The Fall and Rise of Jason Giambi, Part Three

Jason Giambi wasn’t the first major league star to admit to using steroids. Ken Caminiti admitted his use to Sports Illustrated in 2002, and Jose Canseco told anyone who’d listen about his use of steroids. But Giambi was the first star to admit it and then come back and play. Only Benito Santiago, so far past his prime that newspapers paid scant attention to his involvement in the scandal, would come back to start the 2005 season.

The Yankees didn’t want Giambi to be coming back with them. When they’d signed the former Oakland slugger in the winter of 2001, they were looking to acquire a great hitter for the middle of their lineup. They got that hitter in 2002 and for part of 2003, but they got almost nothing out of him in 2004.

Now they didn’t know if that hitter would ever come back, and they didn’t want to spend $80 million to find out. The Yankees immediately explored every possible option for getting rid of Giambi.

The problem was, there really didn’t seem to be any way to do that. To void the contract, they’d first have to find language in it that would allow them to void it because of past steroid use, and they’d have to prove that they had no prior knowledge of that usage. And more than that, they’d have to prove that Giambi had taken steroids—something they couldn’t do.

The reports of Giambi’s grand jury testimony were a death sentence in the court of public opinion but had no more weight legally than a nasty tabloid column. The actual testimony was still a secret, and without it, or a public admission by Giambi, the Yankees would have no proof that Giambi had done anything they could cut him for, and they would have to pay him the rest of his contract.

So they started to put pressure on him to leave. If he stayed, they’d do everything within their power to help the media destroy him—they’d make him the poster child for steroids. Accept a buyout, retire, whatever—just leave.

But Giambi wasn’t going to leave. He wanted to play in New York, for the Yankees. He wanted a chance to prove that he was a good ballplayer. And, of course, he wanted the money.

Eventually, the Yankees realized that no matter how much pressure they put on Giambi and his agent, they weren’t going to get out of the contract without dropping a huge chunk of change. And they still didn’t know what they were going to get from Giambi. Since they’d have to pay the money one way or another, they were going to see what they still had before declaring it a sunk cost and cutting bait. For the first part of 2005, at least, Giambi was going to be a Yankee.


On February 10, Giambi met the media at Yankee Stadium. He started by apologizing to the media, the fans, the organization and his teammates for letting them down for the “distractions” over the past year. Then he took questions.

The first question: “Have you used steroids playing Major League Baseball?”

“I can’t comment on that because of the legal issues that have gone down,” he answered, “but hopefully someday I’ll be able to answer that question.”

And so it went. The media pushed him to publicly confess that he had specifically used steroids, to publicly say that the San Francisco Chronicle’s report about his grand jury testimony was true. He would imply that he’d used, he’d imply that it’s true, but he wouldn’t directly say any of it.

And of course he wouldn’t. What would it have accomplished? It wouldn’t have made things any easier for him in the court of public opinion, it might have exposed him to legal action, it might have jeopardized the BALCO trial, and it might have cost him $80 million. No positive press is worth that much. He didn’t directly admit anything, but as his agent said, “The answers are there if you look for them.”

Still, the press wasn’t going for that. They were almost as harsh on him for not directly admitting steroid use as they were for his using in the first place. And while they anguished over Giambi’s failure to use the word “steroids,” everyone failed to ask Giambi what might be the most important question of all:

Why?


Baseball players have been cheating almost since the rules of the game were first written. In the beginning, the pitcher’s sole job was to start the play by throwing the ball where the batter could hit it. He had to throw underhand, with a stiff elbow and wrist—to literally pitch the ball. But before long many pitchers were bending their wrist while throwing to put more velocity and movement on the pitch and make it harder to hit. Soon enough, pitchers had figured out a way to actually make the ball curve on the way to the plate, making it even harder to hit.

A player would do anything he could to gain an edge. Hall of Famer King Kelly used to skip second base on the way to third if the umpire wasn’t looking. John McGraw used to hold runners on third base by grabbing their belts. Sign-stealing, ball-defacing, bat-corking. If a player thought it would help, he’d try it. Norm Cash won a batting title in 1961 with a corked bat, Gaylord Perry went to the Hall of Fame throwing a spitball and making batters think he was about to throw one when he wasn’t. Even Babe Ruth corked his bat.

