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For One Night, Jason Giambi Turns Back The Clock

May 20, 2011 - John Whittaker
I was going to rip Joe Girardi for his handling of Yankees' pitchers in this space today..Seriously, I was going to destroy him just like I did the chocolate chip cookies the News Wife bought me yesterday.

But then something happened last night that made me hit the delete button.

After watching the Yankees bludgeon the Orioles for their third straight win, I flipped over to ESPN2 to see how Tampa Bay and Boston were doing. To my surprise, Baseball Tonight anchors were interviewing Jason Giambi. I thought maybe, just maybe, Giambi had decided to retire, that being a back-up first baseman had gotten to him and he was walking away. When I realized he had just hit three homeruns, I immediately nudged the News Wife in the back to make sure she was awake to see highlights of Giambi's three homerun game against the Phillies.

With all of the Jorge Posada/Derek Jeter drama around the Yankees lately, I had forgotten how some older players handle their twilight years the right way.

Giambi is soon to be 41 years old, with 419 career home runs and 1376 career RBI to his credit. He has won MVPs, played in the World Series and been the best player on good teams. Through all the ups and downs, his career is a success any way you look at it. At the very least, he makes the Hall of Really, Really Good even if he never gets a plaque in Cooperstown.

Rather than walk into Coors Field like the superstar he used to be, Giambi signed a minor league deal and earned a spot as a back-up first baseman and pinch hitter during spring training. He knows full well he won't get much playing time, but at this point of his career, Giambi knows he'll never be a full-time player. He knows the All-Star Game isn't in his future anymore.

After last season, most people thought Giambi would retire. But, when the Rockies put their roster together and found they could fit a lefthanded hitter on their bench, they called Giambi and asked if he would come back on a minor league contract with a chance to make the major league roster if he had a good spring. Giambi jumped at the chance.

"I love the direction of this team. I had to make an adjustment to my role last year (as a bench player). But I have a better idea of how to do it now," Giambi told Troy Renck of the Denver Post. "I wasn't sure it was going to happen, but this is where I wanted to be."

When Giambi reported to spring training, reporter Thomas Harding captured the scene — "He couldn't unpack because of the endless streams of hugs and handshakes. Todd Helton, who recruited Giambi to return, jumped into Giambi's arms like Yogi Berra after the last out of Don Larsen's perfect game." A guy has that popularity for more than the ability to grow a cool moustache and break out a gold thong. Veterans love Giambi because he keeps the clubhouse loose and doesn't cause problems. Young players love Giambi because he helps them through the difficulties of finding their way in the big leagues. Management loves him because he can provide big power, on occasion, without being a distraction (see Canseco, Jose; Sheffield, Gary; Berkman, Lance, Lofton, Kenny).

Giambi always told himself, if he got the chance, he would work with young players just like Oakland A's veterans like Terry Steinbach, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson and Carney Lansford did when he broke into the big leagues. He always said he'd play for enjoyment and comraderie rather than the money. He said he'd always stay true to himself.

Giambi's a guy who enjoys being in the clubhouse with the guys. He's a guy who appreciates both the history of the game and the little things that can keep a guy energized — a perfectly hit ball that rises into the night, pauses for a moment and then drops into the seats. He's not a guy who's going to sulk if he's not in the lineup (I'm looking at you, Jorge) or scream that the team lowballed him during contract talks (Derek Jeter). He's made his money. He's earned his accolades. At some point in a player's career, the money doesn't matter anymore.

What matters are those special nights that don't come around as often as they did when you were younger. Maybe it's fitting that Giambi, long known as the best power hitter in the game, had to wait until the end of his career to have a three homerun game. For one night, when nobody expected it and when he was only playing because Todd Helton's back ached, Giambi's name found itself alongside Hall of Famers Stan Musial, Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth as the only players over the age of 40 to hit three homers in a game.

"Anytime you can put yourself in a category with those kinds of names, it's pretty special," Giambi told Jim Armstrong of the Denver Post after Friday's game. "It's exciting, something you dream about. It's one of those times when you thank the Big Guy Upstairs for tonight's game."

Now that is how a ballplayer is supposed to handle getting older. A few guys I know of should be taking notes.

On to some Yankees notes for the weekend.

