CLEVELAND — The temptation is to say that Jason Giambi has changed.
There was the guy with the Oakland A’s who had the long greasy hair, the scraggly beard, the flaming skull tat on his left arm and the frat house attitude. The guy who proudly wore a T-shirt that read “Party like a rock star,” the guy who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in July 2000 looking more fearsome than ballplayer.
The easy thinking would say that that Giambi was discarded like a snake discards its skin. But a new Giambi emerged in recent years, one with veteran presence, a voice of wisdom with short hair and gray in his beard, the guy whose mere presence benefits a team because of his attitude and sage advice.
Except the easy thinking, as usual, would be wrong. Because the only thing that has changed about Giambi are the externals. He’s always been the caring teammate and leader. He’s always been the team guy. He’s always been who he is.
It was just wrapped differently.
“I’ve lived lifetimes,” Giambi told FOXSports Ohio in a candid sit-down where he talked about all the many things he’s been through as a baseball player that led him to this stint with the Cleveland Indians. “I’ve been on top of the world. I’ve been in the gutter. I’ve been trying to chase greatness. I’ve touched greatness. I’ve fallen from greatness.
“I’ve done it all. I’ve had business succeed; I’ve had business fail. I’ve had this whole lifetime of things.
“Now, I get to live the lifetime of also being where I’m at right now, having a 19-month old and then I’ve got a little baby boy on the way. I’ve had this evolving life. The kid with the hair falling in his face to Dad with gray hair still playing baseball.”
Giambi has garnered much from the spoils of being an excellent hitter — an apartment in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, A house in Las Vegas, Several cars, including a Lamborghini, and business interests in the Hard Rock Hotel and Vanity, a 14,000-square foot club in the Hard Rock in Vegas. He has an MVP award, a Comeback Player of the Year award.
He’s hit 435 home runs (through July 3) and earned respect from his peers and manager that at first blush seems out of place with the rock star who enjoyed himself in Oakland.
“I was a very hard charger,” Giambi said. “There’s no doubt. I was a hard charger.”
Giambi quit drinking three years ago, not because he had to but because he had enough. He’s now focused on being a father, which he calls a blessing, and on continuing his career in baseball — either as a player, coach or manager. The Rockies interviewed him last offseason to manage there.
With his business interests and family, he doesn’t need to be in baseball. He wants to.
“I love it,” he said. “I love everything about it. There’s no other place on this planet that you’re gonna get this, right here.”
At that, he pointed to the Indians clubhouse from his corner locker, where some guys were jawing back and forth, some were getting ready to play that night’s game and some were playing cards. He wants in some way to stay in that atmosphere, be part of it for as long as he can. And if that is 20 years?
“Then it’s 20 more years and I’ll never look back,” he said.
Giambi’s career started in 1995 in Oakland, where he joined a team that at various times included Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Miguel Tejada, Terry Steinbach and Eric Chavez. He was a Billy Beane kind of player — get on base, take walks, score runs, hit home runs — three years before Beane arrived in Oakland. The A’s knew how to win and knew how to have fun.
“I had long hair and rode motorcycles and we were just kind of wild and had a good time … ” Giambi said. “Guys were running (battery operated) toy cars around the clubhouse. It was like a frat house. It was like mayhem. Every day.”
But when gametime arrived the mayhem stopped.
“We came with it,” Giambi said. “We couldn’t wait for gametime to start.”
Giambi won the American League MVP in 2000, and finished second in 2001. When the A’s clinched the division in 2000, his teammates carried him off the field, an experience he called “the most humbling and grateful experience I’ve been through.”
That was the same year the SI cover shot appeared, and Giambi does not run from it.
“I love it,” Giambi said. “That was such a raw photo when it was taken. It was in Anaheim. I can still remember the day. The photographer who took it said, ‘You know what, I want to do something raw.’ I had the cutoff shirt. I kind of had my hair in my face because I got it wet because we were working out or something.
“He was like, ‘That’s it. Sit there.’ And he took the photo.”
He’s well aware of the rebel image it projected. He gets how people might view it. But that was him in those days, and he’s honest enough with himself not to run from it.
“At that time, I was young and loving the game,” he said. “Just loving life. I was just really loving life. But then I think you get to a point where you grow up and you see other attributes that are more important.”
When free agency arrived, the A’s did not try to re-sign him, so Giambi wound up in New York with the Yankees. It was a wildly lucrative $120-million deal, but he said it was the only offer he had.
In 2003, he became embroiled in baseball’s PED scandal when his name surfaced as part of the Balco investigation. But instead of running from it and fighting it, Giambi decided his best approach was simply to be truthful.
“I could have drug it out like everybody else did, but I didn’t,” Giambi said.
Giambi went in front of the Grand Jury in December 2003 and admitted he had taken steroids from 2001-’03. His testimony included the same candor he uses today when talking about himself. When it was over, baseball didn’t want him to talk about it publicly, but the fact that he was one of very few who “came clean” became public a year later.
“I look back, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Giambi said. “It opened me up to be truthful. At the time it was like ripping off a Band-Aid. It was terrible and miserable and hard and one of the toughest things I ever had to do in my life. But now I have so many people coming up to me saying, ‘I really appreciate you telling the truth. I tell my son and my daughter, when you make a mistake you tell the truth.’
“Granted I didn’t like going through it — trust me it was miserable — but the image that it portrayed, I stand firmly on and I’m happy about and excited about how it came through.”
