Jason Giambi Gets His Renegade Back On

March 02, 2009
March 02, 2009

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March 2, 2009


Jason Giambi Gets His Renegade Back On

A little older, a little less scruffy and not an ounce less fun-loving, one of the most vaunted—and beloved—sluggers in A's history hopes to bring a much-missed jolt to the Oakland lineup and clubhouse

JASON GIAMBIwalked into the A's spring-training complex for the first time in eight years,pulled up a stool in an otherwise empty clubhouse, pointed both index fingersat a row of lockers and pretended to fire off a couple of six-shooters in rapidsuccession. The gesture might have seemed a bit cryptic, but to any aficionadoof the frat-house oeuvre, the message was clear. Giambi was channeling Frankthe Tank—Will Ferrell's character in Old School—right after Frank chugs thecontents of a beer bong and right before he licks the face of a coed, hops onstage with Snoop Dogg and goes streaking through the center of town. "Frankthe Tank," Giambi said, with a diabolical look on his newly bearded mug."I'm still that guy."

This is an article from the March 2, 2009 issue

If Frank the Tankhad spent seven years in that Old School fraternity, then moved to New York andspent the next seven working at an investment firm, only to return as LambdaEpsilon Omega's 38-year-old rush chairman, he might have felt a little likeGiambi coming back to the A's. "When I was here the first time, we turnedthis place into a frat house," Giambi says. "I think we can do itagain."

The A's have beento the playoffs only once since 2003, the same year Moneyball was published,and they've lost 86 games in each of the past two years. Last season theyranked near the bottom of the major leagues in every significant offensivecategory. The frat house that Giambi built was uncharacteristically quiet,mainly because a lot of the members were hitting about .230. "It wasn'twhat it used to be," outfielder Jack Cust says. Once a maverick franchise,Oakland had become just another small-market club, its spirit beaten down bythe unforgiving economics of baseball.

But thisoff-season, when every small-market team and most of the big ones were scaredoff by the economic downturn, the A's regained their renegade mojo. Ten yearsago they invested in players with high on-base percentages because thoseplayers were undervalued by other teams. Five years ago, when on-basepercentage was the rage but defense was not, they went after the slickestfielders. And in this most unusual winter, when most teams (the Yankeesexcepted, of course) were spurning marquee veterans in favor of draft picks andprospects, the famously frugal A's signed Giambi for $5.25 million and tradedthree disposable parts to Colorado for outfielder Matt Holliday, who is due$13.5 million this year. "Everything we do," general manager BillyBeane says, "has to be contrarian."

Startingrighthander Sean Gallagher was on the golf course in November when his father,Paul, sent him a text message that the A's had landed Holliday. "Are youkidding me?" Gallagher responded. (Viewing Oakland as a noncontender at thetime, Holliday, it should be added, had the exact same reaction.) Gallagher wasin the gym in January when his dad sent him another text that the A's hadsigned Giambi, too. "Wow," Gallagher says, "we're not messingaround this year."

Warren Buffettadvises investors, "Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy whenothers are fearful," a tip that's easy for the Yankees to follow but lessso for the A's. It's hard to characterize their off-season approach asgreedy—their payroll is still just north of $60 million—but they did bidaggressively on free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal before he re-signed with theDodgers and remain in the mix for Orlando Cabrera, another free-agentshortstop, and Nomar Garciaparra. "It's like buying a house right now,"says A's starting lefty Dallas Braden. "It's tough to do, but if you canmake it work, there are good values to be had. Billy found a piece of realestate for a low price, and he'll see it rise."

There is no placefor nostalgia in Moneyball, but when Beane reunited with Giambi, he was aboutas sentimental as a self-described "cyborg" can get. "I feel likeI'm marrying my ex-wife," Beane said. The union between Giambi and theA's—like the one between Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners—ended prematurely.Giambi's seven years in New York are remembered mainly for the leaked grandjury testimony that led to a 2005 admission of steroid use, an intestinalparasite, a pituitary tumor (benign), a gold thong, a bad 'stache and someregrettable haircuts. His seven years in Oakland are remembered for an MVPaward, two playoff seasons and no haircuts. "We loved New York, but when wewere there, we still probably talked every day about the times we had inOakland," says Bob Alejo, the A's strength and conditioning coach, who wasGiambi's personal trainer with the Yankees. "Those are the kind of timesyou always hope to recapture. But you never can."

Or can you?

