Giambi Journey Provides Occasional Power and Daily Leadership to Tribe

Baseball is full of stories. For Jason Giambi, he’s slowly transitioning from the final chapter of one novel and to the likely beginning of another in his baseball journey.

His baseball story has All-Star Games, a Most Valuable Player award, Silver Slugger awards, accusations and admissions of steroid use and a Comeback Player of the Year award. When you’ve been a big leaguer since 1995, your baseball story has time to take many twists and turns in the novel.

Giambi, near the end of his career, has spent his last four seasons as one of the last men on the Colorado Rockies’ roster, often pinch-hitting late in the game and mentoring their younger players. His 429 career home runs and 1405 runs batted in were nearly all achieved before he reached Colorado, during his dominant seasons with the Oakland Athletics (1995-2001, 2009) and New York Yankees (2002-2008) when he was one of the most feared hitters in the American League.

Last year, at the end of a disappointing season, it appeared the final chapter of his playing career was over. He applied, and was a finalist, for the Rockies’ open managerial job. Had the Rockies hired him, he was willing to retire, but when they elected to hire Walt Weiss instead, Giambi still had the itch to play. Looking for a chance to write one more chapter in his playing career, Giambi needed a chance and the Cleveland Indians came calling.

“I’m grateful to have the opportunity,” Giambi said. “Three months before that, I was interviewing for manager of the Colorado Rockies. So, when Terry (Francona) and Chris Antonetti called up and said, ‘hey we want you to come here and we think there’s a role you can fit. We think you can DH.’”

“I just can’t get on the field any more as a position player, but I can help some of these young kids, so I jumped on the opportunity,” Giambi said.

The Indians signed Giambi to a minor league contract on Feb. 9, on the eve of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. Cleveland searched for a designated hitter most of the off-season, but had been reluctant to commit a guaranteed spot. Giambi accepted his minor league deal, with no promise of a roster spot, and headed to Goodyear. What he encountered was an opportunity on the field and a role as a mentor to a new clubhouse of acquisitions and youthful players.

The most important piece of the Indians new puzzle that attracted Giambi to Cleveland was the chance to play for manager Terry Francona. Giambi played for Francona in 1994 in the Arizona Fall League and the two have always discussed the possibility of Francona managing Giambi during their baseball journeys.

“I’ve known Terry for years, like 20 years, so we would joke that I was going to play for him someday,” Giambi said. “This opportunity has been incredible. You look at in the offseason the Indians really stepped up and signed some great free agents to give themselves a run. I was excited to get the opportunity to come here.”

Now, Francona and Giambi are reunited in their baseball careers almost 20 years after their fall in Arizona. Each were budding prospects in their roles in baseball. Each has a clearly different role almost two decades later. Giambi is no longer looking to burst on the scene, he’s looking to make his last contributions to the game as a player. Francona has become a two-time World Series manager who is now asked to rebuild the Cleveland Indians. Francona needs Giambi’s help—on the field and off the field.

Upon arriving to Goodyear this spring, Giambi immediately became a clubhouse leader and sounding board for several young players. It’s a role he enjoys and thinks is important to a strong clubhouse and a help to a manager.

“It’s always nice when a manager doesn’t have to worry about being in here all the time,” Giambi said. “He’s got other things to worry about. He doesn’t need to worry about what’s going on in the clubhouse or making sure guys are doing what they need to do. It’s always nice to have that veteran guy that’s gonna help out and be that go between so that he doesn’t have to worry about what’s happening in here.”

Giambi was added to the 40-man roster on March 25, but placed on the disabled list with a back strain. He was activated on Friday and made his first appearance in game action yesterday, going 0 for 4. His role is defined as the team’s part time designated hitter, but how much is that part time, remains to be seen. Giambi is expected to play a couple days a week against right-handed pitchers, allowing other players the opportunity for a day off.

“The thing about this game is that it is always changing and evolving,” Giambi said. “It could be one day a week to three days a week depending upon matchups and of course you always have injuries. Guys need days off. I’m just excited I don’t have to pinch-hit against closers all the time. I can at least get four at bats in a game.”

“The biggest thing is just I’ll be available and ready when Tito needs me.”

Sunday was Giambi’s first start since July 1, 2012 against the San Diego Padres. Physically, he doesn’t feel he can play first base any longer. How much playing time Giambi receives may not be important to him, but he looks forward to the opportunity to not exclusively pinch-hit. The second half of last season he was only a pinch-hitter in Colorado, often against late-inning relievers or closers throwing nearly 100 miles per hour. The role gave him insight to a different role and chance to consider how to treat a player for his next baseball story—as a manager.

“It’s a big situation. That’s his job to get us out,” Giambi said. “It gave me an opportunity to see that role, since I was an everyday player most of my career. It was nice to be in that role and to understand, so when I do manage, what it’s like to be that 25th player on the bench and how that guy needs to get in there at times and make a difference.”

Giambi assumes this will be his last season as a player and hopes the experiences and insight he has will someday lead him to a managerial position in baseball. While he may appear to be just a veteran clubhouse voice, he wants to be that voice and more. Managing may be the next chapter in Giambi’s story, but right now, he’s focused on mentoring this team and helping it win baseball games on the field.

“I can still hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Giambi said. “I’m gonna be in there in certain situations and take some big at bats against right-handed pitching. That’s the incredible thing that gives me this opportunity, because this team is so athletic that you can carry a player like myself as a DH or role player because others can play so many other positions.”

Photo: Chuck Crow/Cleveland Plain Dealer

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