Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Comeback Giambino

by Scott Silversten

New York Yankees radio announcer John Sterling refers to him as “The Giambino,” while Daily News media columnist Bob Raissman has played off that moniker with the nickname “The Giambalco.”

The references to Babe Ruth and the BALCO steroids scandal are obvious. But the joke will be on the rest of baseball this winter, when Jason Giambi is named the 2006 American League Most Valuable Player. And when this moment occurs, it will mark one of the most unbelievable individual turnarounds in baseball history.

The Yankees were in Seattle in the middle of May last year amid discussions about what to do with Giambi, whose body appeared broken down just five years after winning the 2000 MVP award with Oakland. The team wanted to send him to Triple-A Columbus, while the first baseman hoped to work out his troubles in the batting cages at the major league level.

Talk show lines lit up with fans that wanted Giambi dumped. Others called him selfish for not accepting the demotion while many tried to figure out a legal loophole that might somehow get the Yankees out of his mega-contract. Oh, how times have changed.

Ultimately, Giambi remained with the Yankees and began his shocking transformation from a player on the verge of being discarded to one of the most dominant hitters in the game. He reached his nadir after hitting just .195 with three homers and six RBI over the first 27 games, but then exploded and finished the season with a .271 batting average, 32 homers and 87 RBIs after being virtually non-existent for the season’s first two months. He ranked first in the AL with a .440 on-base percentage.

Splitting time between first base and designated hitter, Giambi was named the American League Player of the Month for July, batting .355 with 24 RBI while leading the league with 14 homers, a .974 slugging percentage, a .524 OBP and 74 total bases.

The 14 homers in July were the most in a month by a Yankee since Mickey Mantle hit 14 in July 1961.

This year, Giambi has picked up right where he left off. He won the AL Player of the Week Award on Monday – the highlight statistic was a staggering .700 OBP -- and is currently hitting .316 with 5 homers, 12 RBI, a .519 OBP and a .763 slugging percentage.

The bizarre press conference of last spring, in which Giambi repeatedly apologized without specifying what he was apologizing for, is a distant memory for most Yankee supporters and opens up an interesting question – How would Barry Bonds be treated today if he had just admitted the steroid crimes for which he has been accused?

Quite simply, Giambi has earned his good graces through two avenues. First, he has always been considered a nice guy and a good teammate. Aside from the admission, that is essentially what differentiates him from Bonds. Secondly, his performance has exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Of course, getting cheered by hometown fans for tremendous offensive production is one thing. For most of last year, Giambi was forced to deal with catcalls on the road.

It remains to be seen what happens during the New York’s first trip to a city like Boston, but with series in Oakland, Anaheim, Minnesota and Toronto already completed, there seems to be no lingering negative aspect surrounding Giambi.

While there were probably a few boos, it’s a good bet they didn’t reach the levels of those directed at Derek Jeter by the Metrodome faithful. When Giambi gets booed now, it is happening not because of his past misdeeds, but because he is as scary an offensive force as just about anyone in baseball.

Here is a test: Even if you are a non-believer who does not think Giambi can win the MVP award, start listing the best offensive players in baseball and see how quickly you get to him. That will be proof enough of how far he has come in one year.

Scott Silversten's column appears every Thursday


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine