Despite steroid scandals, retiring Giambi rebuilt his reputation
Jason Giambi announced his retirement on Monday, bringing to a close a fascinating and often controversial 20-year major league career that saw him go from hard-partying, MVP-winning slugger at the center of Oakland's Moneyball-era renaissance to steroid villain and free-agent bust in the Bronx to respected clubhouse sage in Colorado and Cleveland, compiling 440 home runs and five All-Star appearances along the way. He may yet have a future as a big league hitting coach or manager, but for the moment, he's stepping away from the game.
The oldest player in the majors last season at age 43, Giambi was limited to 26 games with the Indians due to a rib fracture, calf strain and knee inflammation, and was rumored all winter to be considering retirement. With camps set to open later this week, he made his announcement via a statement in the New York Daily News, one that concluded:
"I want to thank the fans for being a part of this incredible journey. I especially want to thank the fans that gave me a second chance to let me show you the human being you see today.
"Lastly, to the game of baseball: I started playing you when I was a kid and I’m leaving you a man. Thank you."
Indeed, Giambi's career was unique in that, unlike many other high-profile players associated with illegal performance-enhancing drugs (including Oakland mentor Mark McGwire), he managed to find a way back into the good graces of both fans and the industry after publicly admitting — albeit belatedly — to having used at the height of his career. His name surfaced in the BALCO scandal in early 2004, and details of his usage surfaced via leaked grand jury testimony later that year. After making a non-specific apology in 2005 so as to avoid further legal hassles, he came clean in 2007.
After starring in three sports at South Hills High School, Giambi was originally drafted in the 43rd round by the Brewers in 1989. He chose instead to attend Cal State Long Beach, where he starred as a third baseman, helped the team reach the 1991 College World Series and earned a spot on Team USA for the 1992 Olympics; initially cut in June, he rejoined the team in mid-July after agreeing to take up the unfamiliar position of first base. The team finished fourth at the games in Barcelona, just missing a medal.
The Athletics drafted Giambi in the second round in 1992, and he debuted in the majors on May 8, 1995, going 1-for-4 with a single off the Rangers' Roger Pavlik and a walk off Matt Whiteside. His initial stay in the majors lasted only four games, but upon being recalled again on July 7, he clubbed his first major league home run — off the Blue Jays' David Cone — in his first plate appearance back, and stuck in the majors for good.
With McGwire a fixture at first base (at least when healthy), Giambi bounced around third base, first base, leftfield and designated hitter for his first three seasons, finally settling at first once McGwire was traded to the Cardinals in late 1997. After hitting just .256/.364/.398 with six homers in 210 plate appearances as a rookie, he hit .291/.355/.481 with 20 homers the following year, a plateau he would reach in 11 out of 13 seasons from 1996 to 2008, falling short only in two seasons significantly curtailed by injury or illness. He reached 30 homers eight times in that span, and 40 homers three times.
Giambi joined the A's at a time the franchise was in transition. Powered by the "Bash Brothers," McGwire and Jose Canseco, the team made four postseason appearances from 1988 to 1992 under manager Tony La Russa, winning three straight pennants from '88 to '90 and the 1989 World Series. After the departures of Canseco and staff ace Dave Stewart following the '92 season, the A's finished under .500 three straight times from '93 to '95; when La Russa left to manage the Cardinals, Art Howe took the reins.
Forced to compete under increasing financial constraints, the team went from having the majors' highest payroll in 1991 to its third-lowest in '96, but amid that cost-cutting came general manager Sandy Alderson's implementation of an organizational philosophy — espoused in Eric Walker's seminal sabermetric tract, The Sinister First Baseman — that emphasized the ability to get on base above all else, with the ability to hit for power near the top of the list as well. The '97 team lost 97 games, the worst season for the franchise since '79; at the end of that year, Alderson moved upstairs to the team presidency, with Billy Beane taking over as GM.
