Thursday, July 21, 2005

A Big Apology is Due

As a pseudo sportswriter – scratch that. As a guy who writes about the Yankees with an audience of his father and one, maybe two friends, I’m bound to make mistakes. Even the guys who get paid to write sports have their share of blunders. Dan Graziano of the Star Ledger said a month and a half to go that the Yanks were out of it. Skip Bayless of ESPN penned a column and argued on air that Rafael Palmiero shouldn’t be honored in the Hall of Fame.

My mistake was in doubting one of the boys in pinstripes. And while he gave plenty of reasons for said doubt, he still wears the pinstripes daily. He’s still part of the team, and who am I to question a guy who has Captain Jeter’s seal of approval?

It has taken me 135 words to even begin apologizing to Jason Giambi.

Not that I, in addition to the majority of pinstripe fanatics, were unjustified in some way regarding this doubt. We don’t my words here to recall his envelopment in RoidsGate, followed by the ambiguous apology press conference, followed by a .224 April, followed by a .241 May.

But through all of that, he was a Yankee. And I don’t want to hear anything about, “oh, he never earned his pinstripes.” If he hadn’t prior to the 2003 ALCS, he sure as hell did in Game 7. Aaron $@%! Boone wouldn’t have even had the opportunity to take Wakefield deep if not for Giambi. When the team was down 4-0 in an elimination game, he put them on his back and knocked two solo jacks. And they were only solos because the rest of the team couldn’t seem to string together any hits. So Giambi did it the old fashioned way and took the otherwise immortal looking Pedro Martinez over the fence, where he would score no matter what Enrique Wilson would do hitting behind him.

He also led the Yanks in OPS for 2002 and ’03 with a 1.033 (!!) and .939, respectively, which was actually a drop-off from his two previous seasons in Oakland, where he posted a 1.123 in ’00 and a 1.137 in ’01. And not to nit-pick the decline, but from his rise in strikeouts – 112 in ’02 and 140 in ’03 compared to 96 in ’00 and 83 in ’01 – more than likely came from over swinging, which can be attributed to the added pressure to perform in New York under his gargantuan deal.

So here’s a player that put up excellent numbers in his first two years with the club, carried us through a pivotal playoff game, and we’re turning our backs on him. Yes, 2004 was a complete disappointment from any standpoint, but the guy was sick. And I don’t care if the steroids caused his illness. You can’t get on a guy who went from a parasite to a benign tumor.

And then RoidsGate opened the flood gates. Mike and the MadDog, among the other lesser known radio shows, were inundated with callers calling for Giambi’s head. No one wanted this guy around anymore. The New York Post even went as far as to publish the most dismal looking photo ever taken of Giambi with the headline, “Ban the Bum.”

Why? Because deep down, we all thought he was done. We already had the evidence of his – although slight – decline in numbers, especially his batting average, which fell to .250 in ’03. And you know how New Yorkers love talking about their batting averages. But what no one remembers is that despite his mediocre-at-best average, the guy still had an OBP of .412 (which combined with the average is remarkable), and still belted 41 homers, which matched his total from ’02 and was once again two short of his career best.

This seems like an appropriate time to ask the question. What if Giambi hadn’t gotten sick in ’04? What if he put up a season like 2003, where he wasn’t particularly great, but he still got on base and still drove in runs? What if this production put the Yanks over the top, and we laid the Red Sox in defeat once again and overtook the Cardinals to win the ’04 Series? Who would be calling for his head then? Would the New York Post have cried, “Ban the Bum” if Giambi was wearing a ring?

Three words: Oh Hell No. We would have reacted much like the San Fran fans did when Bonds became entangled in the controversy. The fans of New York would have welcomed back Jason with open arms and blasted the media for dragging him in the middle of this thing. But, since the New York mindset is, “what have you done for me lately,” we cast him aside, let him hang for the rest of the world to ridicule.

I even went as far as to comment that the team should just continue to put him out there daily and let the fans have their way with him. Surely a few months of ridicule would push him past the breaking point and force his hand into a buyout. Little did I realize that I was only half right.

Torre stuck with him like any father would stick with the prodigal son. And even as Torre sat him more, and even as the talks began to swirl about his proposed demotion to the minors, Jason insisted that he just needed time to get back into the groove. “Shyeah, right,” was the reaction of the majority of fans, but Jason continued to persist.

And he continued to grow. With his average, on base, and slugging in arrears, Jason fought through June, and showed flashes of change. Suddenly, he wasn’t striking out every other at bat. On lower pitches, he was no longer dropping his back shoulder and leaving a gaping hole in his swing. He was going down, getting that pitch, and driving it to the outfield for a base hit. And, finally, he had a month where he walked more than struck out.

But still, Giambi needed that one boost to his confidence, something that could take the place of steroids in his psyche. That opportunity came on Sunday, June 26, 2005. With the Yankees down 4-3 entering the bottom of the ninth against the Mets, they faced being swept at home by their crosstown mini rivals. And for the Yankees and their fans, nothing is more embarrassing than a loss to the Stinkin’ Mutts. Replace the word “loss” with “sweep,” and you’re in store for some downright humiliation.

Following a Tino walk and an A-Rod double, the Mets issued Giambi the ultimate insult – they intentionally walked the guy in front of him. Now, given the situation – second and third, none out – and the guy they decided to walk – Hideki Matsui – you can’t really blame the Mets for making this move. But the fact remains that the Mets would rather see Giambi with the bases loaded than Matsui with guys on second and third with Giambi on deck.

I can just imagine the pep talk by Jete in the dugout. “Nobody intentionally walks a guy to get to Giambi! NOBODY!”

And when the ducks were on the pond and pride was on the line in the Bronx, Giambi came through, hitting the game-winning single.

That was the third to last game in June. And now we’re nearing the end of July, and sweet sassy molassey, what a turnaround. This month, Giambi is hitting – and I’m getting giddy just getting ready to type out this line -- .391/.541/1.000, with 8 homers, 14 RBI, and only 11 strikeouts. In other words, he’s gone from washed up to a shoe-in for AL Player of the Month in just three months. Outstanding.

Whether this will hold up for the rest of the season remains to be seen. Sure, he won’t hit .391 the rest of the season, but my pre-season wishes for Giambi were .280/.400/.490. As of today, he’s .284/.437/.502. As long as he keeps that up, I’ll be a satisfied fan.

Jason, once again, I’m sorry.