Giambi missed half the 2004 season because of an intestinal parasite, another brutal experience.
“I wasn’t even functionable,” he said. “Maybe it was a manifest of everything that was going on and me trying to start to purge that person and get rid of it.”
He also had a benign pituitary tumor. In 2005, free of PEDs and with a free mind and healthy body, Giambi hit 32 home runs and won the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
“You felt this weight of the world that everybody wanted me to fail, to go, ‘A-ha, you’re not that good a player,’” he said. “That was probably one of the most gratifying things that I’ve accomplished in this game.”
Giambi told the Grand Jury he didn’t feel that much of a difference with the PEDs. He hit 43 home runs in 2000, the year he won the MVP. After he met Barry Bonds’ trainer he hit 38, 41 and 41 with the Yankees, then 32 after coming clean.
He gets how it looks, how a guy who loves and respects the game so much can be viewed. But he knows he can’t do much more than he’s done: Admit he was wrong, he made a mistake and move on being the same person he always has been. At this point, he has a 19-year career, 10 years of further growth and peer respect and the fact he was honest on his side of the ledger.
Compare his experience with Rafael Palmeiro wagging his finger at Congress, then testing positive. It’s not an understatement to say that Giambi’s career hung in the balance. He let himself get caught in a wave, but didn’t deny the truth after.
Fans and media were poised to attack him the way they attacked Bonds, McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens. But instead of being coy and dodging the way some did, Giambi decided he’d be honest. It became an example, a way for athletes to handle such situations.
Giambi didn’t have to come clean; he wanted to. Because he did, the public accepted him, and he was free to just play baseball again.
When his contract expired in New York, Giambi returned to Oakland, hoping to rekindle what was once there. It didn’t work, and midway through the season Giambi and Beane agreed it’d be best to release him.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get another job,” Giambi said. “Baseball might have been over.”
The Colorado Rockies called, telling the former MVP and $20-million-a-year player they would love to have him as a role player. But they didn’t want to use a roster spot on him until after the September call-ups.
“It was then that I said, ‘Hey, can I put the ego in the back pocket?” Giambi said.
He did, and he became the man the Indians have now started to develop. The guy who would accept being a part-time player, who would mentor young players, who would fill a role and be a veteran his teammates could lean on.
“It just gave me a chance to take a step backward to go forward,” he said. “It just was the perfect fit for where I wanted to go at that point in time as a human being.”
After three-plus seasons in Colorado, Giambi received a call from new Indians manager Terry Francona this past winter. The skipper told Giambi he was wanted to fill the same role with the Indians. Cleveland, the past two years, was a team with a lot of young talent, but no veteran whose resume and reputation demanded attention, and whose character demanded respect.
Giambi accepted, knowing full well he had to prove in the spring he could still play. “They weren’t going to let me go sit in a locker,” Giambi said. Three spring home runs and a slugging percentage of .552 provided the answer.
The five-time All-Star now provides a left-handed power bat off the bench for the Indians. He’s 42, the second-oldest player in the league — behind Mariano Rivera. Through July 3, Giambi is hitting just .208, but Francona focuses on what a player can do, says he doesn’t pay attention to that number because he wants Giambi to “do damage,” meaning produce runs.
Six home runs and 22 RBI in 106 at-bats have produces runs this season.
But his influence goes beyond runs and hits.
Without prompting, Cleveland outfielder Michael Bourn credited Giambi for keeping the team thinking the right way on a recent 16-of-20 losing stretch. SI.com reported the tale of the clubhouse stopping its pregame hijinks and preparation to watch Giambi appear live on MLB Network and hear what he had to say in an earlier interview this season.
Wednesday, Giambi contributed in a large way to a win with a ninth-inning double that ended with him sliding head-first into second, the same way he slid into first in April in a game when the Indians had a big lead.
That slide is memorialized with photos on the wall outside the Indians clubhouse, a spot where other photos include celebrations for game-winning hits. Giambi’s is the only slide into first.
It’s autographed (presumably by Giambi) with the phrase, “To the boys. Live like you play. Hard!”
When 2013 first-round pick Clint Frazier made his first appearance in Cleveland earlier this month, Francona arranged for the 18-year-old to spend time with Giambi. He called it “the best 20 minutes he’ll ever have.” Giambi was everywhere with Frazier, including jogging with him before batting practice.
“I get this gift,” Giambi said. “Tito (Francona) calls and says, ‘I want you to come and help these young kids.’ To have this opportunity, to have this chance, it’s unbelievable.”
Giambi also called his decision to stop drinking significant.
“I just woke up one day and said, ‘That’s it,’” he said. “Like we were talking about, I don’t want to be that guy that was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Not that there was a problem, I just didn’t want to be him anymore. Or to be … I don’t even know the words … maybe be my true self.
“I just woke up and told my wife and told my buddies and said, ‘Done. That’s it. I’m not drinking anymore.’ My buddies laughed. I’m sure my wife laughed. I am sure I said it a bunch of other times.
“That was it. One day turned into two, two into three. Before I knew it it’s three and a half years later.”
Giambi now talks about how proud he is to be a father, how much he enjoys being sober, how much he loves being with the Indians. All the while, he embraces his past, the ups and the downs.
“You come to find out that’s who you really are all this time,” Giambi said. “I just think I evolved into this person that I wanted to be that was always down there deep inside.