Giambi's maturation as a hitter exemplified the organization’s core values and coincided with the team’s return to contention. Blessed with 20/13 vision in his right eye — his lead eye as a lefthanded batter — he was able to identify pitches earlier than the vast majority of all hitters, and with his disciplined approach, his statistics soared. He went from hitting .295/.384/.489 with 27 homers and 81 walks for a 74-88 team in 1998 to .315/.422/.553 with 33 homers and 105 walks for an 87-win team in '99 to .333/.476/.647 with a career-high 43 homers and 137 walks for a 91-win AL West-winning team in 2000. His on-base percentage, walk total and 187 OPS+ all led the league, and he edged Frank Thomas and Alex Rodriguez in that year's MVP voting. He was even better the following season (.342/.477/.660 with 38 homers), leading in OBP, slugging, walks (129), OPS+ (199) and Wins Above Replacement (9.1), but finished as runner-up to Ichiro Suzuki in that year's even narrower MVP vote. The A's improved to 102 wins and another postseason berth, this time via the wild card (Suzuki's Mariners won a record 116 games that year), but as in 2000, they lost an agonizing five-game Division Series to the Yankees.
That was Giambi's final season in the green and gold. He signed a seven-year, $120 million deal that winter with the Yankees, the third-largest in the game at the time, and clouted 41 homers in each of his first two seasons. His pull-heavy focus on his new ballpark's short rightfield porch led teams to employ infield shifts against him with increasing frequency, however, and he slipped from .314/.435/.598 (172 OPS+) to .250/.412/.527 (148 OPS+). His batting average on balls in play, which had been at least .314 in seven straight season to that point, including .328 in 2002, dipped to .259 in '03, and would top .263 just one more time in a stay in New York that lasted until '08.
The Yankees' run of four straight AL pennants ended in 2002, but they returned to the World Series the following year thanks in part to Giambi's three home runs in the ALCS against the Red Sox, including two off Pedro Martinez in the epic Game 7 that ended with Aaron Boone's walkoff shot. He hit .235/.409/.471 in a losing cause against the Marlins in that year's World Series, the only time he would reach the Fall Classic.
Giambi's problems began that winter, when he was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) federal investigation. In March 2004, his name, along with those of Barry Bonds, Gary Sheffield and three other major leaguers, surfaced in a San Francisco Chronicle report by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. The report detailed that he had obtained PEDs from the nutritional supplement lab via Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Giambi publicly denied using PEDs, but in December of that year, the Chronicle drew from his leaked grand jury testimony that he had admitted to having injected himself with human growth hormone during the 2003 season and to having used steroids at least two years prior to that, including the previously undetectable steroids known as "the clear" and "the cream" at the center of the investigation. His brother and former teammate, Jeremy Giambi, testified to using the banned drugs as well.
Though he had been granted immunity for his testimony, Giambi played the 2004 season under a cloud. He hit just .208/.342/.379 with 12 homers in 80 games, missing 13 due to an ankle sprain and then 49 more due to what was initially diagnosed as an intestinal parasite, then revised to a benign pituitary gland tumor. He was left off the Yankees' postseason roster; they fell to the Red Sox in the ALCS. Upon reporting to camp in February 2005, Giambi held a press conference in which he publicly addressed the BALCO controversy for the first time, and offered an apology, though exactly for what he would not specify on the advice of the US attorney handling the case. Via the New York Times:
"I feel I let down the fans, I feel I let down the media, I feel I let down the Yankees, and not only the Yankees, but my teammates... I accept full responsibility for that, and I'm sorry," he said.
…In his first response to a question yesterday, Giambi said that he had not read the Chronicle article. He added that he had told the grand jury the truth, and he did not deny any aspects of what The Chronicle reported, which seemed to be as close as he was willing to come to confirming the article. Still, he did not directly admit to steroid use.
"I know the fans might want more," Giambi said. "But because of all the legal matters, I can't get into specifics. Someday, hopefully, I will be able to."
