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Limbo Time
Jeff Pearlman
August 06, 2001
With the trade deadline looming, the anxious A's had to decide: ship out potential free agents like Jason Giambi, or make a wild-card run?
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August 06, 2001

Limbo Time

With the trade deadline looming, the anxious A's had to decide: ship out potential free agents like Jason Giambi, or make a wild-card run?

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Translation: Given that we just traded for Jermaine, I'd say it's pretty unlikely that I'll be trading our best players. We're playing to win the wild card. I like what we have.

Giambi, though, remained disillusioned through the weekend. Was loyalty dead? he wondered. Hadn't he forsaken his three years of salary arbitration to sign a paltry three-year, $10 million deal taking him through the 2001 season? Hadn't he proved his own loyalty by saving a coin-strapped team some money? When Oakland wouldn't comply with the no-trade clause that he and Tellem had demanded during their negotiations last spring, Giambi says, "I wasn't angry, but I was hurt. Considering what I've tried to do for this organization, being a positive influence and trying to keep the finances reasonable...the way I was treated, it doesn't seem right. I was led to believe the deal was done."

It was—except for the no-trade clause, which proved to be a sticking point. Giambi's concerns were understandable. Through keen drafting and dazzling trades, Oakland had collected some of the game's top young talent. The first three starters in the rotation, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Zito, are 26, 24 and 23, respectively; third baseman Eric Chavez is 23; leftfielder Terrence Long and shortstop Miguel Tejada are 25-Over the course of the next five years, those six plus Dye will be eligible for salary arbitration and, inevitably, will get multiyear, multimillion-dollar contracts.

"My fear is that with all those guys up for arbitration, they'll look at me with the highest contract and say, 'He's gone,' " says Giambi, who, after the no-trade demand was rebuffed, offered to drop it in exchange for a seventh contract year at $21 million. (That was also refused by Oakland, which feared locking up so much money in a 37-year-old player.) "Maybe that sounds foolish, but it can happen. Babe Ruth can be traded. Mark McGwire can be traded. Anyone can be traded. But if I sign a long-term deal, I don't want the team to be able to trade me anywhere." Oakland stuck to its policy of not offering no-trade clauses. This is, after all, a club to which payroll flexibility is vital. Moreover, there's the looming presence of Steve Schott, the thrifty owner-managing general partner who has implied that the A's aren't afraid to trade Giambi. As Schott told the Bergen ( N.J.) Record, "[Trading him] probably makes sense from a business standpoint." (Schott refused SI's interview requests.) It was still possible up until the All-Star break that Giambi and the A's would make a deal, but then he acknowledged an impasse and said Oakland had lost its "hometown discount." The two sides would have to start again from scratch—and Giambi might open the bidding to all comers at season's end.

Last Friday, as he sat by his locker, Giambi, wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt and an unflappable smile, interrupted his conversation with nods, grins, snorts, laughs and shouts. Although he had been playing his home games in front of an average crowd of 25,106 (20th in the majors), Giambi—who at week's end was batting .324 with 24 homers and 74 RBIs—loves being an A. It has everything to do with a clubhouse he gleefully refers to as "the land of the misfit toys." The room is a place where joyful chaos reigns, where players rap along as 2Pac and Snoop Dogg declaim from the stereo, and radio-controlled cars dart through the furniture. "We were just in Seattle, and 18 of us went out to dinner," says Mulder, who is 4-1 with a 1.74 ERA in July, including a complete-game four-hitter in a 5-0 win over Kansas City last Friday. "It'd be pretty tough for us to be any closer."

This year, even as the team fell 10 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the American League West only 21 games into the season, the mood remained positive. That's why—despite leadoff hitter Damon's batting .244 through Monday and the highly touted Zito's having a 6-7 record and a 4.77 ERA—Oakland remains in the wildcard hunt. "We never lost faith in ourselves," says Hudson, the staff ace with a 12-6 record and 3.20 ERA. "And I don't think anyone here stopped having fun. Even with all the trade talk and stuff."

As soon as Giambi proclaimed his willingness to enter the free-agent market, the rumors started flying. George Steinbrenner wanted Giambi in Yankees pinstripes. Giambi would be a perfect fit in Boston. Giambi to the Mets. Giambi to the Dodgers. "The strangest one came when we visited the Twins a few weeks ago," Giambi says. "A security guard in the Metrodome said he heard I was coming there in a trade. I was like, 'Um, that's probably not happening.' "

While it is all but certain that Oakland will let the up-and-down Isringhausen (converting 19 of 26 save opportunities through Monday) walk, Beane can't afford to allow Giambi, his most popular player, and Damon, his most exciting player, to depart without adequate compensation. Beane can't afford the $27 million-plus in salary it would probably take to keep both in 2002 either. "I love playing here, and I love the idea of coming back," says Damon, who was hitting .293 with a .375 on-base percentage in July. "But a big part of that is Jason. He's the leader of the team. If he's not around, it takes a tremendous piece away from it all. To me, he is the A's."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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