GOODYEAR, Ari. — Aging gracefully presents challenges, especially in the world of professional athletics.
Jason Giambi, though, seems to have refined the art.
Giambi was a late — and surprise — add to the Indians spring training roster, and he was brought in for a specific purpose. It’s one he embraces, even if it means he’s almost as valuable as a leader as he is at-bat.
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“I really enjoy helping young kids out and making a difference, while still contributing to the team as well and getting an opportunity to play,” Giambi said this week. “It keeps me in the game, and I really love it.
“I truly believe that’s how you give back to this game.”
Assuming he makes the team — and there are many indications he will — Giambi won’t play every day. He might not play three games a week. He will be a left-handed DH and pinch-hitter, and he will be a major clubhouse mentor.
“I was so lucky when I first came to the big leagues I had (Mark) McGwire and (Terry) Steinbach and (Dennis) Eckersley and those guys took me under their wing and kind of taught me the game and how to play and how to act,” Giambi said. “I believe that’s what you do. You pass it on to the next generation and they take it on when they get older.”
Manager Terry Francona wants his players to respect the game, and he believes that the generation of young players do that. One could make the case that Giambi did not respect the game when he admitted to the Balco Grand Jury in 2004 that he used steroids and HGH. He probably would not argue.
Giambi testified to that effect, and apologized.
He’s 42 now. He was 33 when he came clean, 32 when he took the performance enhancers.
Something has gone right since, because baseball people respect him greatly, and he’s looked to for leadership and guidance, a sort of baseball elder statesman. Earlier in spring Fracona said Giambi “has a presence about him,” and the Rockies loved having Giambi as a part-time player the previous four seasons.
Of course last season the Indians also added Johnny Damon, another aging veteran. But in Damon’s case he was signed to be the left-fielder. Francona says of Giambi: “We didn’t bring him here to run a marathon.”
It’s no coincidence that Giambi’s locker was placed right next to that of Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. The Indians hope their young players garner wisdom from a guy who almost became a manager this season. After four seasons in Colorado when he had 419 at-bats, the Rockies asked Giambi to interview to manage — a tribute to how he’s viewed.
Giambi revealed he was behind the idea.
“When the Rockies put out that they were looking for somebody with not a lot of experience, I called the owner and said I’d retire right now if that’s what it is,” Giambi said. “Before word got out. He said we’d love to have you interview. I was truly honored and grateful and it was an incredible process.”
Giambi clowns with the guys just like always — Nick Swisher called him “Big G” — but he welcomes the responsibility given him. In past years, the Indians were so young that there really wasn’t a leader on the team. A losing streak became a long losing streak, a bad few games turned into the worst month in team history.
A veteran presence along with an experienced manager might be able to stop those slides.
“I think it helps on the mental grind,” Giambi said of what he can do. “I think it helps some of the young players. … I think it helps them through the tough times.”
Giambi has talked a lot to Kipnis about last season, when he hit .277 with 11 home runs the first half and .233 with just three home runs in the second.
“Everybody’s going to hit the skids,” Giambi said. “It’s inevitable. It’s too long a season. Hopefully you turn that skid into three weeks instead of two months, or a week instead of three weeks.”
Giambi said he also believes it helps that the manager isn’t always the one reminding players about things.
“A manager wants to pick his spots,” Giambi said. “He doesn’t want to constantly be in here chirping on, ‘Hey we need to run the bases, we need to stop the mental mistakes.’ You don’t want to do that as a manager. After a while it’s like Charlie Brown’s teacher … wah wah wah.”
How does a former MVP and big-money guy transform himself?
Giambi has a simple answer.
“I guess,” he said, “you got to put your ego in your back pocket.”