Once upon a time, there was a ballplayer making a comeback from steroid allegations. He had nasty front-page headlines written about him in the biggest media market in the country. Fans of his team and that team’s beat writer pool were treating him as if he had murdered someone. He held a press conference before the season where he was evasive but revealing, if you bothered to listen carefully. There were stories about his big-market team hoping to void his ginormous contract because of his sins and he had all eyes fixed upon him when he showed up to Spring Training.
The player was Jason Giambi and the year was 2005.
A few days ago while I was mulling over topics, I was struck by the similarities in the circumstances surrounding Jason Giambi’s 2005 season and Alex Rodriguez’s 2015 season.
Both players were former league MVPs coming back from self-made humiliation thanks to their involvement with a lab that distributed performance enhancing drugs to athletes, though Rodriguez's humiliation (a 162-game suspension) turned out to be much worse than Giambi's. Yes, Giambi had a forgettable 2004 season in which he was sidelined by a tumor, only played in 80 games and batted .208/.342/.379 with 12 home runs and 40 RBI. And yes, in December 2004, his testimony from the BALCO trial was leaked — testimony during which he revealed, in vivid detail, how he took steroids, how much he took and when. It was actually enlightening in a way to see what an athlete has to do in order to take performance enhancing drugs. But Giambi, unlike Rodriguez, didn't face a lengthy suspension and showed up at Spring Training the following February.
Was 2005 a struggle for Giambi? Definitely. While his Spring Training numbers were respectable and probably lulled the Yankees, and Giambi himself, into a false sense of security, he started off the regular season very slowly. He batted .224/.395/.373 with three home runs and six RBI in the first month of the season and his numbers were not improving in May. In fact, there was chatter about Giambi being asked to go down to the minors to work on his hitting and Giambi refusing to do it.
On May 11, Jay Greenberg of the New York Post published a scathing piece about Giambi's refusal and had choice things to say about the struggling former MVP:
Jason Giambi, hitting .195 with six RBIs, didn’t volunteer to go where he can get needed at-bats without further hurting the Yankees. So now is not [sic] just a steroid cheat, but a fool, too.
That was just the lede. It actually got worse.
You would think Giambi’s grand jury admission and his production decline would already have humiliated him past a point where he would care about hitting down in the order. Also, can the shards of his ego could handle [sic] a few constructive weeks out of our fishbowl, where spearfishing is a compulsion? Apparently not.
He goes on to compares Giambi to Joe Cowley, a starting pitcher of the 1984 and 1985 Yankees who didn't quite pan out.
So Giambi stays, to daily questions, to further delays in determining whether he has anything left, to additional reason to believe that of all the mistakes the Yankees have made over the years, he will go down as the biggest.
And then after that kick to the privates, Greenberg ends the piece by naming other former MVPs and Cy Young Award winners who were out of baseball five years after winning their awards. It was pretty rough stuff and turned out to be completely incorrect, but that's the problem with writers declaring a player's season, and career, over a month into the season.
Did Giambi improve in May? Not really. His numbers didn't actually start to see some improvement until June. That month he batted .310/.474/.431 with one home run — a walk-off against Jose Mesa on June 15 — nine RBI and four doubles. He also walked 17 times and only struck out 12. Things were definitely improving for Giambi, but no one could have guessed what was to come.
You always hear players mention how the ball flies off the bat easier in July than it does in April, and that was true for Jason Giambi in July 2005. It started in Yankee Stadium on July 4 against the Baltimore Orioles when Giambi hit two home runs in a game for the first time in nearly two years (against Cleveland on July 18, 2003 in a 10-4 Yankees victory). He'd hit home runs on July 5, July 7, July 10 and July 14 before taking a bit of break, going a few games without notching a long ball. But don't worry, Giambi made up for it by hitting two home runs on July 20 and on July 21 in Texas. (The two home runs on July 21 came off Bartolo Colon.)
Giambi ended his scorching July with two more home runs on July 31 in a game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim — one of them was career home number 300 off Esteban Yan — and he finished the month batting .355/.524/.974 with 14 home runs and 24 RBI in 26 games. And no, that .524 on-base percentage is not a typo. The one thing about Jason Giambi was known for during his career was his eye at the plate. He walked 21 times that month; two were intentional.
His August, while not as crazy as his July, was still exceptional. Giambi finished the month with six more home runs and 18 RBI while batting .250/.448/.500. Seven of his August RBI were amassed in one game against the Kansas City Royals on August 28. His victims that day? None other than Zack Greinke and Jeremy Affeldt. Giambi hit two home runs off Greinke and also hit a two-run single off Affeldt. He singlehandedly beat the Royals that late August afternoon. The other Yankees just happened to tack on three runs, making the final score 10-3.
While some of his numbers dropped a bit to close out the regular season, Giambi hit seven more home runs in September and ended the 2005 regular season with 32 home runs (16 at home and 16 on the road), 87 RBI, 14 doubles, 108 walks and 109 strikeouts. According to FanGraphs, his wOBA was .422 and his wRC+ was 165. His final line was .271/.440/.535. He also received a few MVP votes, finishing 18th in the balloting.
A few months after being declared for dead, Jason Giambi ended up being named American League Comeback Player of the Year.
Giambi stayed with the Yankees until 2008 and just missed out on winning a World Series ring, but he continued to play in the majors with the Oakland Athletics, the Colorado Rockies, and the Cleveland Indians, retiring after the 2014 season at the age of 43. Not bad for someone who should have ended his season, and career, in mid-May 2005. Giambi and Rodriguez each showed that when the league writes a player off, it doesn't mean he has nothing left.
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Stacey Gotsulias is a contributing writer of Beyond the Box Score. She also contributes to The Hardball Times and writes about the New York Yankees for It's About The Money. You can follow her on Twitter at @StaceGots.