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Yankees Magazine: The Greatest Lesson of All

The Little Leaguers he coaches now can learn a lot from Jason Giambi
(New York Yankees)
June 25, 2019

Jason Giambi’s life these days is as far from what it was when he played for the Yankees as the distance between his home in Henderson, Nevada, and the old Yankee Stadium. He reached tremendous heights and faltered dramatically in his baseball career, but he wouldn’t change any aspect of

Jason Giambi’s life these days is as far from what it was when he played for the Yankees as the distance between his home in Henderson, Nevada, and the old Yankee Stadium. He reached tremendous heights and faltered dramatically in his baseball career, but he wouldn’t change any aspect of his life today for anything.

It’s a mid-winter morning in Giambi’s massive house overlooking Las Vegas. The three-story mansion, which has a footpath that runs through a decorative water feature outside the front door and a multilevel pool with waterfalls in the backyard, is immaculate. From the surface of the white marble floors to the dining room table that sits in front of a glass-enclosed wine rack, everything is perfectly in place and pristine.

Things are busy. Giambi and his wife, Kristian, who have been married since 2002, have just returned from their oldest daughter’s dance recital. Prior to that, Giambi had made breakfast for his three children, who range in age from 1 to 7, and he had already driven the two oldest kids to two different schools.

It’s almost noon, and Kristian has just picked up the couple’s 5-year-old son, Tristan, from preschool and returned home. The boy sprints through the front door, finds his father in the living room and gives him a hug.

“I love being at home,” the former Yankees first baseman and DH says from the couch as his wife places their 20-month-old daughter, Sloan, on his lap. “I took on being a dad the same way I took on baseball. I love making them breakfast, taking them to school in the morning and being with them at all of their activities. If I get back into the game someday, I want there to be a foundation of dad being here first. Watching our kids grow and find their own way is the best part of my life.”

While Giambi maintains that he would like to get back into professional baseball through the coaching ranks, he is also adamant that he’s in no rush to do so. For now, the only diamond he’s interested in being on is one that he can share with his son.

“I never really pushed baseball on Tristan,” Giambi says. “I would throw with him a little bit, but he wasn’t really into it. He loved Legos and building and a bunch of other things, and I was cool with that. But then, all of a sudden, he decided that he wanted to play Little League baseball. I was like, ‘All right, let’s do it.’ So he played last year and loved it. And he wants to play again this year.”

As a Little League dad who hit 440 home runs and batted .277 in 20 Major League seasons, Giambi quickly caught the attention of the team’s coaches.

“At the beginning of the season, the coaches, who are mostly police officers, asked me if I could fill in for them when they had to work,” Giambi says. “But as the season went along, I was able to be there the most and I was coaching the team. I had a ball.

“The kids didn’t know who I was, but the parents would show them videos from my career,” he continues. “It was really cool to be part of all of the kids’ lives and to teach them how to play the game. I really enjoyed all of the little things, like showing them how to throw to first base. I will always remember one of the dads coming up to me and saying, ‘Wow, you guys are actually getting outs.’ We were pretty good, and we got better really fast.”

Wearing a short-sleeved black collared Psycho Bunny brand shirt, black jeans and black shoes with metal spikes protruding from them, Giambi still looks like he could play the game at its highest level. Sure, the 48-year-old has some gray hair, but it’s also apparent from his bulging biceps that he still finds time to hit the gym on a regular basis.

Looks can be deceiving though, and for Giambi, the decision to retire in 2015 was a no-brainer.

“In my mind, I was still great,” Giambi says. “But no matter how much I worked out, it kept getting harder. But I’m grateful that I took it to the end. I was one of those rare players who got the opportunity to leave on his own terms.”

In many other respects, Giambi’s legacy is even more unique. Following a standout collegiate career at Cal State University Long Beach, Giambi was drafted by the Oakland A’s in 1992 and made his big league debut in 1995.

“When I first came up, Mark McGwire, Rickey Henderson and Dennis Eckersley were there,” he says. “I was in awe of the guys on that team. I had watched them when I was growing up, and there I was, playing alongside those guys. I got really lucky because Mark McGwire took me under his wing right when I got to the big leagues, and he sped up my learning curve. When those guys left, my role switched. It went from learning to leading. We had a lot of great young players, and before we knew it, we became really good, really fast. We had a frat house mentality on those teams. We all got along, and we all hung out.”

