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Clean-shaven and pinstriped, Giambi returns to postseason

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NEW YORK

One year ago, was not far from where he is now, sitting on a stool in front of a Yankee Stadium locker. Long-haired, tattooed and with a degree in heavy metal music, the first baseman set up shop in the visiting clubhouse, deftly wrapping tape around the barrels of his bats as his thoughts encompassed taking the field in front of an enemy crowd. His appearance and clothing has changed, yet so much remains the same. A full regular season has gone by since Giambi changed his allegiance from the upstart to the perennially contending , his decision moved along by the allure of glittering championship rings and a staggering seven-year, $119 million offer from Bombers brass. "It's been an incredible first year," Giambi reflects. "I love the city and the atmosphere here. Coming to Yankee Stadium and seeing all of this history ... it's great. I love it." The scraggly locks and robust facial hair that made Giambi an icon of Southern California have long since met their match, with George Steinbrenner ordering his new club employee to find himself a razor, pronto. Unlike in the case of Samson, however, the awesome power that made Giambi such a desirable target for Steinbrenner and GM Brian Cashman remained undisturbed. After battling initial jitters and overcoming a slow start, Giambi has done exactly what the hoped he could when they opened their checkbooks to him. Any early doubters were silenced by the eruption of an MVP-caliber season, in which he ranked fourth in the American League in home runs (41), runs scored (120) and on-base percentage (.598), fifth in RBI (122) and sixth in batting average (.314). "That's why I was brought over here," Giambi said. "They knew I could hit for a high average, high on-base percentage, and not only hit home runs but also drive in runs and make the guys around me better as hitters." His teammates concur with that sentiment. "I think for being a home run hitter, he hits a lot of line drives and has a lot of great at-bats," said third baseman . "He's a pretty disciplined hitter, and I don't think that has ever gotten across to people. I think they just look at him and think he swings hard, but he makes a lot of contact. I think that's pretty impressive." "You never see him swing at a bad ball," agrees. "But, at the same time, he's very aggressive and still takes his cuts. It's very basic." As impressive as Giambi's final numbers might be, it's hard to imagine that his first six weeks in New York weren't quite so rosy. Challenged with the task of taking over for popular first baseman ¿ just as Martinez had done years before in the case of Don Mattingly ¿ the bar was set high from minute one for the 31-year-old power hitter. When Giambi managed just four home runs in April, the new-car scent evaporated and vicious boos began to rain down with force in the Bronx. Never mind the fact that he had tallied 15 RBI and seven multi-hit games in the month - the public perception on the streets and in the tabloids was that Giambi had been a bust. "This ballpark wasn't quite as friendly as Oakland was for him," manager Joe Torre explained. "I think he tried to pull balls to that short spot in left field. But since then, he's been everything I've expected him to be. He's a good hitter. He takes a walk and gets the big hits." Giambi points to May 17th as the night he earned his pinstripes, so to speak. The were three outs away from suffering a deflating extra-inning loss to the , with Minnesota having plated three runs in the top of the 14th against veteran . Down 14-11 in the marathon contest, the came alive with singles from and . worked out a walk to load the bases for Giambi, who launched 's first pitch over the right-center field wall for a game-winning grand slam. Yankee Stadium was delirious, and Giambi was officially out of the doghouse. "That was the turning point, definitely," Giambi said. "I knew there would be an adjustment period. That was finally what everybody was waiting for, for me to get that big hit or drive in that big run. "But that's part of putting a uniform on. I'm just one piece of the puzzle now." From May on, Giambi seamlessly melded into the Yankee landscape, with the right-handed basher impressing by batting well above .300 every month, save for an August swoon. He was especially comfortable in the Bronx, battering opposing pitchers to a .322 clip, which makes sense because Giambi says he's enjoyed every second of living in New York. Of course, that doesn't mean he was devoid of home-sick moments when the headed to Oakland for a three-game series in April. With Oakland matched up against the in the Division Series, the possibility exists for Giambi to make one more trip to the Coliseum if the Bombers are able to polish off the in the first round. Has he thought about such a scenario? "If it happens, it happens," Giambi shrugs. "I haven't really thought that far ahead. They have some emerging young guys, like , , and of course everyone knows about the Big Three (Tim Hudson, and ). But I think the media makes a bigger deal of it than it really is." That's partially because Giambi has adopted the viewpoint of his new organization ¿ to always have their eyes focused on the big prize at the end of the tunnel, a World Series trophy. He has no problem with admitting it, either.
Tagged: Angels, Twins, Yankees, Athletics, Cardinals, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Jason Giambi, Barry Zito, Nick Johnson

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