Steroids, of course, are different. A player using steroids is tampering with his body, not his equipment. There are only two reasons a player would refuse to tamper with the equipment: because it’s against the rules, and because he doesn’t believe it would help him. Steroids add a third reason: it can hurt you.

For that reason, steroids are tolerated less by those who don’t use them than other forms of cheating. To keep up in a league where everyone corks their bats, there’s pressure to cork your bat. Big deal. To keep up in a league where everyone’s on steroids, well there’s pressure to put an illegal, potentially harmful drug into your body. That’s a big deal.

So why did Giambi decide to do it? Nobody asked, and he didn’t offer any answers. But considering what was to come, it would have been helpful to know.


Once again, Giambi got off to a bad start. At the end of April, he had only 15 hits—one double and three homers. Fourteen walks raised his on-base percentage (OBP) to .395, but his slugging percentage (SLG) was a puny .373. And the numbers kept dropping. On May 9, Giambi went 0-3 to extend a 15-at-bat hitless streak and drop his numbers to .195/.386/.325. His OBP was still good, but it couldn’t make up for his pathetic SLG.

The Yankees started to explore their options again, including cutting Giambi entirely and paying off the whole contract. But they weren’t quite ready to do that. Before the game on May 10, general manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre met with Giambi to discuss some of the choices.

Giambi dismissed a minor league assignment outright. It would save the Yankees a great deal of money with the luxury tax and give Giambi a chance to play every day without hurting the major league team. But it would also take Giambi away from batting coach Don Mattingly, with whom Giambi wanted to keep working. But he also had some ideas of his own.

First, he wanted a coach to fill the role that his personal trainer, Bobby Alejo, had filled before the Yankees cut back on his clubhouse access, so the team promoted minor league coach Mitch Seoane to work with him on extra batting practice. Second, he wanted to start pulling the ball, instead of trying to hit it to left-center like Mattingly was pushing him to do.

Torre and Cashman agreed, and three days later he was back in the lineup against the A’s. He’d get another chance to put it back together. It might be his last chance.


In the month between the meeting and the Wednesday night game against Pittsburgh, the Yankees climbed back into the AL East pennant race, then came close to falling out of it again. A 16-2 run was followed immediately by a 3-11 stretch. Giambi came back from the west coast with 8 hits in 6 games and his first homer in almost a month, and then immediately regressed to his previous numbers. From May 20 to June 14, the Yankees went 10-12. Giambi hit .268/.400/.317.

June 15 was more of the same. Giambi blooped a bases-empty single with two outs in the second and was stranded at third, then struck out swinging to lead off the fifth, popped out to shallow right with a runner on third and one out, then struck out in the eighth with the tying run on second and one out. With the Yankees trailing by one run in the bottom of the ninth, Giambi looked to be the goat of the game.

But in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees caught a break. The first base umpire blew the call on a game-ending double play, calling Gary Sheffield safe on a ball on which he was clearly out, allowing the Yankees to tie the game with dramatic two-out hits by Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada. The game went to extra innings, and Giambi had another chance.

Tino Martinez led off the 10th inning with a four-pitch walk, and Tony Womack bunted pinch runner Russ Johnson to second. A mix of boos and cheers greeted him, the fans hopeful for a game-winning base hit but expecting another strikeout. Mesa threw a strike over the plate, missed low and inside, got Giambi to foul it off, and then missed inside again. The next pitch was also inside, but over the plate.


It wasn’t just another home run. It wasn’t just over the fence, or a dozen or so rows back like his first four were. This was a home run Roy Hobbs would be proud to hit. Giambi didn’t have to run towards first, he didn’t have to wait and see if it would go over the fence; this ball was over the fence, finally landing halfway up the upper deck in right field.

The Yankees ran onto the field, jumping and screaming like they’d just won the World Series, crowding Giambi at the plate, hugging him. All the boos from a few minutes before had turned to raucous cheers, and Giambi raised his helmet above his head in salute as he walked off the field. It was the last time the Yankees would be below .500 all year, and the last time Giambi would be the goat. Once again, Giambi was the toast of New York.