In the galaxy of great players on those late 1990s and early 2000s A’s teams, Giambi’s star shined the brightest. After producing big-time numbers in 1998 and 1999, Giambi had his best season in 2000, winning the AL MVP Award with a .333 batting average, 43 home runs and 137 RBI. He also led the league with 137 walks and a .476 on-base percentage.

Going into free agency, Giambi again put up huge numbers in 2001. He batted .342 with 38 home runs and 120 RBI. He led the AL with 47 doubles, 129 walks, a .477 on-base percentage and a .660 slugging percentage, finishing second in MVP voting to Mariners rookie sensation Ichiro Suzuki.

In both 2000 and 2001, the talented but financially strapped A’s teams lost to the Yankees in the postseason, and although Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner had fan-favorite Tino Martinez at first base, the thought of bringing in one of the game’s best stars was irresistible.

“I didn’t have any offers from the A’s or from any other teams except for the Yankees,” Giambi recalls. “I was in talks with the A’s in the Spring Training before I became a free agent. I thought that we were going to get a deal done, but ownership squashed it. I played that whole season without a long-term contact and I think because I had a monster year, the A’s didn’t even think they could compete with other teams, so they didn’t [make an offer].

“Things moved quickly with the Yankees when I became a free agent,” Giambi continues. “Mr. Steinbrenner got involved and called my agent with a seven-year offer for $119 million. Before we knew it, he said, ‘OK, I’ll give you $120 million,’ and the deal was done. My agent had made all of these binders to send to the teams, but when Mr. Steinbrenner got involved, none of that was needed.”

For Giambi, whose father introduced him and his brother, Jeremy -- who spent six years in the Majors from 1998 to 2003 -- to the game and who idolized Mickey Mantle, joining the Yankees was the realization of a lifelong dream.

“When you talk about the Yankees, you’re talking about an organization that has done what no other has ever done,” Giambi says. “They’ve won so many championships and have so many of the greatest players who’ve ever played, starting with Babe Ruth and going all the way through Derek Jeter.”

As excited as Giambi was for the chance to wear the pinstripes, he knew that the challenge of succeeding in the Big Apple -- especially for a player who was expected to essentially be the best player in the game from day one -- would be off the charts. He wasn’t in Oakland anymore.

“The A’s were in a small market,” he says. “They had just enough beat writers so that they could all interview you at the same time. But there was an aura surrounding the team I was joining. The media is a big part of the aura of the New York Yankees. It’s like a political machine. The press is always there. They expect big things, just like the owner did. You find yourself trying to do everything that you’re asked in terms of media requests, but at some point, you realize that you still have to get ready to play.”

Like so many other players who have come to New York with big expectations, Giambi did not match his output from previous seasons at first. He finished the first month of 2002 with four home runs, and he was batting .282 heading into May.

“I put more pressure on myself when I first got there than anyone else did,” Giambi says. “I felt like it was my chance; I was playing for the New York Yankees. But there’s that fine line between intensity and being relaxed. You really have to walk that fine line. That first month, I had the expectation that I was going to go in there and do some amazing things, but that didn’t happen right away.”

As the temperature in New York slowly warmed up, so did Giambi. The slugger authored his first signature moment in a mid-May classic against the Minnesota Twins at the old Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees had fallen behind, 12-9, in the top of the 14th, but the team rallied in the bottom of the frame. With one out and the bases loaded, Giambi came to the plate in the pouring rain and hit a game-winning grand slam into the famed black seats in straightaway center field. From that moment, he was officially embraced in the Big Apple.

“That was a big game,” he says. “The rain made it more dramatic, but when I hit that grand slam, it allowed me to take a deep breath. I felt like I was back to being the player I was in Oakland. I was relaxed, and I was off and running. To a point, that is when I really stepped to the forefront.”

***

Giambi went on to hit .314 with 41 home runs and 122 RBI in 2002. And, although the Yankees failed to make it to the World Series that season, his heroics the following year were as significant to the team’s return to the Fall Classic as those of any other player.

After a regular season in which Giambi again hit 41 home runs, the Yankees and Red Sox squared off in the 2003 American League Championship Series. Tied at three games apiece, the two clubs met at Yankee Stadium in what was sure to be a battle for the ages.

