Many still think of Jason Giambi as he was at age 29, when as a member of the Oakland A's and in the midst of an American League MVP season he appeared on the July 17, 2000 cover of Sports Illustrated: the long strands of greasy hair dangling over his face; the dark goatee; the huge tattoo of a flaming skull on his left shoulder, uncovered because he wore a shirt with the sleeves cut off to reveal both his ink and his considerable biceps. So it is somewhat jolting to walk into the Cleveland Indians clubhouse and see him as he is now. His hair is cut short, and flecked with more than just a little gray. His face is clean-shaven, by the standards of ballplayers. He prefers shirts with long sleeves.
It is, in fact, something of a shock to see him there at all, preparing to play in yet another big league game. He is, at 42, the oldest hitter in the league, and the game's second most senior player, behind only Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, his teammate in New York between 2002 and '08. In 2012, with the Rockies, he stepped to the plate 113 times and hit just one home run. Last October, he interviewed to be Colorado's manager, before Walt Weiss ultimately got the gig.
More than that, though, is that his face -- which the SI cover proclaimed as "The New Face of Baseball" -- seems to be the visage of another era, in which legions of juiced-up hitters crushed home run after home run off of chemically overmatched pitchers. An era that, fundamentally anyway, is now over.
Would Giambi currently be a Cleveland Indian -- or a major leaguer at all -- had he not done what so many of his obviously tainted contemporaries did not, which was to admit to and apologize for using steroids? Probably not. Baseball has seemed inclined to forgive those who have come clean, like Giambi and his still active old Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte, and to exile the rest. But the key to Giambi's continuing presence is more nuanced than just that. It is that Giambi, like Pettitte, is the type of person who would do such a thing, stand up in public and admit that he had erred. He is a good man who could not resist the temptation to do something wrong, yet he remained a good man -- as he always was, beneath the hair, and the tattoos and the menacing mien. Lesser men wouldn't admit what they'd done, and they did not, and still do not.
In a recent SI feature, I theorized that the Indians' unexpected early season success -- they are now, after a four-game losing streak, 30-29, yet are still just two games behind the Tigers in the AL Central -- might be attributed partly to a willingness by the front office and by the team's new manager, Terry Francona, to accept their players' imperfections in order to maximize the things that they do well. Giambi has so far proved the club's investment in him -- the one-year, $750,000 contract they gave him in February -- to be a fine one. In 83 plate appearances, all of them as a designated hitter, he has hit five homers, three of them in a span of three games last week, and he has driven in 19 runs. If those numbers are nowhere near those of his youth -- between 1998 and 2003, he hit .308 and averaged 37 home runs and 120 RBIs -- it is about as robust as Cleveland could have hoped.
His influence on the Indians, though, has been deeper and more consistent, and more difficult to quantify, than the periodic bursts of power his 6-foot-3, 250-pound body can still produce. Giambi is the team's leader, one to which the rest of his teammates can be inspired by -- one who has publicly laid bare his flaws and yet who remains on the whole something far better than the sum of them.
When Francona, the ex-Red Sox skipper, returned to Fenway Park for the first time as an opposing manager on May 23, most of the questions fired at him by the teeming Boston media concerned his own emotional state upon revisiting the scene of his greatest professional triumphs. At one point, however, someone asked about Giambi. This is what Francona said:
"How much time you have? I can't begin to tell you the amount of respect that we have for him. I've been around a lot of good -- I've been so fortunate, I've been around so many good players. He's not a veteran. He's the veteran. I've never been around somebody like this guy. Remember when he interviewed in Colorado? I thought, from afar, that's an odd interview. Now that I know 'G,' I guess my thought is, Walt Weiss must really be good, if he beat him out. Because this guy is some kind of special. I've leaned on him ... and the players do. He's got big shoulders, man. He's awesome."
It is one thing for a manager to publicly speak of one of his players like that, and another for a player to speak of a teammate like that in a formal interview, which the Indians players often do when the subject is Giambi. But it is something else, something more genuine, to catch them appraising him similarly when they are more or less just among themselves, as they were the afternoon after Tito's return to Boston.
Giambi had agreed to appear on the MLB Network show The Rundown. "Doing it live?" first baseman Nick Swisher asked Giambi, in Fenway's cramped visitors' clubhouse. "That's how you do it, baby!" Giambi said, to his teammates' laughs and cheers. "Drop some knowledge."
When Giambi did the interview from just outside the third base dugout, he spoke openly and eloquently about the source of the team's unusual chemistry, and Francona's impact upon it, and his own power resurgence, which might have resulted, he thought, from the fact that he was now a part-time DH, as opposed to a periodic pinch hitter. Partway through the interview, his still new teammate Mark Reynolds came up and attempted to tackle him. Reynolds is 6-foot-2 and weighs 220 pounds, and yet he looked like a Little Leaguer who was trying to jump on his father's back for a ride.
The notable thing about Giambi's MLB Network appearance that afternoon was the reaction of his teammates who were still inside the clubhouse, once he appeared on the screen. In the moments before his segment, they had been raucous. Swisher had been enthusiastically describing the process of cutting the umbilical cord that connected his wife, the actress JoAnna Garcia Swisher, and new daughter, Emerson Jaye, who had been born a few days before. But when Giambi came on, the rest of the team gathered around the TV and went silent, listening to what he had to say, and nodding.
"When he came on, the whole clubhouse stopped," outfielder Michael Brantley observed to starting pitcher Justin Masterson, after the segment had ended.
"That happens in real life, too," Masterson said.
Giambi has been afforded many more years than most of his era's known users of PEDs to mitigate, if never erase, his transgressions. But he has been afforded them because of who he is, and who he always has been. One day soon, he will likely become the first known former steroids user to manage a big league team. First, he's got some more work to do as a player, in Cleveland.