Giambi finds good way to fit in with Yanks

Giambi finds pinstripes the right fit for him

October 03, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - It took Jason Giambi a few long days to make his decision.

The Yankees wanted him. He wanted to be a Yankee, if for no other reason than his father had always loved the Bombers and Mickey Mantle was the baseball hero in the Giambi house.

But after meeting last winter with George Steinbrenner and after understanding that he was the No. 1 big kahuna in a deflated free-agent market, Giambi stalled.

Days passed and the Yankees, eager to get on with business, grew impatient.

"We thought he could be the important cog that could spur our offense," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said last night.

"But was there doubt we could get him? He had an offer [from Oakland] for pretty much the same amount. He was pretty close to the guys there, so if he wanted to stay, he could. We didn't want to put pressure on him, but out of respect to [former Yankees first baseman] Tino Martinez, we said we needed a decision."

Hardly cocky nor arrogant, Jason Giambi is no Reggie Jackson. He would never think of uttering anything about straws that stir the drink. However, at age 31, Giambi knew he was in the prime of his career. It was time to take the plunge.

But was there good reason to deliberate long and hard about becoming a Yankee? Sure, but so far, Giambi has no reason for regrets.

In only his second postseason at-bat as a Yankee, Giambi did what all great sluggers pray they'll do. He hit a home run.

As he rounded the bases Tuesday night, Giambi stomped his foot down so hard, dust flew. When he passed third base coach Willie Randolph, Giambi delivered a low-five so vigorously, Randolph's hand could have used an X-ray.

It was the kind of euphoric release you'd expect from a highly paid free agent who so quickly answered the bell and, better yet, nominated himself a fitting heir to that most coveted Yankees title, Mr. October.

Still, Giambi was sweating through Game 1 of this American League Division Series against the Angels.

The problem? He had ripped a pretty nasty hole in the back of his pants. And in the all-seeing eyes of owner Steinbrenner, Giambi knew he was going to hear about it. And how.

"I've always been like that. I know it drives Mr. Steinbrenner crazy. It gets [clubhouse man] Rob Cucuzza in trouble. He's calling down, `God, tell him to change his pants,' " Giambi said.

They talk about the added pressure of playing in New York.

"One thing we take great pains to do is to try and ease the transition for new players coming in," Cashman said.

"Ultimately, we always fail, because no matter how we try to make guys comfortable, this is New York and New York prevents that. It's hard. Roger [Clemens] struggled, Tino [Martinez] struggled. Giambi did, too. But he kept his head up. He kept battling and he rode it out."

Cashman was referring to Giambi's struggles in April and early May, before he unloaded a homer at Yankee Stadium on May 17 that seemed to jump-start his transition to life in pinstripes.

But even before he officially signed on for seven years and $120 million, Giambi learned about New York pressure, how Steinbrenner demands not only substance and performance but also style - as in clean-cut, no goofing around.

This is, after all, the same owner who refused to let Don Mattingly into the lineup until he trimmed his hair. This is the same owner who once scolded Ron Blomberg for planting a hot dog in the finger of Gene Michael's glove because he would not tolerate levity on the field.

As the leader of the Lost Boys in Oakland, where toy motor cars cluttered the clubhouse and fast-food wrappers and half-eaten tacos littered the tables - when a card game wasn't in progress, Giambi was a scraggly-haired Peter Pan.

He reveled in his Dennis the Menace/Pigpen image, even though it belied a genuinely accommodating, nice young man. He is a star because he is the anti-star: real, honest, self-effacing.

And he is a star because, during his early apprenticeship with the Athletics, he paid attention to Mark McGwire. Giambi was ready to lead the youth-movement A's during their 2000 and 2001 Division Series.

This season, it's clear Giambi is no longer the Lone Ranger. With Derek Jeter smacking homers and picking grounders deep in the hole, with Bernie Williams slugging game-winning homers, Giambi doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting. Not for these Yankees.

Still, he was brought here to be a big cog. What he did in his first postseason game as a Yankee fulfilled that job description - ripped pants and all.

"It takes a lot of negative stuff out of the way, and rightfully so," Cashman said.

"I think I saw some commentary about how he got a passing grade for the second half of the season, but now the finals are here. That's the place where you have to get it done. I think he answered that bell."

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