CLEVELAND -- Terry Francona has been gushing about Jason Giambi all season long. The Indians manager isn't shy about the affection he has for his veteran slugger, which makes the celebratory embrace they shared on Sunday following the Tribe's Wild Card-clinching win in Minnesota a little less than surprising.
The two have hugged each other at various points of the year. But did Francona elevate their love this time with a playful kiss?
"Well, I don't remember a lot," the skipper said with a smile. "I'm going to say a couple things. One is I hope it wasn't on the lips. Two, if it was, I'm going to claim that I was out of my mind."
Francona's responses to questions about an alleged smooch came between bouts of laughter. Eventually, the grizzled baseball man gave in.
"I think I actually did kiss him on the cheek," said Francona, whose club hosts the Rays in the American League Wild Card Game on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET, TBS). "I've become so fond of him, and it's obvious. I talk about him all the time."
When it comes to Giambi, Francona can go on and on. Between Giambi's experience and leadership, his limitless baseball know-how and ever-helpful personality, the positive effect Francona feels he has had on the Indians cannot be fully described or captured. Giambi didn't have a whole lot of at-bats during the season, nor did he post a very impressive batting average, but Francona believes he was Cleveland's most valuable player.
"I think Jason Giambi is our MVP," Francona said, "because I don't think we get where we are [without him]. I think he's changed people in the organization. I think he's made me better. I think he's made everybody he touches better. That's a very special person, so that's why I got a little emotional."
Cleveland had plenty of players finish with better numbers. Yan Gomes led the Indians with a .294 batting average, Nick Swisher paced the club with 22 home runs and Jason Kipnis had a team-best 84 RBIs. Among starting pitchers with more than 10 outings, Justin Masterson tallied the most wins (14), while Ubaldo Jimenez compiled the lowest ERA (3.30).
Kipnis was named the American League Player of the Month for June. Jimenez earned AL Pitcher of the Month honors for September.
In Francona's eyes, Kipnis, an All-Star, has become one of the best players in the league, but that doesn't necessarily mean his contributions or any other Tribe player's were quite as significant as Giambi's.
"I would put G right at the top of the list for all the reasons I've said all year," Francona said.
In addition to the many intangibles Giambi offers, it's not as if he played the whole year without helping the Indians on the field. Three times, Giambi blasted pinch-hit home runs, tying the club's single-season record. Two of those were walk-off shots, each one making him the oldest player to hit a walk-off homer. Giambi had nine home runs and 31 RBIs.
In other words, the .183 batting average Giambi built over 186 at-bats does not even begin to tell his story.
"It would be hard to quantify his impact," general manager Chris Antonetti said. "Obviously he's had some huge hits for us on the field, but the impact he's had in the clubhouse and the impact he's had on the team, on guys' individual development as well as the identity of the team, has been extraordinary."
Giambi, 42, is a member of the Goon Squad, a title the members of Cleveland's bench have taken to applying to themselves. Also included are Ryan Raburn, Mike Aviles and Gomes.
Perhaps a little more so than the regulars, the bench players can appreciate all that Giambi does for the Indians. Aviles, for one, did not object to the notion of Giambi being the Tribe's MVP.
"It wouldn't bother me, I could tell you that much, at all," said Aviles, who referenced the numerous team meetings Giambi called throughout the year. "When you look at him, you look at his numbers and you don't see the numbers that would dictate an MVP of the team, and it's nothing against him. But in all honesty what you don't see is his leadership and what he brings to the table every single day he comes in here."
The Indians see it, and they're grateful for it. What they could do without, however, are his acts of celebration. While Francona expressed his joy with a kiss, Giambi is known for doing something else, something that hurts.
"I think I broke a rib from G's hug," Antonetti said. "I may not be the only one who has a broken rib or two from his hugs."
Mark Emery is an associate reporter for MLB.com.