Giambi can't escape

Updated: December 5, 2004, 1:40 AM ET
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

You are Jason Giambi.

Giambi
Giambi

You took steroids and, under the specter of a possible perjury charge, you answered honestly. Explicitly. With more detail than anyone has ever heard before. It has been assumed that you and other stars have taken steroids, but the baseball world has never heard anyone say out loud that he pinched a roll of skin on his torso and injected himself, as you did. You shocked everybody.

So now you are the poster boy for steroids. You have graduated from the sports pages to the front pages. The New York Post plucked a picture from your past -- a seething shot, taken when you were a hero and loved for your long-haired moxie -- and superimposed the words "Ban The Bum" over you. Editorial writers are saying you should be kicked out of baseball.

The Yankees are trying to find ways to void your contract and escape the $82 million they owe you, though they would never do so if you still hit like Gary Sheffield. The commissioner is considering disciplining you, suspending you.

You probably have strong legal standing all the way around -- with your contract, with federal prosecutors. But guess what happens if you win: You'll have the most miserable existence of any player in the history of the game.

You'll arrive in spring training, perhaps pulling up in an SUV with tinted windows, and hundreds of reporters will be waiting for you, with cameras and tape recorders and pens poised. You're not a perp but you might as well be doing a perp walk. Except you can't cover your face with a jacket or towel. This is your new life as Mr. Steroids, and you have to deal with it -- if you want to play baseball, if you want your $82 million.

You'll walk into the clubhouse and teammates will be friendly, because you are a good guy, a nice person. But it'll all be very awkward because none of them will know what to say, and nothing that they say will really help you, anyway. You'll get dressed, facing your locker, buttoning a pinstriped jersey that you know the Yankees want to take away from you. Remember how you said that coming to the Yankees was a dream come true? Well, you'll be living a daily nightmare now.

You've still got a job, a spot on the roster, because the Yankees owe you all that money. But you're not the first baseman any more, and you're not the designated hitter. You are Mr. Steroids, so Joe Torre is no longer obligated to guarantee you anything. You will have to earn your playing time, against Tino Martinez or John Olerud or some other first baseman who is not Mr. Steroids.

You'll walk down the runway leading to the dugout, and in your heart, you won't even know if you're a good player any more. You batted .342 in 2001, sure, but that's when you were taking steroids. You led the Yankees in RBI in 2002, batted .314, were the star of the new YES Network. But that's when you were taking steroids. Then you hit .250 in 2003, your left knee buckling as you swung the bat. Patellar tendinitis, a prime steroid symptom; it's the runny nose of steroids. Your knee bothered you so much that you failed to start in Game 5 of the World Series -- a moment when you lost the respect of many of your teammates.

Weeks later, you testified before the grand jury, emerged wide-eyed, appearing almost frightened. And when spring training began, you didn't look like a slugger any more; you looked more like a high school kid, with a gaunt face, and slender face and chest. Friends did a double take when you walked in. You looked directly into the camera and said you had stopped eating In-And-Out Burgers. Yeah, that's it. Stopped eating fast foods. Yeah, that's it. And no, I didn't take any steroids, you said.

But you felt awful. You looked awful. You got sick. You played in only half of the games, batted .208, struck out every fourth at-bat, taking a ton of called third strikes. You are not a great athlete, anyway -- now Barry Bonds, he's a great athlete -- and if you had an edge from the steroids you took in previous years, well, that was gone.

And so you retreated. You left the Yankees in the middle of the 2004 season for medical treatment and teammates didn't see you for weeks. You wouldn't talk to reporters because they wanted to ask questions about your health, and you didn't want to answer because you knew where all of that would lead: The "S" word.

You tried to come back in September, and it went badly. You looked brutal at the plate. You couldn't hit. The Yankees are paying you $17 million a year, but you were so bad that they didn't even put you on the postseason roster. You were supposed to be the guy who led the Bombers over the Red Sox and instead you spent all of October quietly clapping in the dugout.

But it'll be worse in spring 2005. You'll be walking to the dugout for your first workout and doubts will be thick in your mind about whether you can hit. And that's when the fans will see you for the first time. And they'll fill your ears with boos.

These are Yankees fans, and they are booing.

Every time you pass by, they yell things at you. Nasty stuff. They are yelling that you are a fraud, a disgrace. Some of them are profane. And then it gets worse. This is what your work environment will be for the rest of your career. You try to concentrate on batting practice, on getting back your swing, and every time you step into the cage or step out, somebody is yelling at you.

You struggle in spring training; Torre picks somebody else to play first base, and somebody else is the DH. You are Jason Giambi, you were the AL MVP in 2000, and you are a bench player.

Your days are filled with lawyers, because your standing is being negotiated, and at night, you go to work and there is no escape. Fans wait outside parks to yell at you, and when you play on the road, they chant "STEEEERRRRRR-OOOOOIIDS" at you, on those rare days when you actually get into the lineup. And at Yankee Stadium, the fans boo you constantly.

You are a sensitive person, anyway, and you are treated like a criminal -- a criminal who gets marched out past the masses every day. You are Jason Giambi, and this could be your life for the next four years. You are making millions of dollars and paying an emotional toll for every nickel.

You won't last as a ballplayer under this sort of duress. No one could. Except for Barry Bonds, perhaps.

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

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