It was the biggest game of Giambi’s life, yet he almost missed it.

“I was living on the Upper East Side, and there was a water main break in the city,” Giambi says with a laugh. “I tried to go over the Third Avenue Bridge, but the traffic was stopped. There was literally nowhere to go. I called (equipment manager) Rob Cucuzza and asked him where to go. He found out where I was and told me to stay there. All of a sudden, a police car came to get me, and it was like the parting of the Red Sea. When I got to the Stadium, Joe Torre was laughing at me.”

As troubling as the traffic was that afternoon, the start of the game was even worse for Giambi and the Yankees. Roger Clemens, the former Red Sox legend turned Yankees ace, was knocked out of the game in the fourth inning. Meanwhile, working with a 4-0 lead, future–Hall of Famer Pedro Martínez was mowing down Yankees hitters one by one.

Then in the fifth, Giambi came to the plate and gave the Yankees their first sign of hope, smacking a leadoff home run.

“We weren’t in a good place, especially against Pedro,” Giambi says. “He was dealing. He’s up there as one of the toughest pitchers I ever faced. So, you’re thinking, ‘Boy, it’s 4-0, and it’s getting later into the game.’ And Pedro was one of those guys who got stronger as the game went on. When a Hall of Fame pitcher starts to lock it in, it’s usually over. Then I hit the homer to dead center, and we felt like we were off and running a little bit.”

Two innings later, Giambi tagged Martínez for another solo homer, brining the Yankees within two runs.

“The mood really started to change when I got back into the dugout after that home run,” Giambi says. “We felt like we were in striking distance.”

The eighth inning proved to be the turning point of the game and the season for the Yankees. A rally that began with a Derek Jeter double culminated with a two-base hit off the bat of Jorge Posada that tied the game at 5-5 and sent Martínez to the showers.

History will always point to Aaron Boone’s game-winning home run in the 11th inning that night as the moment, but without Giambi’s two longballs, the former third baseman and current manager may never have come to the plate.

“I feel like we all contributed something that night,” Giambi says. “I don’t think the bullpen gets enough credit because that game could have easily gotten away from us in those middle innings. But what Aaron did in that situation was truly special. I was so excited that we were going to the World Series. It was a dream come true.”

The good times in Giambi’s career came to a temporary break soon after that epic night in the Bronx. The Yankees fell short in the World Series, losing to the Florida Marlins in six games, and following the 2003 season, the narrative of Giambi’s career changed dramatically.

Before Giambi could begin his third season with the Yankees, he found himself in the middle of a controversy that would forever change the game. Amid a widespread investigation, Giambi was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) federal investigation about the use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

Things only got worse for Giambi during the 2004 season. After missing time with a sprained ankle, Giambi then missed 49 games with a benign tumor in his pituitary gland. Even when he was on the field, Giambi wasn’t the same player he had been up to that point, batting .208 with 12 home runs in 80 regular season games. He was then left off the team’s postseason roster.

That December, Giambi’s sworn grand jury testimony -- in which he admitted to taking PEDs -- was leaked and subsequently found its way into a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper report.

When Giambi reported to Spring Training in 2005, he did what most of the other Major League stars who were part of the investigation didn’t do: He took responsibility for his actions. Although the United States attorney handling the case advised him not to get into specifics, Giambi offered an apology to his fans, to the media and to the game in a press conference.

More than a decade later, Giambi looks back on the way he handled that decision with immense pride.

“I took responsibility,” he says. “I did the right thing and stepped up. I can only speak for myself, but I felt like that was the best way to go about it. In the truest sense, I felt like that set me free. I didn’t have to talk about it anymore. There was nothing that anyone could dig up, and that was freeing. I’ve always said that I had to walk through the darkness to get to the light, and that’s exactly what I did.”

From the people closest to Giambi to fans across the globe, support came from all corners after the 2005 announcement, and he believes it was because he had been truthful.

“I was grateful for the opportunity from the fans, from baseball and from Mr. Steinbrenner,” Giambi says. “I was grateful for the opportunity for that second chance and to be able to rebuild myself. What Derek [Jeter] did was also really important at that time. He stepped forward and said, ‘Hey, I want him here. He’s a great guy and agreat teammate.’ That helped me out tremendously.”

