Living dreams not all his own could burden Yanks' Giambi

October 10, 2003

NEW YORK -- The Yankee Stadium batting cage was a good spot for a Giambi family homecoming last night. Jason, the Yankees' $120 million designated hitter, was hugging his brother Jeremy, a Red Sox player who, despite being on the disabled list, was allowed to take batting practice before Game 2 of this American League Championship Series.

Between the brothers was father John.

All his life, John Giambi's favorite baseball player was Mickey Mantle. All his life, his favorite team -- despite living in Southern California -- was the Yankees.

All his life, as the boys grew up and he coached their Little League teams and baseball became their life, John told the boys about the Yankees' M&M's: Mantle and Maris.

What would it be like to make it there one day?

You get the picture. Father is living out a dream. Sons, particularly Jason, are living out the father's dream.

Mantle is Jason's favorite player "probably because my dad was my biggest hero and he loved Mickey. When we were kids, he talked about Mickey Mantle and all his accomplishments. So, I think he passed on that love to his two boys -- because that's my brother's favorite player also. And also being in New York, and the things that he accomplished in this game, I think that's why I grew up loving him," Giambi once said about how he wound up here.

As Jeremy, Jason and John orbited each other in the dense crowd of media and players last night, it was tough to look at Jason Giambi and wonder if being in New York -- under this spotlight, under these Steinbrenneresque expectations -- is more about familial fantasy than the killer instinct and ego it takes to really produce in white-hot conditions.

Is that why he has not seemed himself, or at least like the old, fun-loving self since coming to New York?

This season, Giambi became the fourth Yankee to have back-to-back 40-homer seasons, joining immortals named Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle. The flip side? Beset by injuries, trying to sustain a lineup weaker than any since before the Yankees' current reign commenced in 1996, Giambi hit .250, including a 6-for-67 slump that stretched into September. Take away a stellar June, and Giambi's season average was below .230.

Is the reality of having to perform as a Yankee a letdown after the fantasy of becoming one?

"Definitely the Babe would be up there. He would make for a great party. Mickey Mantle. I'd like to see my grandfather again, too. And my brother. That would be a hell of a party. We wouldn't have enough alcohol," Giambi once answered to a question about the four people he'd most like to party with.

Now the father has a son on each ALCS team. John Giambi is living in hog heaven, hanging around The House That Ruth Built, chatting up Bobby Murcer, hugging Johnny Damon, who used to play in Oakland with the boys; shaking hands with Nomar Garciaparra; getting a fresh bottle of water from Jason as he climbs out of the Yankees dugout.

"Here, Pop," Jason Giambi said, then calls over a Yankee clubhouse attendant to help him deliver game tickets to more friends and relatives.

But once the hugs and warmth of the family circle ends, Giambi has been the picture of discomfort. His face has looked tense, like it's a chore to hit.

The harder he tries, the worse it seems to get. All this despite the pride he said he has taken, staying in the lineup, playing through the eye infection, a hand injury, his chronic knee problem.

"He's going to play every game. I don't know if I can say anything more clear than that. Hopefully he catches on fire for us," Yankees manager Joe Torre said last night. "We know he struggled over the last month or so, but it doesn't keep me from expecting big things. I have every confidence we're going to get it."

Odd, almost, that the Red Sox are so much like the scruffy Athletics used to be, projecting that goofy, fun-loving attitude that Giambi relished. He was the perfect star player for Oakland: the biker-slugger Peter Pan presiding over Billy Beane's Lost Boys.

That was Giambi in his first major-league incarnation.

Hair long and scraggly. Arms loaded with bags of McDonald's. His mind on baseball only when it wasn't on the fleet of remote control cars that turned the A's raucous, music-blasting clubhouse into a playpen.

Big Jason laughed as he ascended the free-agent food chain, an innocent who crushed homers, won the American League Most Valuable Player title and led the low-budget A's into the postseason, where Derek Jeter and the Yankees were always waiting to show how true professionals get it done in October.

What the Yankees need now is a straw that stirs the drink.

What they have is Jason Giambi in his second major-league incarnation.

The big lefty slugger has not only failed to become Mr. October but, two years into this "I Have A Dream To Fulfill My Father's Dream" move to the Yankees, he does not exactly seem hard-wired to do so, either.

Maybe he is too nice. Maybe he is trying to hard to please his father. Maybe it's more about the dream of playing where Mantle played, of wearing No. 25 in pinstripes. He isn't Mantle, of course. No speed. Little defense. He doesn't possess the brash need to be the center of the universe, like Reggie Jackson.

"It's not No. 7, Dad, but it's pinstripes," Giambi said when announced to the New York media.

He held up his new jersey. It was No. 25, because 2 plus 5 equals 7. Mantle's number.

No wonder fulfilling this fantasy seems so tough.

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