Jason Giambi was born in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina on January 8, 1971. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) The biggest event in his young life was the arrival of his brother, Jeremy, three and a half years later. Since that day, the two have been nearly inseparable. A sister, Julie, was born four years after Jeremy.
Jasons parents, John and Jeanne, spent a lot of time with their kidscamping, bowling and going to the movies. The result was, and still is, an unusually tight-knit family. John was a banking executive who made enough to live comfortably but never ostentatiously. Even when he became president of a small chain of California banks and Jason and Jeremy signed multi-million-dollar contracts, the Giambis remained in their non-descript four-bedroom house.
John was a good ballplayer in his day and a devout fan of Mickey Mantle. He stayed with the game through Mount San Antonio College until a knee injury ended his career. he passed on his love for the sport to his boys. When they were infants, John made sure to include terrycloth bats and balls among their crib toys. Whatever he did worked. Both sons excelled in baseball, and they also did well in organized football and basketball leagues.
When Jason and Jeremy were kids, they did almost everything together (except play on the same youth league baseball team). Jason was often pressured by his friends to cut young Jeremy out of the picture, but he had a hard and fast policy: If my brother doesnt go, neither do I. There was a corollary to that dictum: Anything Jason did, no matter how idiotic, Jeremy was usually no more than a stride behind him. That included sprinting through the pitch-black storm sewers of West Covina, jumping from their roof into the backyard swimming pool, and doing things on bikes that no parent should hear about.
During the summer of 1984, Jason got a close look at a collection of young stars who further inspired him to pursue his dream of baseball glory. The Olympics were being held in Los Angeles that year, and baseball made its debut as a demonstration sport. Jason scored tickets to a game and watched in wide-eyed awe as Team USA sent one slugger after another to the plate. Included on the American roster were future big leaguers such as Will Clark, Barry Larkin and Mark McGwire.
At South Hills High School, Jason was a three-sport standout. He did not have the beefed-up frame fans see today. He was a sinewy and flexible 6-3, with a wasp-thin waist and excellent hand-eye coordination. Jason played shortstop and sprayed line drives to all fields. There was almost no hint that he would become a slugging first-sacker one day, although the Milwaukee Brewers were willing to gamble a late-round pick on him after his senior season in 1989.
The third pitcher taken in that draft, Kyle Abbott, played for Long Beach State. His teammate, outfielder Darrell Sherman, was also selected in one of the early rounds. That caught Jasons eye. He had been recruited by the 49ers. In his mind, college would be a stepping stone to a pro career. He wanted to play for a school that received serious attention from major league scouts.
Long Beach State was actually riding a somewhat unexpected wave of success in college baseball. The team, which played in the Big West conference, had been the league laughingstock in 1988 with a 14-45 record. Dave Snow, the great Loyola Marymount coach, was hired to turn the program around, and he did just that. The 49ers opened the 1989 season with 18 straight wins, reached the College World Series for the first time, and finished with 50 wins and a Top 10 national ranking. A wealthy alumnus was so impressed that he donated $200,000 to renovate the schools tattered baseball diamond. That sure sounded like the kind of place Jason wanted to play. He turned down the Brewers offer and accepted a scholarship to Long Beach State.
ON THE RISE
As a freshman, Jason was shifted to third base by coach Snow. With heavy-hitting Dan Barbara at first, this seemed a good fit for the first-year player, who was being counted upon for a big contribution on offense. Although the 49ers had a good year (36-22), they did not return to the College World Series. Barbara and Jason murdered opposing pitchers, finishing 1-2 in the Big West batting race with averages of .474 and .422. Barbaras mark was the highest in the nation.
The 1991 campaign saw Long Beach State reestablish itself in the Top 10 with a 45-22 record. A pair of junior pitchers, Steve Whitaker and Steve Trachsel, led the way with spectacular seasons. The offense was carried by Jason and fellow All-Big West teammates Lamarr Rogers, Brent Cookson, and Scott Talanoa. Jasons .407 average topped the conference, and his fast-developing batting eye produced 57 walks.