***

Although Giambi was given the chance to make a comeback, he knew that restoring his reputation and returning to prominence on the field would be quite the undertaking. The already-engaging player knew that he couldn’t turn down any interview or autograph request, whether he could afford to take the time out of his demanding workout regimen or not.

“From the second that press conference ended, it was all about rebuilding myself as a player and rebuilding my character,” he says. “I worked really hard, I mean feverishly hard, to rebuild both. I think, in turn, that helped me play 20 years in the big leagues. It’s not only the way that I stepped forward and handled it -- like a man -- but also I kept plugging along and rebuilding myself.”

Giambi’s hard work on both fronts began to pay off quickly. He batted .271 with 32 home runs and 87 RBI in 2005, while also leading the American League with 108 walks. Those numbers earned him Major League Baseball’s Comeback Player of the Year honors.

“That award meant as much to me as my MVP,” Giambi says. “It was all about hard work and picking myself up out of the gutter. It took me a little while to get going, probably because of the pressure to perform and show people that I was still the same player. But when I finally relaxed, I ended up having a great year. I don’t think anyone else out there was a harder critic of me than I was, but I learned that I needed to give myself a chance.”

Two years later, and no longer risking legal ramifications, Giambi offered a more specific admission.

“I was wrong for doing that stuff,” he told USA Today in May 2007. “What we should have done a long time ago was stand up -- players, ownership, everybody -- and said: ‘We made a mistake.’ We should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. Steroids and all of that was a part of history. But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid. Nobody wanted to talk about it.”

After hitting 37 home runs and driving in 113 in 2006, Giambi struggled with injuries in ’07, playing in just 83 games. As he had done a few years prior, Giambi again rallied to put together a productive campaign in his final year with the team and in the final season at the old Yankee Stadium.

When Giambi is reminded that he hit 32 home runs in 2008, he shrugs his shoulders and smiles.

“To be part of history there -- especially because I was a Yankees fan -- is an amazing memory,” says Giambi, who collected the final hit in The House That Ruth Built. “That whole season was special, even though we fell a little short. I’ll never forget the final game. I got some dirt, my uniform and my bat from that game.”

A few weeks later, the Yankees decided not to bring Giambi back for an eighth season, bringing his time in New York to a close. Giambi knows that his tenure in pinstripes was not a storybook tale, but he’s proud that he persevered the way he did.

“I got a chance to play for the Yankees,” he says. “And like the saying goes, if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. I had my ups and downs, but I made it through.”

Giambi began the 2009 season back in Oakland and finished the campaign with the Colorado Rockies. He remained in Colorado for three more seasons, providing valuable leadership to a young team in the hunt. Once known for his hard-living and fun-loving ways, Giambi was now the first player home each night.

“It was starting to affect my baseball career,” he says of his partying. “There was a point where I couldn’t answer the bell. I wanted to be ‘fun Jason,’ but I also wanted to still be able to play. I had slipped into the mentor role. I felt like it was my chance to do what all those guys did for me when I first started, and that’s what keeps the legacy of the game going.”

Giambi finished his career with the Cleveland Indians, serving mainly as a reserve and pinch-hitter in 2013 and 2014. He played his last game at 43 years old, and he officially retired in February 2015.

The five-time American League All-Star accumulated a lifetime’s worth of knowledge and experience in the two decades he spent between the white lines, but he recognizes that his most enduring contribution to the game may not have taken place on the field.

“I don’t know how many mothers or fathers, over the course of my career and in the last few years, have told me that they were grateful for the way I handled the mistake I made,” he says. “They tell me that it has helped them teach their kids that when you make a mistake, you tell the truth.”

With the afternoon moving along, Giambi knows that his oldest daughter will be home soon. There will be more adventures with his children before long. But until then, he’s taking in the picturesque view of Las Vegas and the snow-capped mountains behind the city from his backyard.

“I’m most proud of who I am today because of everything I went through,” he says. “I got the chance to play for 20 years, I have three beautiful kids and a beautiful wife. When you look at this thing called life, you have to take it all in, all of the ups and the downs. I learned so much about myself when things weren’t going good. You learn who you are as a person and the value that you create as a human being during the down times.”

Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.