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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #52 Jason Giambi

The left-handed slugger was controversial, but he also wrote the script for how to resurrect your reputation.

New York Yankees’ Jason Giambi waves to cheering crowd after Photo by Howard Earl Simmons/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Name: Jason Gilbert Giambi
Position: First base/Designated hitter
Born: January 8, 1971 (West Covina, CA)
Yankee Years: 2002-08
Primary number: 25
Yankee statistics: 897 G, .260/.404/.521, 134 2B, 209 HR, 619 BB, 145 wRC+, 22.0 rWAR, 21.8 fWAR

Biography

The legacy of Jason Giambi is...complicated. In his prime, he was one of the most dangerous hitters on the planet, a prolific slugger whose ability to pile up home runs was second only to his command of the strike zone — the result of the 20/13 eyesight in his right eye. He was a popular figure in the clubhouse on every team he played for, and has been pegged as a future coach or manager over the last couple of years.

A pair of shadows, however, loom large over his playing career. Despite playing on some really good A’s and Yankees teams, Giambi never won a World Series ring, as his teams always came up short. More significantly, he was one of the faces — arguably, the original face — of the BALCO steroid scandal. While a multi-stage public apology and his generally likeable personality have helped his image recover in the same way that, for example, Rafael Palmeiro’s and Sammy Sosa’s haven’t, many baseball purists continue to hold the mistake against him.

These controversies aside, no list of Top 100 Yankees could be complete with the Giambino. His on-base percentage ranks fifth in team history, behind only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, and Charlie Keller, and his OPS ranks ninth (his 143 OPS+ ranks 8th). Only 12 players, including current captain Aaron Judge, have more home runs in pinstripes than Giambi’s 209. When he left the Yankees after the 2008 season, it took 15 years for the Yankees to acquire another left-handed bat with a similar blend of power and discipline — a fellow by the name of Juan Soto.

The Early Years

Born and raised in Southern California, Giambi was born into a baseball family. His father, John Giambi, was a big Mickey Mantle fan (it is no accident that the digits of almost every number Giambi wore added up to 7), his younger sister Julie played softball at Cal State Fullerton, and his sadly-late younger brother Jeremy also reached the major leagues. From a young age, Jason idolized Ted Williams as a hitter, and anticipating Moneyball and the rise of analytics, was taught that walks were a more than acceptable outcome of a plate appearance.

A three-sport athlete at South Hills High School, Giambi was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 43rd round of the 1989 MLB Draft. The lefty, however, opted to honor his commitment to Cal State Long Beach. As their star third baseman, he led the team to the College World Series in 1991. He moved to first base when he joined the US Olympic team for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, a team that included future big leaguers Nomar Garciaparra, Phil Nevin, Ron Villone, and Jason Varitek.

1992 Olympics Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

The Prompt for Moneyball

On the basis of his performance in both college and the Olympics, the Oakland Athletics selected him in the second round of the 1992 draft. Originally assigned to Single-A Southern Oregon, Giambi flew through the farm system, ultimately getting called up to the Show on May 8, 1995. As the A’s didn’t really have a spot for him — first base was held down by Mark McGwire, after all — his first stint with the big league club only lasted a couple of days. Just two months later, he got called up for good, and in his second game back, he took David Cone deep for his first career home run.

Over the next three years, Giambi established himself as a force in the Oakland lineup, slashing .287/.359/.475 with 46 home runs and 88 doubles across 336 games. It was not until the Athletics traded McGwire to the St. Louis Cardinals at the 1997 trade deadline that Giambi finally settled into the first base permanently; up to that point, he had been primarily bouncing between third base and left field — not ideal, certainly.

Giambi came up in a period of transition for the Oakland franchise. Following the “Bash Brothers” era of McGwire and Jose Canseco, the new front office headed by Sandy Alderson was forced to deal with ever-increasing budgetary constraints. Fortunately for them, Giambi’s elite plate discipline and power bat fit perfectly into the on-base percentage-centric vision that the organization was developing. As the team turned itself around, the first baseman exploded into one of the game’s elite bats. In 2000, Giambi won the AL MVP, slashing an unreal .333/.476/.647 (187 OPS) with 43 home runs to power the A’s to 91 wins and the AL West crown. Unfortunately for him (and fortunately for the Yankees), despite his strong performance in the postseason, the A’s fell to the Yankees in the ALDS, although they did take the series the distance.

