Not long ago the gaunt, perspiring Jason Giambi could have been the poster boy for a perverse public service campaign promoting the benefits of steroids: This is your swing. This is your swing off drugs. As of May 9 the .296 lifetime hitter--who according to leaked testimony told the BALCO grand jury that he used steroids from 2001 to 2003--was presumably clean and batting a sober .195, with three home runs, six RBIs and a grand total of four extra-base hits. The Yankees first baseman looked so lost that manager Joe Torre and G.M. Brian Cashman suggested the former AL MVP might benefit from some time in the minors, where he could restore his swing and flagging confidence in a less pressurized setting.
Giambi, who will make $13.4 million this year, refused the demotion, and he appears to have made the right decision. In 53 games since then his average is .329, and as of Monday no one in the majors had topped his 11 home runs in July. (He has season totals of 16 homers and 41 RBIs.) Four of those blasts came in back-to-back games last week, prompting teammates to suggest the red-hot slugger might be swinging as well as he did before his career was derailed by bizarre ailments (an intestinal parasite and a benign pituitary tumor limited him to 80 games last year) and the news that he was a drug user. Says Giambi, "I had to crawl before I walked."
Giambi is the most interesting case study of baseball's poststeroid era. This is the season we're finding out if his big league heroics were more than a chemically enhanced mirage--and if fans and fellow players will embrace him despite his BALCO admissions. So far, the answers appear to be yes and yes. In recent weeks he's heard several ovations at Yankee Stadium.
Giambi credits support from teammates and hitting coach Don Mattingly for helping him rebuild his confidence. He's also relied on frequent phone conversations with another disgraced slugger, close friend and former Oakland teammate Mark McGwire. (McGwire, who TiVos many of Giambi's at bats, told him recently he was standing too far from the plate.) "[Giambi] has endured as much as anybody during my time here and come back and become a contributor," says Torre, who said during spring training that Giambi was the team's biggest question mark. "I'm not curious anymore." --S.C.
BRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (GIAMBI)
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (GIAMBI SWINGING)
Giambi has already passed his '04 home run and RBI totals.