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A Belated Farewell To The Big G
January 23, 2009 - John Whittaker
On June 5, Jason Giambi strolled to the plate at Yankee Stadium to pinch-hit in what looked to be yet another Yankees loss.
Early in the 2008 season, the Yankees looked sluggish -- nobody was healthy, the pitching was horrible, the bullpen uncertain. Facing the Blue Jays on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, two strikes against him and two outs on the scoreboard, Giambi launched a fastball high into the upper deck in right field to win the game, 9-8.
The Yankees had been down 7-2 earlier in the game, and the News Gal and I had been e-mailing back and forth trying to figure out if she would want to watch the replay on the YESNetwork later that night while I was at work.
For much of the day, it looked like a replay of Bridezilla was on the News Gal's TV schedule that night.
Before Giambi lumbered across the plate with the winning run (he had been held out of the starting lineup with a sore foot) his teammates were waiting for him at home plate, and I was on the phone to the News Gal (I had left work just in time to watch the ninth inning at home).
Her television plans had changed with one swing of the bat.
"Honey, you'll want to watch the replay. Giambi just drilled one into the upper deck to win the game. It's a mob scene at home plate, and they're interviewing him on the field right now.'
It was the height of the moustache and golden thong movement -- Giambi doing anything he could to reverse a horrible slump, both for himself and for his team. Before you knew it, he was hitting in the mid-280s, leading the team in home runs and RBIs and a dark horse candidate for the American League All-Star team -- and the News Gal was in her glory.
The Yankees have moved on without the News Gal's favorite player, signing Mark Texeira to fill Giambi's spot at first base, and plugging Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui in as the designated hitter. Giambi has gone back to Oakland on a one-year, $2.5 million deal, returning to the glory days of MVP awards, long hair and motorcycle rides to the stadium.
It's understandable, then, that she's not looking as forward to the baseball season as I am now that Giambi will be hitting those mammoth, moonshot home runs back in Oakland.
Having been through this sort of thing before when Don Mattingly retired after the 1995 season (and his only playoff appearance, when he hit .450 with a homer and mess of RBIs and great defensive plays like it was 1985 again, not that I'm bitter or anything, and not that I cried like a two-year-old with a skinned knee when the playoff series was over) I can understand what she's going through.
It's tough when your favorite team moves on without your favorite player. I was a little bitter in October 1996 when the Yankees won a World Series while Mattingly was sitting at home in his easy chair in Evansville, Indiana. It wasn't fair that they would win a championship while the guy who was the heart and soul of the team for 14 years was home in a recliner with a bad back.
Giambi and the News Gal connected -- she liked the burly, 5 o'clock shadowed slugger with the tattoos. The first three years we were together, she lobbied for me to get Giambi in my fantasy baseball draft, a task I finally completed last year in the league with my friends and the work league (and I resisted trade offers, even though I got some, early in the season).
When he got hot and wasn't in my lineup, trust me, I heard about it.
I'll always regret the fact that, when I got to take her to her first major league game last April in Cleveland, that Giambi wasn't in the lineup because C.C. Sabathia was pitching, and Joe Girardi wanted to get right-handed hitting Shelley Duncan into the lineup (he struck out three times, with several foul tips). We were sitting behind the first base dugout, and she was all ready to spend the whole game watching him play first base, maybe 100 feet or so from her favorite player. She had looked forward to it for weeks, and the only glimpse we got of Giambi was in the postgame handshake on the mound, when I snapped off about 50 different shots of Giambi walking off the field for her to have.
Sometimes, I'll surprise her with a Giambi baseball card when we're out someplace and find them for sale. She'll find a Mattingly card I don't have and get it for me. They only cost a dollar or so each (remember the days when Mattingly's rookie card was selling for more than $100?), but we love to take the card out of the plastic, read the back, check out the picture on the front. It's one of those little things that only your soul mate would know you appreciate.
For Christmas, I found her a Giambi bobblehead doll -- a gift that ranked high on her list of favorite presents. It'll take a spot on our mantle someday along with the Gerry McNamara bobblehead she got me and the Dansbury Mint Yankees collectibles (Mattingly and Giambi included, by the way).
I wouldn't say the News Gal is a baseball free agent. She's a Yankees fan, she likes Sabathia and Burnett and Phil Hughes. She loves Mariano Rivera (she always gets a little annoyed when she falls asleep and misses Rivera in the ninth inning of games) and Derek Jeter.
But, this season won't be quite the same for her watching another guy wearing number 25 playing first base for the Yankees.
Thankfully, the Yankees don't play Oakland that much this year, because I think the News Gal would have been pretty torn if he had signed with Tampa Bay and played the Yankees 30-some times this season.