More than anything, Jason's patience at the plate got the attention of pro scouts. In the free-swinging college game, it was rare to find a sophomore willing to wait for his pitch. Jasons strategy was to work the count in his favor and then look for a delivery he could drive. If an opposing hurler got ahead of him, he had enough bat control to serve the ball into left field for an easy single.
Jason spent the summer of 1991 playing for Team USA. It was quite an honor to be a member of the hand-picked squad, which included future major league stars Jeffrey Hammonds, Rick Helling, Charles Johnson and Phil Nevin. Jason played in 30 games, hit a respectable .340, and was second on the team with 15 extra-base hits. A semifinal loss to Puerto Rico in the Pan Am Games was the only disappointing moment of a great summer.
Several weeks later Jason joined Team USA, though at first it appeared that he would have the summer off. Head coach Ron Fraser initially kept Ryan McGuire on the roster instead of him. But Fraser had a change of heart, released the UCLA first baseman, and asked Jason to return. There was one catch—Jason would have to move to first base. With Nevin entrenched at third, the only open spot on the team was at the other corner of the infield. Jason didnt hesitate. Though injuries limited his at-bats and his power, when healthy he was one of the teams stars, hitting a robust .350.
In August, the squad flew to Spain, for the Summer Olympics. Team USAs nemesis, Cuba, seemed ripe for the picking in the semifinal. Helling mowed down one hitter after the next, but the Cuban pitching was just as good. When Victor Mesa and Orestes Kindelan each blasted home runs, the game was gone. Things got worse in the bronze-medal contest, as Japan trounced the Americans 8-3.
Jason had a great time in Barcelona, rubbing elbows with international stars and enjoying the perks of being a recognizable athlete. On the diamond, he made a good showing, batting .296 and scoring nine runs. Like the rest of his teammates, however, he left Spain medal-less and disappointed.
The sting of defeat was softened somewhat for Jason by the knowledge that his pro career would soon begin. The Oakland As had selected him with their second pick in the June draft, and he decided to forego his final year as a 49er. Jason was sent to the Southern Oregon As for the tail-end of the Northwest Leagues season. He acquitted himself nicely with a .317 average and 13 RBIs in 13 games.
Jason played the entire 1993 season at Modesto in the Class-A California League. He was back at third base, hitting in the middle of a lineup that included sluggers Scott Shockey and Ernie Young. Under the guidance of former big leaguer Ted Kubiak, the As finished 72-64 and reached the league championship series. Jason batted .291 in 89 games, with 12 home runsthe most he had ever hit.
Early in the year, Jason discovered something that a lot of former .400 college hitters do when they switch from wooden to aluminum bats. All those dinky opposite-field singles that boosted his average in school became soft outs in the minors. After making a few adjustments to his stance, Jason started looking for pitches that played to his power and laid off the balls that were too far outside. He whipped his bat around quickly on inside offerings and pulled them to right, while driving the ball to left when pitchers tried to work the outside half of the strike zone.
The 1994 season found Jason splitting time between Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Tacoma. Despite a solid performance at Modesto in 1993, the organization was unsure of his future. The A's did not yet consider him a Grade-A prospect. There were too many question marks about his development as a hitter, and his limited range and weak (though accurate) arm were not what Oaklandwanted from a major league third baseman. At this point in his career, Jason had all the earmarks of a utility player.
Jason seemed to confirm managements opinion of him by hitting just .223 for Huntsville in 56 games. He caught a break, however, when Mark McGwire was felled by a heel injury and Tacoma third baseman Craig Paquette was summoned to Oakland. Promoted to fill the roster opening created by Paquettes departure, Jason flourished at Triple-A. He hit .318 in 52 games and proved he could consistently turn on inside fastballs. Although Jason hit just four homers, he drilled 20 doublesa remarkable number in just 176 at-bats. Tacoma manager Casey Parsons also liked Jasons discipline at the plate. He refused to swing at pitchers pitchesan important asset for a young hitter hoping to make a successful jump to the majors.
That is exactly where Jason found himself in 1995, when he was called up by Oakland in May. He hung around a few games before being sent back to Tacoma. Jaosn loved his brief taste of big-league baseball. He tore it up upon his return to Triple-A and was recalled to Oakland on July 7.