But Giambi wasn’t back to his old slugging ways right away. He didn’t hit another homer for another three weeks, though he hit over .300 and his On-Base Plus Slugging (OPS) jumped back over .900 in that time. Giambi wasn’t completely back until July 4, when the Yankees hosted Baltimore in an Independence Day Matinee. Even the Gruccis couldn’t top the fireworks show Giambi was about to put on.


Giambi led off the second inning with the Yankees leading 4-0 and launched a homer off the front of the upper deck in right. With the Yankees trailing 8-6 in the eighth, he ripped another homer over the right-center field fence to start a seven-run game-winning rally. The next day he hit another homer to right-center to start off the Yankees’ rout, and two days later he homered in the third straight game, this time against the Indians. The Indians managed to hold him to two singles over the next two games, but on July 10 he crushed another home run to the back of the right-centerfield bleachers.

The All-Star break didn’t cool him off. He homered right away in Boston, hit two in the third game in Texas, two more the next day in Anaheim, and another one over the weekend. Three more home runs against the Angels the next weekend in New York keyed two straight late-inning comebacks, and on August 4, he homered two times once again, the second coming off of Bob Wickman to win the game in the ninth.

In the end, July was the single greatest calendar month of his career—he hit .355/.524/.974, and his 1.498 OPS was the single best month of any player other than Barry Bonds since Richard Hidalgo posted a 1.504 in September 2000. His 14 home runs in July were the most by a Yankee in July since Mickey Mantle in 1961. At the end of the streak, he was leading the American League in OBP and OPS.

And what a streak it was. Over 26 games from July 4 to August 4, Giambi hit 16 home runs and had a line of .385/.538/1.077—a ridiculous 1.615 OPS. It was the single greatest 26-game streak of his entire career, and he’d been better since June 15 than he’d been in any single-season 41-game streak in his career. It was unbelievable.

Literally.


On August 1, baseball fans everywhere were stunned by the announcement that Rafael Palmeiro had failed his mandatory steroids test. In March, Palmeiro had told Congress, under oath, that he’d never taken steroids, and before Canseco’s book had come out that offseason, nobody had seriously suspected him. It was a stunning revelation.

Palmeiro didn’t look like a steroid user was supposed to look like. His numbers didn’t seem to have an obvious spike, and they were never really so great that they’d raise suspicion. But there was the test, Palmeiro had tested positive.

If Palmeiro was using steroids—if he could go before Congress, swear to tell the truth and say he’d never used steroids, and then test positive for steroids—anyone could be using steroids.

And everyone looked at Jason Giambi.


Some people were already suspicious of Giambi’s hot streak before the Palmeiro scandal. How could they not be? If Giambi was clean and hitting this well, didn’t that mean that steroids weren’t the wonder drug they’d been hyped to be? Sure, they make you stronger, but do they make you a better hitter?

It is of course entirely possible that, in some cases, they don’t. Just because you’re stronger doesn’t mean you’ll hit the ball farther—it’s about bat speed, not strength. If you lose flexibility when you gain muscle mass, you could gain little or no bat speed from your increased strength. Without an increase in bat speed, you’re not going to hit any more homers.

So, it’s plausible. But then, it could also have just been a hot streak. Richard Hidalgo had a .919 OPS going into September of 2000, when he exceeded Giambi’s July 2005, and he’d done it in 20 more plate appearances. The rarity of it doesn’t make it sinister, and Giambi’s deep slump since his hot streak lends credence to the “hot streak” explanation.

Giambi did have a pituitary tumor that could be connected to his steroid use, so that could have scared him off of steroids. But it might not have. He claims to have stopped using before the BALCO scandal, not because of it, and he claims that they didn’t help him that much. But again, that doesn’t mean he’d never use again.

Since we don’t know why he started using in the first place, it’s hard to determine if he’d ever start using them again. Ultimately, we never can be sure.

Only Giambi knows the truth. Unfortunately, that’s how life is, the heroes and villains usually aren’t as clear-cut as they are in books and movies. It’s unsatisfying, but there’s nothing that can be done about it.

That’s the real damage steroids have done to the game. There will always be steroids in the game, and there will always be a way around the testing procedures and players willing to take the risks. And there will always be those doubts. No longer can we sit back and watch extraordinary feats in pure awe, there will always be a question in the back of our minds: was it real?

We’ll never know.

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