Giambi Got It
For all the ups and downs of Giambi's Yankees career, and there were some deep, deep valleys in those seven years, Giambi was a guy you wanted to root for. He seemed like a good guy. He tried hard, even when the results weren't there. Even in the seasons where he couldn't stay healthy, like in 2004 when he hit .208 and played in 80 games with what was called then an intestinal parasite and later discovered to be a benign tumor, when the BALCO situation hit the papers and his grand jury testimony revealed he had taken steroids, Giambi generally kept the home fans on his side. He followed up that disastrous 2004 season by winning the 2005 American League Comeback Player of the Year award.
His numbers weren't bad, either. In a seven-year span, the only players to hit more home runs than Giambi's 209 are Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. He compiled a .404 on-base percentage (fifth in Yankees history), .521 slugging percentage (seventh in Yankees history) and 209 homers (10th in Yankees history).
People remember Aaron Boone's home run to win the 2003 American League Championship Series, but they forget that Giambi kept the Yankees in the game with two solo home runs and help send them to the World Series.
He never won that World Series. He wasn't quite the player in New York City that he was in Oakland. That .330 hitting, 45-home run mashing, Harley riding Giambi didn't make the trip to New York City.
I'll live with those things.
Here's what Giambi wasn't -- a hired gun and a prick.
He invested himself fully in being a Yankee, in wanting to be on the field every day, in wanting to perform well for the fans who were paying huge amounts of money to watch him play.
He understood the history, the passion of the fans and the privilege of putting on that uniform every day. If Giambi went 0-4 and the Yankees won, he'd be the happiest guy in the clubhouse. When someone came through with a big hit, Giambi was always on the top step of the dugout wanting to congratulate his teammate.
In short, he got it.
He was a guy who understood what it meant to be a Yankee. He desperately wanted to win a World Series wearing the pinstripes. Over time, he made himself a "true' Yankee - a feat that not everyone accomplishes, no matter how many titles they win. As great as Rickey Henderson was, I'll always remember him as an Oakland A or as a Toronto Blue Jay -- that's where he did his damage. He was exciting as a Yankee, and played hard as a Yankee, but he's an A or a Jay.
Giambi will always be a Yankee to me, and I think he'll remember his time as a Yankee fondly.
He wore 25 as his uniform number because the numbers added up to 7, the number worn by Giambi's father's favorite player, Mickey Mantle. During Old Timers' Day, Giambi served as the personal batting coach for Bobby Murcer, an old-time Yankees favorite who had taken over in the outfield for Mickey Mantle. When Murcer died earlier this year from brain cancer, Giambi was one of the current players who took it the hardest.
Do you know where the moustache originally came from?
Giambi wanted to look more like Don Mattingly, who wore a moustache back when people called him the Hit Man, when Donnie Baseball was the favorite player of a young, Bay Area kid named Jason Giambi.
In the final game at Yankee Stadium, it was Giambi, with an RBI single, who notched the final base hit in the grand old stadium's history.
He may not go down in Yankees lore as a champion, but he's not going down as Carl Pavano, either. Giambi knows it, too.
"When you look back, being here is like being in a time capsule,' Giambi said in an MLB.com article on Sept. 25. "I'm sure it was like that when those guys played with Mantle. All the great things that people have accomplished here, not only individually but as a team. We're going to step back someday and view this as a time of the greats of the game.'
When his name popped up in the BALCO mess, Giambi was one of the few players mentioned who owned up to it (albeit in a round-about way) and apologized to his teammates and, more importantly, his fans.
I'll respect that. He didn't make excuses when he didn't play well. That double play he grounded into in the seventh wasn't because of an injury. That strikeout in the eighth wasn't because of the other guy. It was because Giambi couldn't come through that night, it wasn't his time, and he was the first to admit it, long before it was popular to do so.
It doesn't take much for me to understand why the News Gal was such a big fan of Giambi's - because I think I'll miss him a little bit too.
Even after the Yankees signed Mark Texeira (and I love Texeira's signing), I kind of hoped the team would extend Giambi a one-year deal to make him a backup first baseman, designated hitter and all-around clubhouse fun guy. Give him 300 at-bats, and I knew he'd hit 260 with 20 home runs, 70 RBIs and at least one golden thong appearance.
I think the fake moustache and golden thong manufacturing industries are the root of the increase in unemployment in New York state. I don't know where Jeter will get his slump-busting thong the next time he's gone 2 for his last 20 at-bats. When someone needs a batting coach for Old-Timers Day, I don't know if there's anyone who can do it as well as Giambi did for Murcer. Who knows if Texeira will be as good with the fans as Giambi was for so many years.
Yep, I think that offer for Giambi would have been money well spent. Hopefully, he isn't a stranger at Oldtimers Day after he retires. Maybe he'll make appearances at spring training as so many other former Yankees do.
Enjoy the Bay Area, Big G. The Bronx (and my living room) won't be quite the same without you.
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