Jason played almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers, spelling Paquette at third and McGwire at first. He hit well in the clutch and continued to show excellent plate discipline. There were also some flashes of power, including home runs in three straight games in August.
Jason played hard and got hurt often. He had a bad hamstring, sore ribs, and a concussion, which eventually dropped his average to .256 and kept him out of a bunch of September games. But his view from the bench wasnt a bad one. McGwire was in the midst of an incredible streak in which he clubbed 11 homers in his last 18 games. The big redhead finished with 39 long balls in 319 at-batsand a new record for home run frequency.
McGwire was like a big brother to Jason. Perhaps he saw a bit of himself in the developing sluggereven though outwardly the difference in the two appeared to be night and day. They talked baseball and discussed life off the field. McGwire taught Jason to approach his hitting analytically, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of enemy hurlers, and gaining an understanding of how they would pitch to him in different situations. Then and only then, McGwire explained, could you work an at-bat so that you got a pitch you could really drive.
Those lessons would come in handy years later. Heading into the 1996 campaign, however, Jasons focus was on proving he belonged in Oaklands everyday lineup. The man he was trying to impress most was Art Howe, the new manager of the As. Howe, who had been fired in the off-season by the Houston Astros, was a straight-shooter and considerably more mellow than his predecessor Tony La Russa. Jason liked his style, and it showed on the field.
Coming into the year, the book on Jason was that he could handle any right hander in the league. Southpaws, however, gave him fits. Early on in 1996, it didnt matter who he faced. Jason embarked on a 19-game hitting streak in April, and by June, his average was well over .300. He was sharing time at third base with Scott Brosius, but also giving McGwire a rest at first every now and then.
Wherever he played, Jason turned heads—if for no other reason than his outlandish, high-octane persona. He wore his hair long and extolled the virtues of feeling sexy at the plate. But Jason wasnt all talk. He finished the year with a .291 average, 20 homers, and 79 RBIs. And he was starting to handle lefties he couldnt touch before.
Jason spent the off-season with McGwire beefing up in the weight room. Convinced he needed more muscle to increase his power, he showed up for spring training bigger, stronger, and ready to hit more long balls. That seemed to be the consensus strategy in Oakland during the 1997 season. The heart of the order featured sluggers McGwire, Jose Canseco, Geronimo Berroa, and Brosius. Even middle infielders Tony Batista and Brent Gates were muscled-up and swinging for the fences.
Ironically, the As suffered a power outage in 1997. The team lost a ton of games and midway through the year traded away McGwire and Berroa to contending clubs for prospects. Like many in the Oakland lineup, Jason had trouble getting on track. Injuries slowed him early in the season, and then he struggled to find a regular position in the field. Howe used him in left field and also got him at-bats as a DH. But it wasnt until Jason took over for McGwire at first that he really began swinging the bat consistently. That probably saved the As from a 100-loss season. As it was, they lost 97 games.
By shipping McGwire to St. Louis, the As had signalled to Jason that he was a centerpiece in their rebuilding plans. He responded with a final average of .293, 20 homers, and 81 RBIs. Jason led Oakland in 20 offensive categories, including total bases, slugging percentage, hitting with runners in scoring position, and average against lefties.
Jason was full of optimism heading into the 1998 campaign. The previous year had not only brought personal success on the field, but happiness off if when he and his girlfriend, Dana Mandela, got married. Assured of the starting job at first base and a spot in the middle of the order, Jason was now free to concentrate on honing his skills rather than winning a job. He had added still more muscle over the winter and barely resembled the skinny kid Oakland had drafted years earlier. Those who feared the increased bulk would slow down Jasons swing were pleased to see him driving the ball well to all fields.
Jason was on the verge of discovering the delicate balance needed to become a baseball superstar. At the same time, the delicate balance required to sustain married life completely eluded him. He and Dana were growing apart, and the couple separated, which sent Jason into a funk.
