Tuesday February 22nd, 2005

The word "former" sticks to them like pine tar to wood. They are former MVPs, former All-Stars, former golden boys, former don't-you-dare-leave-your-seat-now attractions. Can they ever be any of that again? As Spring Training begins in earnest this week, no two players are more fascinating than Jason Giambi and Sammy Sosa. Both need to rehabilitate their image and their game. Not even their own clubs know if that is possible.

Giambi is 34. Sosa is 36. Both have suffered declines in on-base percentage, slugging percentage and batting average three years running, the only regulars in baseball to fall that steadily. Both will talk this spring about feeling great and being optimistic about "putting things behind" them. Forget it. Forget Giambi's steroids and his tap-dancing press conferences and forget Sosa's boom box and his high-schoolish breakup with the Cubs and manager Dusty Baker. This is about baseball now. Nothing else. And no one knows if they still can play at a high level.

Giambi's body broke down to such an extent the past two seasons that he may never be a regular first baseman again. At least that would spare us from having to watch him refuse to throw the ball to second base because of a mental block. He must learn to like DH, a position he never has taken to in the past. And he must hit right away to appease the impatient Yankees fans. Can he do it?

"One thing he didn't lose the past two years was his [batting] eye," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. True, Giambi's selective approach at the plate is a good foundation toward getting him back on track. There's a saying in baseball, When you're walking, you're hitting. Good hitters wait for good pitches to hit. That bodes well for Giambi.

Most importantly, Giambi needs to use all of Spring Training to regain the stroke he used in Oakland. As he increased strength in recent years and, according to the San Francisco Chronicle's account of his BALCO testimony, pumped steroids and growth hormone into his bloated body, Giambi fell in love with pure power and forgot about the left side of the field. Teams deployed dramatic defensive overshifts on a guy who once peppered both gaps with doubles.

Giambi will have to reject the enormous temptation to swing for the fences this spring as if to crow, "See, it wasn't the steroids!" He reported to camp looking extremely large and muscular after intense weight training in the winter, which may not be a good sign.

"He's adjusted his swing as a Yankee," Cashman said. "I think it was playing in Yankee Stadium and [aiming for] the right-field porch. He sacrificed average for power numbers. We've already talked to him about getting back to using the whole field. He changed his swing for our ballpark and we don't want that.

"I'd rather have a hitter who hits .325 with 25 homers and 100-plus RBI than a .270 hitter with 35 to 40 homers and 100 RBI."

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