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Countdown to Opening Day – 72 days
The origins of the number 72 in Cleveland Indians history are unique, not in how it was worn on the field by its lone wearer, Jason Giambi, but in the circumstances that led to Giambi switching to the number late in the 2014 season.
On Saturday, August 2, 2014, legendary Indians slugger Jim Thome signed a one-day contract with the club in announcing his formal retirement from Major League Baseball on the day that his statue, the second of three at Progressive Field, was to be unveiled.
In recognition of Thome’s efforts to the Indians throughout his 22-year MLB career, Giambi felt that Thome’s jersey number 25 should no longer be worn in Cleveland and gave up the number, switching to the 72 that he wore to close out both his own Indians and MLB career.
“That was my cue to do something and to never have anyone wear it again,” Giambi told reporters on Thome’s day. “Any time you’re erecting a statue of someone, you’ve done something pretty special on and off the field. What he has meant to this organization, you can’t say enough about Jim Thome. I thought by the end of the year they would officially retire it but when the contract was announced to come back, it was like the universe had spoken to me.”
While Giambi was the last to officially wear 25, he also remains the last to wear 72 for the Tribe.
Giambi and his ties to the number dated back 21 years earlier, when he was still early in his professional career with the Oakland Athletics. He had a locker that spring near future Hall of Fame closer Rich “Goose” Gossage and was given the number 72.
“I was so scared, I couldn’t talk to him,” said Giambi in an Associated Press story on September 1, 2014. “Turns out he was a teddy bear and we became close friends.”
Gossage spent the 1992 and 1993 seasons with Oakland and was cut at the end of spring training in 1994.
Thome was in his second season in the Majors with the Indians when Giambi was drafted by the A’s in the second round of the 1992 draft. His career spanned 20 big league seasons and he finished with a career .277 average and 440 home runs as one of the feared sluggers of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Early in his career, he hit for high average while drawing league-leading walk numbers and he was the MVP of the 2000 season.
He spent seven seasons in Oakland before signing a big free agent deal to join the New York Yankees, where he played seven years until returning to Oakland for an eighth season in 2009. He was dealt midseason to Colorado and remained with the club through the 2012 season. After interviewing for the Rockies’ managerial vacancy, he resumed his playing career and signed with the Indians, spending the 2013 and 2014 seasons in Cleveland while hitting .171.
Giambi’s dugout leadership earned him steady praise throughout his stay, as he was an asset to new Indians manager Terry Francona in his return to the dugout. Giambi’s playing career success, trips to the postseason, time on the biggest stage in the Big Apple, and even his handling of the BALCO performance enhancement scandal all gave him invaluable experience to share with an otherwise young Indians roster.
He spent 2013 as a part-time player, making 54 starts at designated hitter and appearing in pinch-hitting opportunities in another 17 games. His 2014 season was largely lost to injury, as he played in just 26 games (18 starts) while dealing with a slew of injuries, including left knee soreness, a broken rib, and a strained calf muscle.
He was activated from a trip to the 60-day disabled list at the start of September during that final season and donned the 72. Francona shared with reporters after Giambi’s first day back, “He had a little bounce in his step. I think it means a lot to G. I think this has been hard on G this year. He has never once uttered a frustrating word to anybody. But I don’t think for one minute this has been easy for him and I respect him more now than I used to, which is hard because I think he’s so special and I think he even proved it this year with the way he handled the whole thing.”
While the players in the Indians dugout who had the chance to play alongside and learn from Giambi likely have their own special memories of “Papa G”, fans might best remember him for the gift that he gave them on September 24, 2013.
Cleveland and Chicago were playing a significant two-game set at Progressive Field, with the Indians riding a four-game winning streak and making a charge at the American League Wild Card spot. The Sox were long since out of the race, but were trying to play the spoiler in a see-saw game that saw them tie the game at one in the fourth and take the lead in the seventh, albeit a brief one as Cleveland countered with two runs in the bottom of the frame to take the lead.
Closer Chris Perez took the mound in the top of the ninth to defend a 3-2 lead, but gave up a game-tying homer to Dayan Viciedo to lead off the inning. After back-to-back strikeouts, a consistent pain in the side of the Indians, Alejandro De Aza, knocked the first pitch he saw into the stands and the Sox reclaimed the lead heading to the bottom of the ninth.
As history would prove, every win down the stretch would be significant for the Indians and what transpired in the final frame may have been a driving force powering the Cleveland club the rest of the regular season. A one-out single from Michael Brantley fell between a pair of strikeouts for Chicago closer Addison Reed. Giambi took to the plate, pinch-hitting for Matt Carson, and the potential tying run in Brantley swiped second base.
Giambi and the Sox had some history earlier in the season, as Giambi had drilled a pinch-hit game-winner to straight-away center on July 29 against Ramon Troncoso. It would be a bit of déjà vu of sorts, as he parked a 1-1 pitch from Reed deep into the seats in right field and gave the Indians their fifth of what would be ten straight wins to close out the magical run to end the 2013 season while propelling the Indians to a hosting role for the AL Wild Card Game in October.
The image of the celebration on the field, proclaimed by announcer Tom Hamilton as “Mardi Gras, in September, in Cleveland”, has become a recognizable one shared frequently and favorably by Tribe fans since, truly a gift that keeps on giving.
Top photo: Mark Cunningham/Getty Images