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Indians embracing Giambi the player, mentor

Veteran slugger still boasts pop, but playing bigger role in clubhouse

CLEVELAND -- After Jason Giambi launched a pinch-hit, game-tying home run that ricocheted off the backdrop beyond the center-field wall at Great American Ball Park on Memorial Day, Indians manager Terry Francona offered the slugger his hand for a high-five.

The force of the ensuing contact left the skipper reeling.

"He about broke my wrist and my watch," Francona said. "I was bent over and I was like, '[Geez], man.' Maybe he should've just flied out."

Giambi certainly did not intend to harm his manager. After all, the two maintain a relationship that dates back to 1994, when Giambi played for Double-A Huntsville and Francona managed at Double-A Birmingham. Two decades later, they finally sport the same uniform as they share a player/coach bond unlike most others.

"I couldn't ask for a greater relationship with a manager," Giambi said. "It's been incredible. I've known Tito for a long time, and it's always been my dream to play for him."

That feeling is mutual.

"I have so much -- not just affection -- but so much admiration for him," Francona said. "It's a blessing to have him."

That sentiment is a popular one within the confines of the Indians clubhouse. When Giambi steps to his corner locker in his black-and-gray-checkered Vans sneakers, a throng of teammates often flocks his way, greeting him with shouts of, "What's up, 'Big G?'"

"He just has that aura about him," said reliever Cody Allen. "People want to be around him. He's just that guy."

Giambi, 42, reached the final round of interviews for the Rockies' managerial gig over the winter before Colorado chose Walt Weiss for the position. The Indians, intrigued by the possibility of plugging him into the lineup as the designated hitter against right-handed pitching, offered Giambi a Minor League contract with a Spring Training invite. Given his coaching aspirations, they also figured his leadership could be an asset to the clubhouse.

"He's always trying to pick guys up, keep guys upbeat," said reliever Vinnie Pestano. "If he notices something, he'll pull a guy aside and he'll talk to him. He just knows how to go about his business."

Giambi totes a .180 batting average, but he has delivered a home run every 14.8 at-bats and an RBI every 4.5 at-bats, the best rates on the team. That's about all Francona could ask from the 19-year veteran.

"He's pretty hard on himself as a hitter," Francona said. "He expects great things, and he's so busy worrying about everybody else and taking care of everybody else. We believe in him and appreciate what he does."

Giambi's teammates agree that his value extends beyond his stat line. The West Covina, Calif., native has endured and experienced plenty since he and Francona last regularly interacted nearly 20 years ago. Giambi claimed the American League Most Valuable Player Award with Oakland in 2000. He admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs. He was named to five All-Star teams. His squads have reached the postseason eight different seasons, yet he has never captured that elusive World Series ring.

Through everything, Giambi has amassed a heap of knowledge and perspective perhaps unmatched by any other active Major Leaguer.

"It's hard for anybody else to truly understand it outside of this clubhouse, just how great we enjoy him," said pitcher Justin Masterson. "Whether you're a pitcher, a position player, it doesn't matter. His knowledge of the game is incredible, and he does a great job of imparting it."

No player is immune to the veteran's wisdom. Indians first-round Draft pick Clint Frazier, who was born eight months before Giambi made his big league debut, met with the slugger last weekend. Giambi shared a few nuggets about how to break out of a hitting slump and provided the youngster with his phone number in case he wanted to seek any further advice.

"It's a coach that you can go ask questions to even if you have any hesitations of asking the real coach," said second baseman Jason Kipnis. "If you don't know if you should ask [the coach], fine, go ask Giambi. He'll help you out, and usually he's right on point with his answers, too."

So is he more of a coach or a player? Giambi says player.

"I earned that roster spot," he said. "I still produce and help out, but there are other roles that I have that are important for this ballclub."

His teammates conjured up a different yet fitting label.

"He's a coach that hits homers," Pestano said.

Just don't offer him a high-five when he does.

Zack Meisel is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel.

Cleveland Indians, Jason Giambi