As always, Jasons family was there to soften the blow. His mom offered up his old room, and he jumped at the opportunity to move back home. Feeling more at ease, Jason started to regain his stroke at the plate. In the second half of the season, he batted .309 and belted 14 homers. He ended the campaign with personal highs in almost every offensive category. The only downside to his numbers was his play at first base. Jason made more errors than anyone else in the AL at his position. He would eventually become a competent fielder, but never much more.
Jason continued to mature in 1999. He and Dana agreed to divorce, and while the disappointment of his failed marriage lingered, he was showing signs of overcoming the pain. That was particularly evident in the Oakland clubhouse. Jason was becoming the kind of leader other players lovea walking, talking reminder that, if everyone does his job and watches the other guys back, baseball can be really fun.
Jason commanded the respect of his teammates, yet at the same time laughed at himself or anyone else whos ego was getting a little over-inflated. On the field, Jasons message was delivered in no uncertain terms. That made the As a great team to play on.
For the 1999 campaign, Jason batted .315 with 33 homers and 123 RBIs. Whenever the As needed a big hit, he seemed to produce one. More and more, opposing teams were trying to entice Jason to get himself out by swinging at offerings out of the strike zone. When he wouldnt cooperate, they chose to not pitch to him at all. Jason walked 105 time during the year, posting an on-base percentage of .422.
Despite a payroll that paled in comparison to big-market teams, it seemed that Oakland was finally turning the corner. The As acquired a mix of veterans and youngsters, including starter Kevin Appier and closer Jason Isringhausen, just before the trade deadline, and the club responded by taking 22 of its next 32. Though Oakland eventually fizzled down the stretch, there were clear signs that the team was on the rise.
MAKING HIS MARK
Jason seemed at peace heading into the 2000 season. He had found clarity with the help of celebrity spiritualist Azra Shafi-Scagliarini, whose clients included Britney Spears and Sarah Ferguson. McGwire had introduced Shafi-Scagliarini to several As. Her powers became the talk of the clubhouse when she phoned the team and correctly predicted that Tony Phillips would break his leg a few hours later. Jason spoke to her almost every day, and she helped him accept the fact that his lives inside and outside of baseball might not always intersect.
There was nother reason that Jason was juiced about the 2000 season. For the first time ever, his brother would be a teammate. Just before spring training, the As acquired Jeremy from Kansas City for pitcher Brett Laxton. Drafted by the Royals out of Cal-State Fullerton in 1996, Jeremy had hit well in the minors (including a PCL batting championship in 1998). But he failed to show the power Kansas City expected and was a disaster at first base. Jason had lobbied Billy Beane to get his brother, and the Oakland GM listened.
The younger Giambi joined a group of patient and powerful hitters that included veterans Matt Stairs, John Jaha, and Randy Velarde. They fit well with emerging stars such as Ben Grieve, Eric Chavez, Terrence Long, Miguel Tejada, and Jason. The pitching staff featured a similar mix. Appier and Omar Olivares provided the starting staff with experience, while Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder all had big-time stuff.
The biggest story of the first half of the 2000 campaign was the play of the AL West. Oakland, Seattle, Anaheim, and Texas all were in contention for first in the division. By July, the As were 14 games over .500 and on top of the standings. Despite the presence of veterans like Appier and Velarde, the A's were a team of young guns who were having too much fun to notice the pressure of a pennant race. Howe was smart enough to know when they needed a kick in the pants and when to leave them alone. At the center of everything was Jason, who was sporting a .340 mid-season average and had passed 20 homers and 70 RBIs.
During he final month of the season, Jason took center stage. In september alone, he batted an even .400 with 13 homers and 32 RBIs. His sparkling performance led the way to victory in 22 of 29 games, and the As needed every last win. In a fierce battle with Seattle and Cleveland for two post-season spots, Oakland entered a crucial weekend series against Texas late in September. Behind Jasons bat and his emotional leadership, the As swept the Rangers and clinched the division title. After the last win of the series, the Oakland players hoisted Jason on their shoulders and carried him off the field. It was perfect irony. With a .333 average, 43 home runs and 137 RBIs, Jason had carried them for most of the season.
