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Older and wiser, Giambi appreciates role as mentor

As he enters 20th season, veteran Tribe slugger passionate as ever about game @TracyRingolsby

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- At the age of 43, Jason Giambi is still pursuing his childhood dream. And over the years, he has learned an even greater appreciation for the game of baseball.

"There was a time when I just wanted to get to the big leagues for one day," Giambi said. "Then I wanted to get to free agency [six years in the big leagues]. Then I wanted to get 10 years in.

"To think I'd be getting ready for my 20th year in the big leagues at the age of 43 wasn't realistic."

But it is.

Giambi is back with the Cleveland Indians for a second season, being counted on by manager Terry Francona to deliver big hits late in games, but even more important to be that veteran influence capable of helping the youthful Indians roster deal with the big league challenge.

Giambi knows all about challenges. He faced them on the field and excelled. Giambi also faced them off the field and survived.

And none was as challenging as in February 2005. Giambi, having admitted in grand jury testimony on the BALCO investigation that he used steroids, met with the media and publicly apologized to the game, its fans and fellow players for his transgressions.

"It was the toughest thing I had to do in my life," Giambi said. "Each person has to look at his own situation. We aren't all going to handle things the same way. I did what was best for me.

"I admitted I made a mistake. I didn't believe there was another option for me, my family and baseball. I felt the way to approach it was to be a man, so admit the mistake and move on."

It worked. Oh, Giambi has endured his share of abuse from fans who have not forgotten, but overall fans have shown a willingness to forgive, teammates have shown respect for him facing the issue head on, and Giambi has benefited from clearing his mind of second thoughts and focusing again on the game he is paid to play.

"I really think it helped me play well," Giambi said. "I was Comeback Player of the Year that season."

More than what he has done, said Giambi, what has been important to him has been the fans who have "come up to me and thanked me for [the public apology]. They tell me they have told their son or daughter that [Giambi] made a mistake and told the truth. They tell me I'm an example of someone who made a mistake and faced up to it.

"We all have ups and downs in our lives. The key is to get back up."

Giambi is back up. His role has changed from those days when he was a five-time All-Star (2000-04) and earned the American League MVP Award in 2000.

The passion for the game, however, has not.

"Ricky Pacione, our bullpen catcher, says I'm a coach who hits home runs," Giambi said. "I want to play until I can't compete, as long as I can grind it out. There's something about being on a club and helping players as a teammate that you don't get if you're a coach. A lot of these guys are kids. They say they remember me as a player when they were 5 years old."

Those were the good old days. Those were the days before Giambi spent slightly more than three seasons in Colorado, learning how to handle rare playing opportunities. Released by Oakland in early August 2009 and signed by the Rockies on Aug. 24 that season to help the team in its postseason push, Giambi spent three full seasons plus those final five weeks of 2009 with Colorado.

Giambi played in only 230 games during that stretch, just 93 starts, 20 of which came as a DH. In just 420 at-bats over that stretch, he still hit 22 home runs and drove in 86 runs. Eleven of those home runs either gave the Rockies a lead or tied the game; three of them were walk-off shots.

In Giambi's Indians debut last year, he added nine more home runs and 31 RBIs in only 186 at-bats.

"I had been an everyday player until I got to Colorado, and then I had the role of a bench player, a veteran mentor to the young players, and I enjoyed it," he said. "I got to the point where I put the ego in my back pocket.

"I truly love the game of baseball. I love the competition. I love the nuances. I got into the role. I went to Colorado not knowing what to expect. I enjoyed it thoroughly. I learned a lot about the game, especially the National League. I had never played in the National League before. If I ever happen to get a chance to manage, it's going to help me be better prepared."

And that chance to manage almost came sooner than expected.

After the 2012 season, before Giambi signed with Cleveland for 2013, he was a candidate for the Rockies' managerial job that went to Walt Weiss, who had been one of the veteran leaders in Oakland when Giambi broke in with the A's.

"Walt deservedly got the job," Giambi said. "And something great happened to me. I was called by Terry Francona and asked to come to Cleveland. He said he was looking for someone who could help with a young team."

It is a perfect fit for Giambi.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

Cleveland Indians, Jason Giambi