Last Week's Record: 3-3. Division Standing Through 42 games: 23-19, second place in the American League East, 1 game behind Tampa Bay.

What I Liked This Week Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner: Granderson had another great offensive week, smacking two more home runs and raising his batting average to .270 while Gardner hit .292 last week, raising his batting average to .266 for the season. As the offense struggles (Thursday's 13-2 drubbing of Baltimore aside) it's nice to see Granderson and Gardner continuing to hit consistently. You can absolutely start building a case as Granderson as the league MVP right now. As for Gardner, hopefully he'll start stealing more bases, but he'd be scoring runs in bunches if the guys behind him could hit even a little bit.

Pitchers Dealing: Let's give another shout out to Bartolo Colon, who deserves more than two wins so far and could possibly be an all-star this season, for two great starts this week. C.C. Sabathia struggled in his start against Boston on Sunday (though part of his struggle was Joe Girardi) and came back to throw eight shutout innings against Baltimore (whom he usually dominates like I dominate a plate of cookies). Ivan Nova allowed only one run in his start this week, snapping the Yankees six-game losing streak. Freddy Garcia couldn't keep the ball in the park against Boston, but has shown he's a solid fifth starter. And, Joe Girardi's inability to see an A.J. Burnett meltdown coming killed Burnett's solid first 5.1 innings Monday against the Rays and left us again wondering which A.J. we're getting this season. More on this topic next week. In all, not a bad week for the starting pitchers. I'm not nearly as concerned about the rotation as I was in April.

What Concerns Me The Bullpen Had A Bad Week: Joba Chamberlain threw up a hairball of a week with only 1 strikeout in 4.1 innings and a 6.23 ERA. He was decent against Tampa Bay, but, um, Joba, we kind of pay you to get out Red Sox hitters too, and you haven't done that all season. David Robertson gave up one run last week in his 2.2 innings and didn't make life any easier in Sunday's loss to the Red Sox by walking three hitters the inning after striking out the side with the bases loaded. Mariano Rivera blew eight shutout innings from Bartolo Colon on Wednesday, costing me two hours of sleep because then I had to watch all 15 innings while the Yankees struggled to score against the Orioles, ahem, awesome bullpen. Luis Ayala didn't give up a run, but 7 hits in 3.1 innings, really, isn't very good and tells me he was lucky rather than good. You want him as far away from your bullpen in a key situation as possible. I'm thinking a trade to Indonesia.

Signs Of Problems: By themselves, some of the issues we're seeing are nothing. Taken together, though, the Derek Jeter contract squabble, Rafael Soriano signing, Jorge Posada hissy fit and Brian Cashman running to the press before talking to his own players are all starting to make me think of the late 1980s — and I don't like it.

First off, there comes a point when ownership has to step back and let the executives run the club. For every time when ownership makes a good deal, Rafael Soriano happens. Everybody knows you don't overpay middle relievers because their performance fluctuates more than any other position, but here we are signing an eighth-inning reliever for big money only to see him struggle and then go on the disabled list with elbow problems.

Secondly, sometimes, the front office needs to shut up and realize there are better ways to deal with players and contract discussions than running to the press to show what a good job you're doing. Saturday's Posada problem didn't need to happen. Brian Cashman could have just let Joe Girardi deal with it (which he did splendidly) and let it be. Running to reporters in the middle of a game only made the situation worse. And, Cashman and the Steinbrenners made the Jeter contract issue a much bigger problem than it needed to be.

Third, as players, read the above Jason Giambi stories. Jorge, you're hitting .182 now — still less than my weight. Derek, you're not worth $45 million over three years. Would it have killed you to take $20 over two years, after wrapping up that way above market value eight-year, $120 million contract? Really, you had to force management's hand when everybody knows you're on the downside of your career? It's not like you're running a bowling alley in the offseason to feed your family like Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra had to.

This all adds up to problems down the line — and it's hard to win when you're constantly dealing with these sort of distractions. Just ask Don Mattingly. His career was wasted in the midst of such shenanigans.

These were lessons this franchise was supposed to have learned. Apparently, we were all wrong.

What's Coming Up: Three game series at home with the New York Mets, three games at home with Toronto before a three-game set in Seattle.


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