Giambi rebounded that season to hit .271/.440/.535 with 32 homers, leading the league in OBP for the third time and walks (108) for the fourth. He hit .421/.500/.579 in a losing cause in that year's Division Series against the Angels, but won AL Comeback Player of the Year honors that winter. He was similarly solid in 2006, but lost more than two months to a torn plantar fascia — hurt while trotting around the bases following a home run — the following year. Just prior to that, he made a more specific apology via USA Today:
"I was wrong for doing that stuff… What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said: 'We made a mistake.'
"We should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. … Steroids and all of that was a part of history. But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid. Nobody wanted to talk about it."
In his final year with the Yankees, Giambi not only hit .247/.373/.502 with 32 homers, but also enjoyed a resurgence of popularity among fans via his growth of a mustache and the revelation of his ownership of a widely-shared gold lamé thong that was credited with the power to bust slumps. In one of the least straitlaced moments of his career, Derek Jeter even conceded to wearing it ("over my shorts and stuff") to snap an 0-for-32 slide, and Johnny Damon said he'd worn it as well.
The Yankees declined Giambi's $22 million option following the 2008 season, instead paying him a $5 million buyout. At 38 years old, he agreed to a one-year, $5.25 million deal with the A's, and while he struggled (.193/.332/.364) to the point of being released in August, his 11 homers in 328 plate appearances led the Rockies to pick him up and activate him for a September stretch run that culminated in a Wild Card berth. He bonded with manager Jim Tracy, who had taken over in mid-season, and was recruited to return as a backup to Todd Helton and DH for interleague play. He took to the reduced role, spending three more seasons in Colorado, the best of which came in 2011, when he hit .260/.355/.603 with 13 homers in just 152 PA; four of his 22 homers for the Rockies were walkoffs.
When Tracy resigned at the end of the 2012 season, the going-on-42-year-old Giambi interviewed for the managerial vacancy. He was a finalist for the job, but when Walt Weiss got the nod, he declined an offer to become the team's hitting coach and opted to depart the organization, not wanting to be perceived as a looming alternative if the team struggled. He joined the Indians and quickly drew praise from incoming manager Terry Francona, who in spring training told The New York Times, "He's not a veteran, he's the veteran… I've already gone to him three or four times asking him questions. He's solid. Brings a lot."
Indeed, though he hit just 183/.282/.371, Giambi brought a lot via his nine homers in 216 PA; five of those homers came in the eighth or ninth inning. Two of them tied the game, and two were walkoffs, including one on Sept. 24 amid a 10-game winning streak via which Cleveland secured a Wild Card spot. His bid to repeat in that capacity in 2014 suffered a serious blow when an Edwin Jackson pitch fractured a rib in his right side during a mid-March exhibition. He made just 70 plate appearances, all against righties, and served as a de facto coach.
Giambi likely has a future as a coach and/or manager, but he declined a standing offer from the Indians in a non-playing role, and indicated his intention to step away from the game in favor of spending time with his family, saying in his retirement statement, "Daddy's coming home."
Giambi finishes his career with a .277/.399/.516 line and a 139 OPS+, virtually tied with Reggie Jackson and Bob Johnson for 42nd among players with at least 8,000 career plate appearances. His 440 homers rank 41st, his 1,366 walks 32nd. He compiled 50.8 WAR for his career, 28th best among first basemen, while his 42.1 peak WAR ranks 13th, 0.3 below the average Hall of Famer at the position. He's 23rd in JAWS at 46.5, about eight points below the standard.
That’s not likely to earn him much consideration for the Hall of Fame once he reaches the writers' ballot in 2020, but it's not out of the question that he could take a page from the man directly above him in the rankings, his former manager Joe Torre, who was elected in 2014 on the strength of his post-playing success.
More importantly, however, Giambi showed to an extent perhaps rivaled only by former teammate Andy Pettitte (whose number will be retired by the Yankees this coming season, it was announced on Monday) that it’s possible to return to public favor after admitting to PED usage. It's not that others haven't apologized and recovered — some receiving big free-agent contracts — but Giambi's combination of accountability and sincerity struck a chord with fans and inside the industry, allowing him to rebuild his reputation. That's an impressive feat in itself; if only Alex Rodriguez had taken notes.