In the Division Series, the cocky As took on the Yankees. Oakland pushed the defending champs to the brink of elimination, but fell short in Game 5. New York did a good job all series long of pitching around Jason, who walked seven times, scored just twice, and picked up only one RBI. When the rest of his teammates couldnt pick up the slack, the As were left scratching their heads over what might have been.
Fortunately for Jason, he discovered an antidote to his newfound fame in Kristian Rice. The two met after the 2000 season in a restaurant where her family was celebrating her grandmothers 90th birthday party. Kristians mom approached Jason and told him what a fan the old lady was. Jason ambled over to wish her a happy birthday, but couldnt take his eyes of Kristian. Her mother then made all the proper introductions, and the rest was history. The two eventually married.
Winning the MVP focused attention on Jasons contractual status. He was entering the last year of his contract, and Oakland hoped to tie him up with a long-term deal. The team opened with an offer of six years at $91 million, some of which was deferred at no interest. That detail did not bother Jasonhe knew the As were watching their pennies. What turned him off was the clubs refusal to add a no-trade clause. If he was willing to commit his prime years to Oakland, why would the team be unwilling to do the same?
Jason tried to put his stalled contract negotiations behind him in spring training of 2001. Pitching was Oaklands greatest strength. The trio of Hudson, Zito, and Mulder recalled memories of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz in their early days with Atlanta. Isringhausen had proven reliable enough late in games. The offense was rock solid. Jason headlined a group of accomplished hitters whose favorite weapons were the walk and three-run homer. The As added an excellent leadoff man in Johnny Damon, a speedy center fielder acquired in the off-season from Kansas City.
The campaign didnt open as the As anticipated. The club won just eight of its first 26 games, while Seattle was off to a scorching starta pace the Mariners maintained all year long. Oakland continued to struggle in May, though Jason was swinging well. During one 13-game stretch, he batted .468 with 17 RBIs. By June, it became obvious that the team s best hope for the post-season was the Wild Card. When the All-Star break rolled around, Oakland was only seven games back in the race, well within striking distance of a playoff berth.
In August, after management resisted the temptation to trade off pending free agents Damon and Isringhausen (and then dealt for Jermaine Dye), the As finally caught fire. Jason, who also had been the subject of trade rumors, led the way. In a home series against New York, he collected the 1,000th hit of his career, a game-winning home run off Mike Stanton. Oakland now was ahead of Boston and Chicago in the playoff push, and Jason was gaining support for a second straight MVP.
The As cruised the rest of the way, finishing with 102 victories and capturing the Wild Card. In any other year, their win total would have been good enough for a division title, but Seattle set an AL record with 116 victories.
Once again, Oakland tangled with New York in the Division Series. And again they would push the Yankees to the limit, only to lose. The As took the first two in the Bronx, as Jason made his presence felt with a mammoth home run. But New York responded with a pair of victories in Oakland,and then returned home to close out the series. As in 2000, the key to the Yankees success was the way they put the clamps on Jason, who did little after his early homer in the Bronx.
In the MVP voting, the case for Jason was a strong one. The As went 58-17 after the All-Star break, thanks in large part to his 19 homers and 60 RBIs. Overall, he hit .354 with runners in scoring position and led the league in on-base percentage. Ichiro-mania, however, was too much to overcome, and Jason finished a very close second in the balloting to Seattles Japanese superstar.
The spotlight next turned to where Jason would call home in 2002. He was not opposed to staying with the As, but bigger offers were likely to come. The most obvious suitor was George Steinbrenner. The Yankees had just suffered a crushing loss in the World Series, and the New York owner didnt typically handle such disappointment well. It was time for a Boss-like rebuilding effort, and it seemed clear that Steibrnner would make a major push for Jason.
Playing in Yankee pinstripes was not an unappealing option. When Jason looked at Yankee Stadium, he saw a ballpark tailor made for his talents. The short right field stands favored left-handed sluggers, while the spacious alley in left-center field was perfectly aligned with Jasons opposite-field stroke. Also entering into his thought process was his fathers lifelong fascination with Mickey Mantle.