Giambi and the A’s were even better in 2001, with the former posting an insane 199 OPS+ and the latter winning 102 games; Ichiro, however, nabbed both the Rookie of the Year Award and AL MVP as the Mariners won a record 116 games. In both the regular season and the playoffs, Giambi put up big games against the Yankees, with a walk-off home run on August 12th for his 1000th career hit and a 6-for-17 performance in the ALDS.

The Giambino

Following the 2001 season, the Yankees were a team in transition. Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius retired, they traded David Justice to the Mets for third baseman Robin Ventura, let Chuck Knoblauch go in free agency since Alfonso Soriano had seized the second base job, and bid adieu to the popular-but-aging Tino Martinez, who signed with St. Louis. Looking for a boost to a lineup that was merely league-average in 2001, George Steinbrenner pulled out all the stops to reel the Giambino to the Bronx, inking him to a seven-year, $120 million deal.

Replacing a fan favorite like Martinez is a difficult task, and as Giambi struggled over his first handful of games in pinstripes, the impatient fanbase serenaded him with chants of “Ti-no” (much like how Tino kept hearing “Don-nie Base-ball”). In May, however, Giambi placed himself in the good graces of the Bronx faithful with his first Yankees signature moment, a walk-off home run in the 14th inning with the Bombers down three runs in an epic rain-soaked battle with the Minnesota Twins.

It was just the second “ultimate grand slam” in Yankees history, and the first since Babe Ruth in 1925; it would not happen again for another 19 years, when Josh Donaldson and Giancarlo Stanton accomplished the feat just a month and three days apart from each other in 2022.

Over the rest of the 2002 season, the Giambino raked, winning another Silver Slugger and finishing fifth in the AL MVP vote while posting a 172 OPS+. He continued his hot hitting in the postseason, going 5-for-14 with a home run and three walks, scoring five times; unfortunately for him, the Angels stunned the Yankees by winning the ALDS in four en route to a World Series title.

Despite teams beginning to put the lefty shift on him due to his tendency to pull the ball, Giambi put together another strong season in 2003, slashing .250/.412/.527 with an AL-best 129 walks and his second-straight 41-homer campaign. And once again, he came up big when it mattered, going 14-for-59 with four home runs and ten walks that October. His production was mostly concentrated to other series, but his most important hits came in Game 7 in the ALCS, when he shook off being relegated to seventh in the batting order by drilling two home runs off Pedro Martínez. That kept the Yankees within striking distance for the comeback that stage for Aaron Boone’s heroics.

While the Yankees fell to the Marlins in the World Series, it was through no fault of Giambi’s. Despite battling injuries, he managed an .880 OPS against Florida with a home run in the only World Series he would ever reach.

Unfortunately for Giambi, everything would come crashing down around him in 2004. After a strong two months to start the season in which he posted a .270/.407/.540 slash line with two home runs, the slugger fell apart at the plate: from June 1st to July 23rd, he batted just .162 with two home runs, his power sapped by an internal parasite and (it would be revealed later) a benign tumor in his pituitary gland. Although he managed to return from the injured list in mid-September, it was clear he wasn’t right, and the Yankees ultimately left him off the postseason roster that year.

BALCO Scandal

The parasite and the tumor, however, represented just a portion of Giambi’s problems in 2004. The year prior, he had testified before a federal grand jury as part of the FBI’s investigation into Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO). That December, the San Francisco Chronicle reported Giambi’s testimony, in which he admitted to using anabolic steroids and HGH over the course of his career. The Yankees tried — and failed — to void his contract, and the New York media metaphorically crucified him, asserting that he should never play for the Yankees again.

On February 10, 2005, in the days leading up to spring training, Giambi held a press conference at Yankee Stadium in which he apologized to the fans, the media, and his teammates. Writing about the press conference, Tyler Kepner of The New York Times said:

There was a moment yesterday when Jason Giambi looked as if he might cry. He had not yet taken a question from a room full of reporters at Yankee Stadium, and he seemed to be sincerely sorry for the steroid controversy that engulfs him.

“I feel I let down the fans, I feel I let down the media, I feel I let down the Yankees, and not only the Yankees, but my teammates,” Giambi said, and he turned to look into the eyes of Manager Joe Torre, who was sitting on a folding chair next to him.

Giambi could have been a child finally summoning the courage to tell the truth to his father. But he kept his composure, and continued. “I accept full responsibility for that, and I’m sorry,” he said.

As Kepner would go on to note, Giambi acknowledged that he told the grand jury the truth, but did not explicitly state that he had taken steroids due to “all the legal matters” preventing him from getting “into specifics.”*

*Giambi later fully admitted steroid use to the public in 2007.

Jason Giambi Addresses Press About BALCO Steroid Scandal

For those who don’t remember the old Yankee Stadium, the players’ parking lot was outside the Stadium, near the Bat. After the press conference, a van waited in the lot, ready to take Giambi home so he could finish gathering his things before heading to spring training.

Rather than going straight to the van when he left the press conference, however, Giambi made a left turn and walked towards the barriers that the Stadium security team used to set up whenever there was an event at the Stadium. There, he spent time with a small group of fans who had come out as a show of support for the slugger. This group included a pair of eight-year-old kids who had idolized the first baseman ever since he had given them signed baseballs years prior. While nobody there realized it at the time, this small moment represented the beginning of Giambi’s return from baseball damnation.

Comeback Player of the Year

Headed into 2005, there were absolutely zero expectations surrounding Giambi. The Yankees had re-acquired Tino Martinez to man first base, and the video game MVP Baseball 2005 even had him batting ninth in the default lineups. That year, though, Giambi showed that he didn’t need performance-enhancing drugs to be one of the game’s premier hitters, mashing 32 home runs with a 161 wRC+ and a league-leading .440 OBP. In fact, only Alex Rodriguez, Derrek Lee, Albert Pujols, and Travis Hafner were more valuable at the plate than Giambi that year.

Because of all this, he won the 2005 AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. And once again, Giambi had a dominant performance in the playoffs (8-for-19 with three doubles), and once again, the rest of the team failed him, losing to the Angels in five.

Giambi proved that this was not a dead cat bounce either in 2006, as his 37 home runs and 148 OPS+ led a deep lineup nicknamed “Murderers’ Row and Robbie Canó.” Despite playing in stacked lineups that featured A-Rod, Canó, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Jorge Posada, Gary Sheffield, and Bobby Abreu, Giambi consistently remained one of the team’s most dependable bats. His 133 wRC+ from 2006-08 trailed only A-Rod and Posada in that stretch. Additionally, he also came up big in the clutch time and time again, with multiple walk-off home runs scattered throughout his Yankee career.

Throughout his Yankee tenure, Giambi’s fun-loving personality helped make him popular in the clubhouse. Famously, his slumping teammates used his golden thong to get their bats back on track.

Then in 2008, he started a mustache craze in the Bronx, one that would later be revived by Nestor Cortes, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Rodón, and others in the 2020s. In fact, the Yankees ran a campaign titled “Support the ‘Stache” to get Giambi to the 2008 All-Star Game in the Final Vote; while it ultimately failed (rookie Evan Longoria would win), it did bring the team together in a summer that was lackluster in the Bronx.

N.Y.Yankees vs Tampa Bay Rays at Yankee Stadium., New York Y Photo by Linda Cataffo/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Although the Yankees missed the playoffs, Giambi had one final Bronx highlight in store. In the final game at the old Stadium, Giambi recorded the final hit, driving in Abreu with an RBI single. Brett Gardner, who pinch ran for Giambi, would score the final run.

The Player-Coach

Looking to get younger after missing the playoffs in 2008, the Yankees declined their option on Giambi’s contract and allowed him to hit free agency. As the Bombers brought in free agent Mark Teixeira, Giambi returned to Oakland to split time at first base and DH with former Red Sox shortstop Garciaparra. Unfortunately, outside of his 400th career homer, Giambi’s return home was nothing but a disaster. By mid-August, he was designated for assignment.

