Posted: Thursday June 8, 2006 12:17PM; Updated: Thursday June 8, 2006 4:09PM
Jason Giambi has found a mentor in former Yankees great Don Mattingly.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
In 2004, Giambi's bat looked slow as he would flail away at fastballs up in the zone. By the end of last season he was no longer chasing bad pitches. With his confidence back, Giambi's patience returned. Mattingly, a far more aggressive hitter than Giambi, was famous for spoiling a pitch in on the hands by turning on it. Mattingly's season high in walks was 61; Giambi averages more than 100 per 162 games. And it is his selectivity that especially impresses his coach. "The pitches Jason lays off ...," said Mattingly, searching for the right description. "It's just incredible."
Says Murti: "One little thing that has turned into a big thing is that Giambi rarely takes batting practice outdoors anymore, only in the cage. He said he used to get caught up in hitting every pitch into the seats and not really get as much out of batting practice as he could. Now that he hits in the cage, he works strictly on hitting. The only time he goes out to the field is the first game on a trip, when he may want to test the background to get a feel for that park, but that's it."
Giambi homered to left field last week in Detroit, which is yet another sign that he's a more balanced and relaxed hitter. Of course, Giambi is still booed lustily on the road. But even in New York, the first thing most people say on the subject of Giambi's comeback is, "I wonder what he's taking now."
"The big question, in fact the only question, really, is if he is doing it legitimately," says historian Glenn Stout, author of Yankees Century: 100 Years of New York Yankees Baseball. "Or has his turnaround been helped in any way by chemical enhancements, be they as-yet-undetectable steroids, human growth hormone or something else, because baseball's drug testing standard and methodology remain laughable and easily duped? There's no answer to that, so I'd be real careful declaring him 'clean.'"
Jeff Pearlman, whose new book on Barry Bonds was released this spring, wonders if baseball writers will be duped again. In a piece for Slate.com, Pearlman expresses his skepticism over Giambi's recovery. "I, for one, don't believe him. During my six years at Sports Illustrated, I fell for the trick and covered Giambi as the hulking, lovable lug who cracked jokes and hit monstrous homers. All the while, he was cheating to gain an edge. So, why -- when MLB doesn't administer a test for human growth hormone -- should I believe Giambi is clean?"
This kind of cynicism is fitting of the times. After all, you would look naive if you didn't at least question whether Giambi's success is related to drug use. But for most fans, according to Stout, no matter what their feelings about performance-enhancing drugs are, they are less concerned with how it impacts an individual player so long as that player is producing for their team. That is the bottom line, right?
It will be interesting to see how baseball writers will react if -- and that's a big if -- the MVP race comes down to Giambi and Jim Thome. Say Giambi has slightly better numbers at the end of the year. It's hard to imagine the writers giving him the nod over Thome, considering Giambi's past. However, this is of little consequence to Yankees fans as long as Giambi continues hitting and taking his walks. Ditto for the Yankees themselves, who once believed Giambi was an albatross.
Who would have thought that Giambi would come this far? How many people believe it's legit? That's the legacy that Giambi has to carry with him. He's earned it.
Alex Belth is the founder and co-author of Bronx Banter. His biography of Curt Flood, "Stepping Up: The Story of All-Star Curt Flood and His Fight for Baseball Players' Rights," is available on Amazon.com.