After weeks of speculation and negotiation, Jason signed a seven-year contract worth roughly $120 million with the Yankees. The clincher was the phone calls he received from Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina, both at the behest of manager Joe Torre. Clemens and Mussina had been major stars before coming to New York, and both admitted to being nervous at first about fitting in. They let Jason know that he would find the Yankee clubhouse laid-back and relaxed, and that he would be accepted for who he was. They also said theyd love to play with him.
In spring training Jason impressed New York hitting coach Rick Down with his quick hands and perfect follow-through. After watching Jason launch seven majestic drives over the fence in an early batting practice session, writers and fans began predicting that a 50-homer season was in the bag.
The 2002 season opened against the Orioles at Camden Yards. Jasons first big at-bat as a Yankee came in the fifth inning against Scott Erickson. New York was down 5-1, but had loaded the bases against the Baltimore veteran. Thinking grand slam, Jason took a mighty cut ... and hit a dribbler to the second baseman. Erickson, sensing Jason was anxious, had taken just a little bit off his sinker.
Over the next couple of weeks, opposing pitchers worked that strategy to near perfection. Jason failed to find his comfort zone, and his frustration grew with every dribbler, pop-up and lazy fly. Predictably, he became more susceptible to off-speed stuff. Through his first homestand, during which he heard heard mock cheers and bona fide boos, Jason went homerless. He felt like a rookie at times. Although his teammates welcomed him on the field and in the clubhouseand opposing pitchers threw to him with great care and respectthere was the sometimes overwhelming feeling that he hadnt yet earned his pinstripes.
Jason's first breakthrough came in Toronto on April 9, when he blasted a pair of round-trippers in a losing cause. His first homer, against Brandon Lyon, was classic Giambi. He watched five pitches, running the count full. Then he beat two pitches foul. When Lyon tried to take something off his eighth pitch, Jason was ready for it. He put the ball into orbit, clanking it off the restaurant window in right-center field.
A four-hit game and a three-hit game brought Jasons average up over the Mendoza line, and he was locked in by the time the Yankees made their first West Coast swing. His return to Oaklandwhere his brother had become both leadoff hitter and clubhouse leaderbrought more boos.
In the series opener, Hudson pitched a marvelous game and held a 1-0 lead heading into the seventh. Jason led off the inning with an opposite-field double on a 3-2 pitch. Hudson then made a mistake to Jorge Posada, who homered for both Yankee runs in a 2-1 win.
A week later, the As came to New York. Jason, still homerless in the House that Ruth Built, was beginning to win over the fans. With the score tied 2-2 in the sixth inning of the third and final game, Cory Lidle threw Jason a splitter that he crashed high over the right field fence. As he lumbered around the bases and descended the dugout steps, he heard 30,000 cries for a curtain call.
The applause grew from there. Jason pushed his average above .300 and joined the league leaders in homers and RBIs. In July, he won the Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities in Milwaukee. Meanwhile, the Yankees moved past Boston into the first place in the AL East. The team also added more protection in the lineup for Jason with the acquisition of Raul Mondesi from Toronto and increased the depth of its pitching by trading for Jeff Weaver.
The big story of the summer, however, was the ascent of young Alfonso Soriano to superstar status. The wiry second baseman was matching Jason homer-for-homerand perhaps more important, taking the media spotlight off of the Yankee first sacker. At the same time, Nick Johnsons offensive numbers settled around typical rookie levels, which enabled Joe Torre to sidestep a potential whos-on-first controversy.
New York spent the rest of the summer positioning itself for another World Series run. Jason was consistent, if not spectacular, throughout the last half of the year. He finished with a .314 batting average, 41 home runs, and 122 RBIs. He also walked 109 times and scored 120 runs. In other words, he delivered the numbers Steinbrenner was paying for.
Despite his gaudy numbers, Jason didnt enter seriously into speculation about the Al MVP. That conversation centered on a trio of middle infielders: Tejada, A-Rod, and Soriano.
New York drew Anaheim in the first round of the postseason. Though favored, the Yankees had turned over a lot of bodies in a year, and most experts cautiously penciled them in against the no-name Angels, who were on a roll.
The Anaheim hitters clobbered Yankee pitching and simply outscored the beefed-up New York offense. The Yankees took Game 1 at home in dramatic fashion, but lost the next three in a row. Jason did his part, hitting .357 in the series and scoring five times. After his home run in New Yorks opening victory, Mike Scioscia instructed his pitchers to treat him with extra care in key situations.
After the teams early postseason exit, there was much analysis and criticism of the new Yankees. Were the pitchers too old? Had the old clutch performersincluding Tino Martinezbeen replaced by guys who couldnt get it done in the clutch? No one could quarrel with Jason’s contributions. Then again, he was brought to New York to win championships, not play well in losing causes. In other words, the honeymoon was over.
That November, while on a tour of Japan with other All-Stars, Jason asked Barry Bonds’s weight trainer, Greg Anderson, about his client’s workout routine. The conversation turned to BALCO, a performance enhancement company on the West Coast. Upon his return to the States, Jason began to use a sampling of BALCO's undetectable products, including “The Clear” and “The Cream.”
The 2003 campaign looked promising for Jason and the Yanks. Japanese star Hideki Matsui gave the club another potent lefthanded bat in the middle of the lineup, Posada looked ready to move into the elite class of power-hitting catchers, and Soriano had his sights set on another run at a 40-40 season. The starting pitching was as good as anyone’s, and Mariano Rivera was back for another year as the league’s most intimidating closer. Even when Derek Jeter separated his shoulder in the Yankee Stadium opener, the pinstripers kept playing winning ball.
Jeter wasn’t the only Yankee hurt in April. Jason began the season with a balky left knee and sore hamstring, and things only got worse from there. He sat out several games with a staph infection in both eyes, and then missed time with a bruised wrist and sore back. He managed to see action in 156 games, but was never really at 100 percent.
With Jason’s health up and down, the Yankee lineup was inconsistent. Pitching was the team’s strong point, and a big reason the club won 101 games. However, with the playoffs looming and Boston hanging tight in the AL East, Torre had to get Jason’s bat in the lineup every day. Playing through the pain, Jason endured a disastrous stretch run, which dropped his average to .250. His power numbers—41 homers and 129 walks—were still very respectable, but it was a different Giambi on one wheel.
By the playoffs, everyone in
baseball knew Jason could not push off and hit the high fastball. He
was reduced to hitting mistakes. A two-homer game against the Red Sox
was the extent of his contribution in the ALCS. Still, the Yanks beat Boston in a thrilling seventh game to move on to the World Series against Florida. Jason and his teammates had little luck against the Marlins. Johnson saw the bulk of the time at first,
with Jason limited to DH and pinch-hitting duties. New York fell in six games in another postseason disaster.
Jason arrived at spring training looking considerably thinner, which raised serious questions about his steroid use. He insisted in a news conference the only difference in his life was that he had removed fast food from his diet, but no one bought it. Many believed Jason’s noticeable weight loss proved he had discontinued taking performance enhancers. His name had come up in an investigation into BALCO, and in December he had been called to give Grand Jury testimony.
Jason's problems only worsened in 2004. His knee began acting up before the regular season started. In May, he sprained an ankle, which forced him to sit out for two weeks. When Jason returned to the lineup, he was clearly out of rhythm, collecting just 13 hits in 69 at-bats. Next he was hit by dehydration, which also sent him to the bench.
But that was hardly the worst of it for Jason. Throughout the season, he felt unusually weak. Jason saw plenty of doctors, but no one offered a conclusive diagnosis. At one point, he was informed that he had an intestinal parasite. The news actually relieved him.
After the All Star
break, Jason went 0-for-16, and his average slipped to .224. Sensing something
was still wrong with him, he met with GM Brian Cashman, and they agreed
he should go for more tests, including several for different types of
cancers. The results came back negative, but the doctors did find a benign
tumor in Jason’s abdomen. While not life-threatening, it was identified
as the catalyst for most of his health issues.