The Colorado Rockies, however, were in need of a pinch-hitter off the bench, and they brought him aboard for their playoff run. It worked to perfection, as he slashed .292/.452/.583 in 31 plate appearances across 19 games — exactly what you’re looking for with a bat off the bench. It worked so well, in fact, that Giambi remained with the Rockies for three more years, serving as a pinch-hitter, backup first baseman, and veteran presence in the locker room.

After interviewing for — and failing to get — the managerial job with the Rockies, Giambi joined Terry Francona in Cleveland for the final two years of his career. Although he was there primarily for his veteran wisdom, Giambi still had some highlights to add to his ledger.

And, in a final moment of class, Giambi handed over his No. 25 jersey to Jim Thome in August 2014, who had signed a one-day contract to retire in Cleveland. Giambi added a message to the jersey for the future Hall of Famer, saying that it was “an honor” to be the last person to wear his uniform number in team history.

Retirement

After struggling in 2014, Giambi hung up the cleats. If it were not for his PED use, Giambi would have an outside shot at the Hall of Fame. Of the 16 players with 440 home runs and a .390 OBP, 11 are in the Hall of Fame, and the other five are connected to PEDs. As it was, he was on the ballot just once, as he received less than the five percent needed to remain.

Still, Giambi’s baseball story is not yet over. Once the most scandal-ridden player in the game, he’s now considered a legitimate candidate for a managerial or coaching job — so long as he wants it, that is. While he’s expressed interest in returning to the diamond, he insists that he is in no rush, preferring to spend time as a stay-at-home dad to his three children, coaching his son’s Little League team a bit on the side. Perhaps the Athletics’ coming move to Las Vegas, his current home, may be the spark that brings him back to the professional diamond, but that remains to be seen.

Even if he does not, however, Giambi can hang his hat on the fact that, in addition to being a dominant player, he wrote the book on how to rebuild your reputation through honesty, accountability, and sincerity. And that, in my book, is where the Giambino earns his spot among the Top 100 Yankees.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

Staff rank: 49
Community rank: 74
Stats rank: 59
2013 rank: 60

References

Admissions before BALCO grand jury detailed.ESPN News Services. December 2, 2004.

Baseball Almanac — Ultimate Grand Slams

Baseball Reference Bullpen — 1992 Olympics (Rosters)

Baseball Reference Bullpen — Jason Giambi

Baseball Reference — Jason Giambi

Baseball Reference — New York Yankees Top 10 Career Batting Leaders

Caola, Ralph. “Jason Giambi.” Society for American Baseball Research. Accessed December 12, 2023.

Curry, Jack. “Giambi Mum After Report on Tumor.” New York Times. September 4, 2004.

FanGraphs

Fainaru-Wada, Mark, Lance Williams, et al. “Giambi admitted taking steroids.” San Francisco Chronicle. December 2, 2004.

Hoynes, Paul. “Jim Thome’s No.25 “unofficially’ retired thanks to Jason Giambi: Cleveland Indians quick hits.” Cleveland.com. August 3, 2014.

Jaffe, Jay. “Despite Steroid Scandals, Retiring Giambi Rebuilt His Reputation.” Sports Illustrated. February 17, 2015.

Jaffe, Jay. “Prospectus Hit and Run: Sandy’s The Man.” Baseball Prospectus. November 4, 2010.

Jason Giambi and his magic golden thong.New York Daily News. May 17, 2008.

Jason Giambi retires from MLB.” ESPN News Services. February 16, 2015.

Jenna Giambi — Women’s Voleyball.” Long Beach State. Accessed December 12, 2023.

Kepner, Tyler. “A Careful Apology From Giambi.New York Times. February 11, 2005.

Kepner, Tyler. “Yankees Plan Promotion in support of Giambi.” New York Times. July 9, 2008.

Mearns, Andrew. “Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #60 Jason Giambi.Pinstripe Alley. December 1, 2016.

Santasiere III, Alfred. “Yankees Magazine: The Greatest Lesson of All.Yankees Magazine. June 25, 2019.

Stark, Jayson. “Giambi may have breached contract.” ESPN. December 2, 2004.

Verducci, Tom. “Bay Area Bombers.” Sports Illustrated. July 17, 2000.

Yankees’ Giambi Diagnosed With Intestinal Parasite.” The Washington Post. June 30, 2004.

Previously On the Top 100

53. Tino Martinez
Full list to date