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Giambi wins back fans, media with resurgence

Posted: Thursday June 8, 2006 12:17PM; Updated: Thursday June 8, 2006 4:09PM
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Jason Giambi has helped lead the Yankees back to the top of the AL East this season.
Jason Giambi has helped lead the Yankees back to the top of the AL East this season.
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BRONX, N.Y. -- At this time last year, Jason Giambi's career was near rock bottom. After a decent spring training  -- despite reports about Giambi's role in the BALCO scandal and his subsequent vague apology -- he had yet to find a groove by the middle of May. He was on an 0-for-15 slide when manager Joe Torre and GM Brian Cashman approached him about going to the minors to regain his confidence.

Giambi refused the assignment, insisting that his workouts with Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly were the ticket to getting back on track. Meanwhile, he was hearing boos at home and had a beer tossed on him while playing in front of his former home fans in Oakland.

Through June 6, 2005, Giambi was hitting .237 and had a .375 on-base percentage and .343 slugging. Through 40 games he had four homers, 15 RBIs, 24 walks and 41 strikeouts. But he rode out the slump, and his bat heated up in June and exploded in July, when he smacked 15 homers. Giambi hasn't looked back since.

In 146 games from June 7, 2005, through June 6, 2006, Giambi was hitting .283 with an OBP of .465 and a .623 slugging percentage, with 44 homers and 119 RBIs. He won the Comeback Player of the Year award in the American League in 2005.

Instead of catching grief from Yankees fans, Giambi has quietly become one of the most popular players on the team. Now that he's productive again, he's portrayed as the hardworking, patient, offensive force the Yankees felt they had signed back in the winter of '01. It also helps that the spotlight is no longer shining solely on him. When recently asked about Giambi no longer hearing the boo birds, Torre smiled and said, "Yeah, he's passed the mantle to Alex [Rodriguez]." After a brief pause, Torre added, "Alex is making more anyway."

"There was a very big difference in Giambi's demeanor this past spring," observes Sweeny Murti, who covers the Yankees for WFAN sports radio in New York. "This spring he came in loose and relaxed, like the player he was supposed to be when he was in Oakland and came over here. Now he'll sit and chat with the media in front of his locker. The last couple years, he would do anything he could to avoid that."

It is a fitting bit of irony that Giambi credits Mattingly most for his resurgence. Mattingly, of course, was an icon at first base in New York during the 1980s and early '90s. It was no small task to replace him; just ask Tino Martinez. Last year Martinez returned to the Yankees as a backup, and he and Mattingly encouraged Giambi to hang tough.

"The most important thing is that he is capable," says Mattingly. "It was a matter of getting rid of the bad habits that he had developed while he was hurt. He was moving forward with his back side, trying to cheat, and that got him swinging at bad pitches. When you are going bad, problems feed upon themselves. But once he corrected that and stayed back more, his swing became shorter, and his confidence grew. And confidence feeds upon itself too."