IN THE secondweek of February, Giambi attended the annual Giants-A's kickoff luncheon in SanFrancisco, a swanky affair hosted by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area that included athree-piece band, an open bar and ficus trees illuminated with twinkly lights.Giambi wore jeans that were ripped at both knees and a half-tucked dress shirtthat revealed a silver belt buckle the size of a saucer, engraved with a skullflanked by angels' wings. As he strode into the banquet hall, he paused torethink his look. "I didn't know if I could grow my hair out in time forthis," Giambi says. "So I went with the Mohawk instead." (It wasreally more of a faux-hawk.) When he was introduced by Ray Fosse, Oakland'sbroadcaster, Fosse told Giambi what he already seemed to know: "Jason, youcan relax now."

Despite incessantroster changes, nearly every baseball clubhouse maintains a certain identity.The Yankees have a corporate one. The Rockies have a religious one. The A'shave a rollicking one. This dates back to Reggie, Catfish and Rollie in the1970s, Rickey and the Bash Brothers in the '80s, but for today's players it isall about Giambi. "He is the definition of an Oakland A," saysGallagher, 23. "He created the whole persona." To prove his point, whenGallagher was traded from the Cubs to the A's last season, he grew his hairout, a la Giambi. And when he saw a few Cubs coaches this spring at Las SendasGolf Club in Mesa, Ariz., they shouted to him, "Oh, now you're doing it theOakland way."

The A's have onlyone player who was with Giambi his first time around, 31-year-old third basemanEric Chavez, but the new pledges are in place. During the past two years, whilethe A's were losing games and shedding veterans, they quietly amassed the mostimpressive collection of young pitchers west of Tampa Bay. When the A'sacquired Holliday for the middle of their batting order, he did not understandwhy a noncontender would want him, since he is entering the last year of hiscontract. But during the first week of spring training, he watched some ofOakland's young pitchers throwing bullpen sessions and saw in them the keys tocontention. "It makes sense now," Holliday says.

Coming fromColorado, Holliday may be in for a bit of culture shock. But he ingratiatedhimself with his teammates this winter when he texted Bobby Crosby and askedthe Oakland shortstop if he wanted to work out at UC Irvine—with former A'sfirst baseman Mark McGwire and second baseman Mike Gallego. Crosby and Hollidaytook turns in the batting cage while Gallego pitched and McGwire critiquedtheir swings, reminding them to be short to the ball. It's unlikely thatHolliday, the crown jewel of the 2009 free-agent class, will be persuaded tosign an extension with the A's, but he will almost certainly accomplish one oftwo goals for them. Either he keeps them in the hunt and leaves after theseason (in which case the A's get two first-round picks as compensation,assuming they offer him arbitration) or he is traded before the deadline (inwhich case the A's could get prospects who are better than the players theygave up).

AFTER THE 2007season, members of the A's front office had informal conversations about thenation's economy and whether it was headed for a downturn. Coincidentally, theA's were coming off their first losing season in nine years. To staycompetitive, they had plundered their farm system and neglected Latin America,abandoning the emphasis on player development that made them thefourth-winningest franchise in the previous 10 years, behind the Yankees. Itwas time for a massive rebuilding, the kind that many small-market teams talkabout but few have the stomach to implement.

Just as AmericanIndians used to set fire to chaparral so the landscape would grow back strongerand healthier, the A's scorched their roster to make it more bountiful for thelong run. Last winter they traded first baseman Nick Swisher to the White Soxand pitcher Dan Haren to the Diamondbacks in packages that netted nineprospects. Then the season started, and the A's still won. Heading into July,they were eight games over .500, 3 ½ back of the Angels in the American LeagueWest. Players believed they had a chance. Beane was skeptical. In July hetraded pitcher Rich Harden to the Cubs and Joe Blanton to the Phillies inpackages for seven more prospects. In the span of eight months, an entire minorleague system was replenished. Three of the youngsters obtained in those dealsare among Baseball Prospectus's top 100 prospects.

"Now you havea great farm and you have financial flexibility because you've cutpayroll," Beane says. "You're in position to take advantage of thechanging financial environment."