In December of ’04, when the specifics of Jason's testimony a year earlier hit the papers, all of his past accomplishments were called into question. Would he have won the MVP? Would he have hit those two playoff home runs in 2003? Also in doubt was Jason’s future as a major leaguer. Would the league allow him to play again? Did the Yankees still have to pay his contract? Did Jason actually owe the Yankees money? Obviously, his case raised a lot of uncomfortable issues for baseball.
When Jason first signed with the Bronx Bombers, it appeared he was destined to put the ultimate Mantle-like notch in his belt with the New York trifecta: praise from the owner, adoration of the fans, and perhaps even a place among the all-time greats out in Monument Park. Now Jason faced a monumental struggle—to regain his health, to repair his reputation, and to reclaim his status as one of the game’s best players.
He made great strides in 2005. First, Jason apologized to the fans. Second, he worked his rear end off to get into playing shape. The Yankees brought back Martinez to play first base and used Jason as the DH against righthanded pitching. At times, he also played first against lefties.
Jason hit in the middle of the lineup, often between Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. He led the AL with 108 walks and hammered 32 homers. Many of those came during an amazing 14-game span in July and August. Jason had four multi-homer games, joining Mel Ott, Harmon Killebrew, Frank Howard, Albert Belle and Barry Bonds as the only players to accomplish that feat.
The Yankees finished tied with the Red Sox atop the AL East and were awarded the division title because they had won the season series. Hitting was never an issue for the Bronx Bombers, of course. But pitching was a season-long concern. It came home to roost in the playoffs, when the pesky Angels upended New York in five games. Jason, who finished the year on fire, did his part in the series, batting .421 with three doubles.
Jason split the 2006 season between DH and first base again, with Andy Phillips often filling in as a defensive replacement. The Yankees lost Matsui and Sheffield for long stretches, but still outdistanced the rest of the division thanks to fine years from Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, and young starter Chien-Ming Wang.
With 37 round-trippers, Jason was one of 34 players who clouted 30 or more homers during the season, fueling further uproar over steroid use. Jason actually benefited from the continuing drug debate, as he was now above suspicion in the eyes of most fans. In a return to form, he topped 100 RBIs and walks, and led the team with a .558 slugging average. Unfortunately, Jason stopped hitting in the Division Series, as did most of the Yankees. They fell in four games to the rifle-armed Detroit Tigers, who went on to win an improbable pennant.
The injury bug bit Jason again in 2007. He tore a muscle in his foot while running out a hit and hobbled around much of the season. Not a real option at first base, he played in only 83 games. With lefthanded hitters Matsui and Johnny Damon also nursing injuries, Torre started using the DH spot as a rehab slot, and Jason found himself squeezed out of the lineup. In the interim, he proved he was, above all else, a team player. Jason did not gripe to the manager or the reporters that crowded around his locker after games.
The highlight of Jason's season was probably Bud Selig's announcement that he would not be suspended for his steroid use. Jason had cooperated with an investigation headed by George Mitchell and did some public-service work for Major League Baseball, earning him the commissioner's goodwill.
The Yankees snuck into the postseason with 94 wins and the Wild card, but once again they were out-pitched by their opponents, this time the Cleveland Indians. Torre used Matsui as the DH for most of the series. Jason singled in four at-bats.
The plan for 2008, assuming Jason's body cooperates, is to use him at first base against righties and as a lefty bat off the bench. With Damon ticketed for the DH slot and Melky Cabrera the everyday centerfielder, Jason figures to see around 300 to 400 plate appearances. As he has proved in the past, he can do plenty of damage in that role. Thanks to his rehabilitated reputation, Jason also has the chance to win back the fans—and maybe finally get fitted for a World Series ring.
JASON THE PLAYER
Jason has never impressed anyone with his fielding or footwork at first base. He holds his own on defense, and that’s as good as it gets.
Perhaps Jaon's gratest asset at this point in his career is his influence and leadership on the field. He played a major part in the resurgence of the A’s, and learned valuable lessons duringthose years. The way Jason's teammates have stuck by him through his struggles is telling. He impresses those around him as a team-first guy. Whereas the Yankees let A-Rod find his own way in pinstripes, the club has been vocal in its support of Jason. He's a strong presence in the locker room—whether he's putting up MVP numbers or cheerleading from the bench.
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