team reached its zenith, the apex of its achievement, during a sun-soaked week in mid-August in Northern California.
Riding a five-game winning streak, the A's returned home for a six-game homestand with the Red Sox and Yankees, trailing the impossible Mariners by a long stretch but angling for the AL Wild Card at 62-50. With Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito on the hill, Oakland quickly dispatched the Red Sox with a three-game sweep to extend the win streak to eight and pass Boston in the Wild Card standings. That brought the first-place Yankees to town, and with them the greatest oddity and game of my baseball life.
While gazing at the game notes heading into the opener, someone in the press box (I can't remember for the life of me who it was at this point) pointed out a quirk in the starting pitching matchup for each game of the series. Within each game, the starting pitchers shared not just the first letter, but the first two letters of their last names.
Fri: Ted Lilly vs. Cory Lidle
Sat: Sterling Hitchcock vs. Erik Hiljus
Sun: Mike Mussina vs. Mark Mulder
Li and Li. Hi and Hi. Mu and Mu, for God's sake. I can't verify whether or not this had ever happened before, or has since, but I'd wager against it. Other than being a terrific trivia question with which to stump your friends (not even Ken Korach could get all six when I posed it to him last year), it provided the perfect backdrop to a movie script-like series.
Lidle twirled a gem to win the opener, then Oakland battled through a pair of errors Saturday for a hard-fought, 8-6 victory. That set up a matchup of Cy Young contenders (Mulder would finish second, Mussina fifth) with a 10-game winning streak on the line and the A's looking for the series sweep.
Under a cloudless East Bay sky, nearly 48,000 fans turned out for the showdown, which did not disappoint. Mulder chugged along steadily, allowing just two hits through five scoreless frames. Mussina, meanwhile, mowed through the first 14 batters he faced against an Oakland club that had averaged better than seven runs per game during its winning streak.
Then, on a 2-2 pitch with two outs in the fifth, Miguel Tejada lifted a ball high and deep to the opposite field, clearing the wall in right for a solo shot. The crowd was still celebrating when Eric Chavez swung at the first pitch and lifted a slicing seven iron into the left field corner, clanging off the foul pole. Two pitches, 2-0 A's.
The scoreline held until the top of the eighth, when Alfonso Soriano lined a one-out single and then, in a lineup of mashers, of all people, Clay Bellinger lined a shot over the 330 mark and out to left field, tying the game and stunning the home fans. It was just his second home run of the season.
The A's went in order in the eighth, and Mulder worked around a leadoff single in the ninth. With Mussina at 110 pitches after eight frames, Joe Torre summoned All-Star lefty Mike Stanton from the bullpen to face Oakland's 9-1-2 for the bottom of the ninth. After Frank Menechino struck out leading off, Johnny Damon drew a one-out walk, prompting Art Howe to pinch-hit Olmedo Saenz for Jeremy Giambi.
At this point, I remember turning to my boss in the press box and saying, out loud, "I don't care if Saenz strikes out here, as long as he doesn't ground into a double play. Just give Giambi a chance."
In our platoon-heavy modern world, this makes no sense. But this was Jason Giambi, and it didn't matter if Mike Stanton was the best lefty reliever in the league, he needed a chance to win the game right there. Sure enough, Saenz went down swinging, and up stepped Giambi, with a runner at first and two out.
I remember that Stanton threw Giambi five fastballs. I remember that three of them missed, one was taken for a strike, and that the last one was fouled straight back to the screen. That prompted the knowing, familiar combination of hope and regret escaping as a collective sigh simultaneously from the mouths of thousands. He was on that one.
Specifically, I remember a few things about the next pitch. That it was a breaking ball, and that Giambi seemed to know it at the time. That Giambi swung, and that the ball took off from his bat like an archer's arrow, but with the crack of a thunderbolt, soaring from the Coliseum's cavern into the sunlight. That I watched the ball reach its apex and fall, just over the back edge of the gray stairwell to nowhere in right field, disappearing into a vacuum of darkness and the loudest roar I had ever heard.
Except I didn't actually see any of these things at the time. I have, in replays, over the years, and my mind has filled in the details. The sound I certainly remember; I'll never forget. But as soon as the ball left the bat, I turned and watched Stanton, who gave a fleeting glimpse back, then let his momentum carry him straight off the field and into the dugout. He was across the first base line by the time Giambi rounded first, by the time I had a minute to realize what I was watching, to soak it all in.
It's funny watching it again. Maybe Giambi didn't sit breaking ball, after all. Watch it again (like I have to tell you twice). He puts his plant foot down early, then has to wait a tick before starting his swing. Maybe he was just that good.
Unbelievably, in the career of a man who became famous for his game-ending heroics, that was Giambi's first walk-off bomb. He would hit nine more in his career, but that was the one that started it all. He hit it, the star of the best team I've ever seen play, at a time when it seemed like they might achieve anything.
I've had plenty of moments to cheer in my baseball life, but 14 years later, that one still stands above the rest. And for that, I'll always be thankful to Jason Giambi.
Noah can be reached on Twitter: @NoahFrankWTOP