Leitch: Jason Giambi, Yankee Most True — and the One We Most Deserve

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What is a true Yankee anymore? It’s not an idle question. Our Bronx heroes, throughout the Steinbrenner years, have not been measured by their statistics, their consistency, or even, really, their championships. The Yankee Way is an elusive, slippery concept; you have to Look the Part, acting as some sort of bridge back to the time when baseball was pure, men were men, and players were motivated by the concept of Team and did it for the Love of the Game. This time, of course, never existed.

Who passes through this fictional canyon? Derek Jeter, of course, and Mariano Rivera. Jorge Posada has a chance, if he ever plays again. Alex Rodriguez? Not until you win a title, buddy. But it’s a different day now, and perhaps we need to redefine what a True Yankee is. Every generation gets the hero that it deserves. The fifties gave us the Mick, a square-jawed, cartoonishly chiseled All-American who was all anyone could want on the surface and, in private, an alcoholic disaster. The seventies gave us Reggie, a self-promoter who seemed to stand as a symbol, to both sides, of the racial and class divides tearing the city apart. The nineties gave us Jeter, a post-racial (Obama before Obama was cool!) matinee idol who studied the Jordan playbook, an above-average player who carried himself like a superstar, who knew exactly how to appeal to jaded sportswriters who miss the days when players didn’t openly treat them like dirt.

And now, in 2008, a time when every record is steroidally suspect, a time when fans spend as much time analyzing players’ contracts as they do their statistics, who is our superstar? Who best represents what the Yankees have been, who they are now, and who they will become? I can’t think of anybody better than Jason Giambi.

So, now, Sammy Sosa having pretended before Congress that he doesn’t speak English, Andy Pettitte saying with a straight face that he didn’t know HGH could give one a competitive advantage, and Roger Clemens vigorously denying that he recalls bleeding through his pants, Jason Giambi almost seems like an up-front, straightforward guy these days. He has told the truth twice about steroids over the last decade, giving him a batting average of about .078, which is better than everybody else’s zero. And every time Giambi has been honest, people have tried to throw him out of baseball.

His extended commitment from the Yankees, back in 2001, proved one infallible and oft-ignored fact about the ultimate result of steroid use in baseball: Steroids are good for you and will make you happy. Before he discovered BALCO in the late nineties, Giambi was more known for his batting eye than his power. Then, out of nowhere, his home-run totals increased dramatically, just in time for him to become a free agent. The Yankees needed him. Giambi was in his prime, coming off his two greatest seasons and featured, all scraggly and tattooed, on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The New Face of Baseball.” For the next seven years, the Bronx would have its folk hero. Who took two years to collapse. Giambi’s tenure has included those admissions, that mysterious tumor that eliminated most of his 2004 season, a confirmation that he had tested positive for amphetamines, and a bewildering admission that he has shared “rally thongs” with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. And, of course, no World Series rings. Just eighteen months ago, Giambi was perhaps the most reviled athlete in New York.

And then he started hitting again. Giambi is in the top ten of the American League in home runs and slugging percentage and one of the main reasons the Yankees, with the struggles and injuries of Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter, are still in the American League pennant chase. Most important, he has stayed healthy. Without him, the Yankees would be toast. And, perhaps most strange: At last, after years of being the Yankees’ Big Free-Agent Mistake, he is a fan favorite. Enough time has passed; we aren’t big on permanence these days.

Two weeks ago, in a bid to secure a victory for Giambi in the online balloting for the All-Star Game, the Yankees gave away fake mustaches to fans in honor of Giambi’s Village People–esque facial adornment this season. (Blogs have taken to calling him “The State Trooper.”) The gambit did not work, but it was still a jaw-dropper. Do Yankees fans finally love Jason Giambi? Was a goofy mustache and a few homers all it took?

Suddenly, the unthinkable: Can the Yankees afford not to re-sign Giambi in the off-season? They have a team option on him this off-season; they can either pay him $22 million to hang around another year, or $5 million to cut him loose and/or renegotiate. Before Mustache Mania, the Yankees wouldn’t have considered the notion. Now, they may have no choice. (It helps that Giambi is putting up his best numbers right when it will ultimately benefit him financially.)

Which brings us back to Jason Giambi as the True Yankee. Jason Giambi is a mercenary who has benefited from the use of illegal, banned substances, who only came here because he was offered the most money, who never enjoyed his stay until it was almost time to leave. His fans never much cared for him until he found a goofy gimmick and finally started hitting the baseball. He has never really connected with his team and his city, and only ever looked for his self-interest. Over the course of his contract, public perception of his steroid activities has moved from willful ignorance to mock outrage to “whatever works, just hit homers.” Jason Giambi has been the dopey home-run hitter who hung around just long enough to see public opinion fall his way. Because public opinion is fickle and random; seven years is a lifetime. Willing to forgive all failings because of some homers? Counting on the hypocrisy of our “heroes”? This is what we do now.

Jason Giambi is not the Yankee that we want. But he is the Yankee that we deserve. —Will Leitch

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