JASON GIAMBI walked into the A's spring-training complex for the first time in eight years, pulled up a stool in an otherwise empty clubhouse, pointed both index fingers at a row of lockers and pretended to fire off a couple of six-shooters in rapid succession. The gesture might have seemed a bit cryptic, but to any aficionado of the frat-house oeuvre, the message was clear. Giambi was channeling Frank the Tank—Will Ferrell's character in Old School—right after Frank chugs the contents of a beer bong and right before he licks the face of a coed, hops on stage with Snoop Dogg and goes streaking through the center of town. "Frank the Tank," Giambi said, with a diabolical look on his newly bearded mug. "I'm still that guy."
If Frank the Tank had spent seven years in that Old School fraternity, then moved to New York and spent the next seven working at an investment firm, only to return as Lambda Epsilon Omega's 38-year-old rush chairman, he might have felt a little like Giambi coming back to the A's. "When I was here the first time, we turned this place into a frat house," Giambi says. "I think we can do it again."
The A's have been to the playoffs only once since 2003, the same year Moneyball was published, and they've lost 86 games in each of the past two years. Last season they ranked near the bottom of the major leagues in every significant offensive category. The frat house that Giambi built was uncharacteristically quiet, mainly because a lot of the members were hitting about .230. "It wasn't what it used to be," outfielder Jack Cust says. Once a maverick franchise, Oakland had become just another small-market club, its spirit beaten down by the unforgiving economics of baseball.
But this off-season, when every small-market team and most of the big ones were scared off by the economic downturn, the A's regained their renegade mojo. Ten years ago they invested in players with high on-base percentages because those players were undervalued by other teams. Five years ago, when on-base percentage was the rage but defense was not, they went after the slickest fielders. And in this most unusual winter, when most teams (the Yankees excepted, of course) were spurning marquee veterans in favor of draft picks and prospects, the famously frugal A's signed Giambi for $5.25 million and traded three disposable parts to Colorado for outfielder Matt Holliday, who is due $13.5 million this year. "Everything we do," general manager Billy Beane says, "has to be contrarian."
Starting righthander Sean Gallagher was on the golf course in November when his father, Paul, sent him a text message that the A's had landed Holliday. "Are you kidding me?" Gallagher responded. (Viewing Oakland as a noncontender at the time, Holliday, it should be added, had the exact same reaction.) Gallagher was in the gym in January when his dad sent him another text that the A's had signed Giambi, too. "Wow," Gallagher says, "we're not messing around this year."
Warren Buffett advises investors, "Be fearful when others are greedy, and greedy when others are fearful," a tip that's easy for the Yankees to follow but less so for the A's. It's hard to characterize their off-season approach as greedy—their payroll is still just north of $60 million—but they did bid aggressively on free-agent shortstop Rafael Furcal before he re-signed with the Dodgers and remain in the mix for Orlando Cabrera, another free-agent shortstop, and Nomar Garciaparra. "It's like buying a house right now," says A's starting lefty Dallas Braden. "It's tough to do, but if you can make it work, there are good values to be had. Billy found a piece of real estate for a low price, and he'll see it rise."
There is no place for nostalgia in Moneyball, but when Beane reunited with Giambi, he was about as sentimental as a self-described "cyborg" can get. "I feel like I'm marrying my ex-wife," Beane said. The union between Giambi and the A's—like the one between Ken Griffey Jr. and the Mariners—ended prematurely. Giambi's seven years in New York are remembered mainly for the leaked grand jury testimony that led to a 2005 admission of steroid use, an intestinal parasite, a pituitary tumor (benign), a gold thong, a bad 'stache and some regrettable haircuts. His seven years in Oakland are remembered for an MVP award, two playoff seasons and no haircuts. "We loved New York, but when we were there, we still probably talked every day about the times we had in Oakland," says Bob Alejo, the A's strength and conditioning coach, who was Giambi's personal trainer with the Yankees. "Those are the kind of times you always hope to recapture. But you never can."
Or can you?
IN THE second week of February, Giambi attended the annual Giants-A's kickoff luncheon in San Francisco, a swanky affair hosted by Comcast SportsNet Bay Area that included a three-piece band, an open bar and ficus trees illuminated with twinkly lights. Giambi wore jeans that were ripped at both knees and a half-tucked dress shirt that revealed a silver belt buckle the size of a saucer, engraved with a skull flanked by angels' wings. As he strode into the banquet hall, he paused to rethink his look. "I didn't know if I could grow my hair out in time for this," Giambi says. "So I went with the Mohawk instead." (It was really more of a faux-hawk.) When he was introduced by Ray Fosse, Oakland's broadcaster, Fosse told Giambi what he already seemed to know: "Jason, you can relax now."
Despite incessant roster changes, nearly every baseball clubhouse maintains a certain identity. The Yankees have a corporate one. The Rockies have a religious one. The A's have a rollicking one. This dates back to Reggie, Catfish and Rollie in the 1970s, Rickey and the Bash Brothers in the '80s, but for today's players it is all about Giambi. "He is the definition of an Oakland A," says Gallagher, 23. "He created the whole persona." To prove his point, when Gallagher was traded from the Cubs to the A's last season, he grew his hair out, a la Giambi. And when he saw a few Cubs coaches this spring at Las Sendas Golf Club in Mesa, Ariz., they shouted to him, "Oh, now you're doing it the Oakland way."