Because of theirreliance on statistical analysis, Oakland's front office is often depicted ascold and calculating, but the atmosphere in the executive suite is, in fact,about as casual as the clubhouse's. Sitting in his office at Phoenix MunicipalStadium, Beane fiddles with a Blackberry while his border collie, Taggart,curls up under his desk. Beane wears a baseball cap, not from the A's but fromKenyon College, where his daughter, Casey, is a freshman. In the past two yearsBeane has gained a great deal of attention for his keen interest inprofessional soccer. It was inferred that he had grown frustrated with all thelosing by the A's. In fact, he says he was as energized as he had been in sometime. He made three trips to the Dominican Republic last year to court16-year-old Michel Inoa, a 6'7" pitcher who has touched 94 mph on the radargun. Inoa signed with the A's in July for $4.25 million, more than double therichest signing bonus ever given to a Latin American amateur pitcher.

When Beane talksabout Oakland's other top pitching prospects—Trevor Cahill, a 21-year-oldsinkerballer from outside San Diego; Brett Anderson, a 21-year-old lefty whosefather, Frank, is Oklahoma State's baseball coach; and Vin Mazzaro, a burly22-year-old righthander from Rutherford, N.J., who has the strongest arm of thelot—he flashes back to former A's starter Tim Hudson in 1999, striking out 11batters over five innings in his debut at Qualcomm Stadium against the Padres.For Beane, seeing young pitchers on the verge is almost as rewarding as seeingthem in the playoffs.

The A's gave upthe third-fewest runs in the American League last season, and other than31-year-old ace Justin Duchscherer, they do not have a starting pitcher olderthan 25. Cahill, Anderson and Mazzaro are probably still a year away, and theAngels remain entrenched as favorites in the American League West. But byfailing to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira and closer Francisco Rodriguez,they have left the door open. "When the A's got Holliday, I was like,Ho-hum, he'll just be trade bait at the deadline," says new Angels closerBrian Fuentes. "But then they got Giambi, and I started looking at some oftheir young pitching. It could get interesting with them."

WITH GIAMBIaround, it will at least be interesting even if Oakland falls flat. Making himthe leader of 21- and 22-year-olds sounds a little risky, considering that hiswife likens him to "a room full of kindergartners hopped up on RedBull" and that he believes the only job outside of baseball for which he isqualified is "bouncer at a strip joint." But Giambi is best whensurrounded by young players, whether it was Joba Chamberlain in New York orChavez in Oakland. Even though his appetite for the nightlife is legendary, hemay be happiest sitting around talking hitting. "This is a great place tobe a young player, and a lot of that is because of Jason," Chavez says."There are other teams where veterans will yell at you if you go into thewrong side of the room. When I came up, I didn't have to worry about any ofthat. Jason creates an atmosphere where everyone is able to relax and fulfilltheir potential."

The A's of thelate 1990s and early 2000s were built in Giambi's image. Sure, they were wild—arelief pitcher named Jeff Tam once burned his glove in the shower after bootinga comebacker—but they were also endearing. When a player tried to needlepitching coach Rick Peterson by pasting his less-than-stellar minor leaguestatistics on the wall, Giambi threw a beefy arm around Peterson and said,"You O.K.? You know these guys love you."

"That wasG," Peterson says. "He is the one who always wore the cape."

The goodwill thatGiambi built in Oakland might have served him well when his steroid use came tolight in New York. His initial attempt at a public apology was every bit asclumsy as Alex Rodriguez's, but he escaped the same level of criticism, in partbecause he has a quality that Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and McGwiredo not: a casual likability. Asked how he developed such a trait, Giambi said,"You're just born cool."

The last time heplayed for Oakland, the A's cool quotient was immeasurable. Can they re-createwhat they had, six years after Moneyball, in the midst of an economic crisis,with a new generation of pitchers and a familiar old slugger breaking out thecape? As Frank the Tank puts it, right after he fires those imaginary pistols,"You know it."

"When they got Holliday, I was like, Ho-hum, he'lljust be TRADE BAIT at the deadline," Fuentes says. "But then they gotGiambi...."
"When I was here the first time, WE TURNED THISPLACE INTO A FRAT HOUSE," Giambi says. "I think we can do itagain."



Digital postcards from each of the 30 spring training sites, in which SI'swriters share their observations, analysis and the early buzz.


PHOTOPhotograph by Peter Read MillerNEW SCHOOL After buttoning up in New York, Giambi can let his hair down as he did with the A's in 2000 (top left).PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above]PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARISBANG FOR THE BUCKS The power and patience of Giambi and Holliday (below) was in short supply for the A's in '08.PHOTOMICHAEL ZAGARIS[See caption above]PHOTOJEFF CHIU/APEX MARKS THE SPOT Beane was elated to be reunited with Giambi, whom he likened to a former wife (but in a really good way).