Giambi a shell of the former MVP

Originally Published: December 2, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

This story originally aired on Tuesday's SportsCenter.

Jason Giambi was once the American League's version of Barry Bonds, a high-volume Bay Area generator of home runs and on-base percentage. When Giambi left Oakland as a free agent after the 2001 season and signed a $120 million deal with the Yankees, they expected him to transform their offense.

Jason Giambi
Jason Giambi needs to open up and speak freely about his alleged use of steroids.
Now, three seasons later, some Yankees officials privately doubt whether Giambi will ever be great again -- though he is still only 33 years old.

His 2004 season was a disaster. Weeks after Giambi testified about steroids in the ongoing BALCO investigation, he reported to spring training noticeably thinner, much more slender in his shoulders and chest.

"My weight? I'm only about a 4-pound difference, to be honest with you," Giambi said upon his arrival in Tampa, Fla. last February.

Subsequent health problems plagued him. First, Giambi was diagnosed with a parasite, and later, doctors found a benign tumor reportedly in his pituitary gland, a condition he refused to discuss. He also declined to be interviewed for this report.

"Well, it started in spring training, questions about the steroids, both he and [Gary] Sheffield had to endure, and then all of a sudden to get to that parasite affect him ... and then the tumor -- I mean he just had a horrible year," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "I think the worst part of it, aside from the physical part of it, is the emotional scars that he took with that. He really looked beat up."

Giambi batted .208 in 80 games for the Yankees last season, and friends say the once long-haired leader in Oakland is NOT comfortable in New York.

"The hardest thing for me was the media. I mean we only had five, six, seven beat writers in Oakland. Here they outweigh the players," Giambi said last spring.

Teammate Gary Sheffield, who also testified in the BALCO probe, said of Giambi: "Jason's a guy that wants to be liked by a lot of people, and he don't want negative to come his way. ... Jason's a great guy, you know, and any time you have this guy who wants to get along with everybody and make peace with everybody, it's kinda difficult to hear your name in a negative light."

Speculation about steroids seems to weigh heavily on Giambi.

"I'm sure it would bother anybody," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "But again, you've got to be mentally strong to learn to turn the page and forge ahead, and that's, I think, that's what any professional athlete does and I'm sure anybody in celebrity status learns to do -- you have to. If not, you're going to get eaten up and you won't be able to forge ahead and get what you want to accomplish.

"I know Jason Giambi has Hall of Fame aspirations," Cashman added. "He had them before he got here, they remain."

The Yankees still owe Giambi $82 million over the next four years, because his contract -- like most of the Yankees' big deals -- is heavily backloaded. In the club offices, it's called "Mañana Economics," a financial burden put off until tomorrow. But the huge bills are coming due. In 2006, Giambi and four other Yankees will have combined salaries of $97 million.

"Certainly, we want to get our payroll in line," Cashman said. "You balance that out with the desire to deliver a championship to the fan base that supports you so well, and sometimes it just doesn't work out."

Many Yankees are virtually untradeable because of their high salaries, no one more so than Giambi. If he does not come back, Giambi -- a player brought to New York to continue a dynasty -- could go down as the worst signing in baseball history.

"The one thing Jason is gonna have to do is, I don't want to say become more determined, but I think the one thing he has to do right now, and he knows it, is just get himself in the best physical shape he can and be a player again," Torre said.

Clearly, the team isn't ready to give up on the former AL MVP.

"As long as he's 100 percent healthy, which all indications are that he is, and I don't anticipate him having a problem returning to the level he was before," Cashman said. "But I certainly recognize and appreciate the doubt and speculation of, can he, will he, how's he going to be?"

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine