Walk On: In Defense of Giambi
By Steven Goldman
Take one look at Jason Giambi. Shirtless, if you can achieve it. The fellow’s got so many tats that he looks like a biker version of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s mural as done by Harley-Davidson: that’s a pretty good analogy for Giambi the ballplayer — the sacred and the profane all wrapped up in one big pile o’ muscles, said muscles come by honestly or not.
Considering the man’s achievements, not to mention his bulk, you’d figure he could hold his own without needing defending of any kind by third-party armchair columnist types. This ain’t Jason Giambi: Singin’ with the Dixie Chicks, or Jason Giambi’s Passion (there’s the sacred and the profane again), or even Jason Giambi: Enterprising Young Man of Halliburton. Still, some of the more misguided camp followers seem less than pleased with the Man Who Would Not Be Tino.
Catalog all the things Giambi is not and you make the old Sears doorstop look like an anorexic Reader’s Digest. He is not as swift as Mercury, or even, well, grandma. If baseball was a fair game, he’d be allowed to take the bullpen car from first to third. Not that there are bullpen cars anymore; they were crowded out by all the LOOGYs, for what they’re worth. Buddy Groom or a Volvo: who you gonna trust?
Giambi is not slick with the leather. He strikes out more than your divorced older brother Scott does at the local happy hour gender mix. Last season he didn’t hit lefties any better than John Ashcroft hits righties. In all likelihood, he does not appreciate the avant-jazz stylings of Ornette Coleman and is more of a Candy Dulfer-dude. These things are important to discerning NYC baseball fans, because. well, just because. These are the profane parts of “sacred and,” the flaws in Giambi’s game.
Alarm clock: time to go cold turkey on these lesser matters because they don’t count for much. The difference between a good glove and an average glove (Giambi isn’t Dick Stuart — he’s serviceable) is minute. Speed has been deemphasized in our home run-happy era— no need to run rabbit run when you can trot around the bases because even the bat boy has 25-homer power. Speed isn’t exactly irrelevant, but it’s a whole lot less important to the scoring of runs than the average cat might think.
What is important, when you strip away all the different ways one can model offense on his tablet PC while still wearing pajamas, is getting on base. That’s all there is. When Michael Stipe sang, “You are the everything,” he was referring to getting on base. Huckleberry Finn is the great American novel about getting on base. Picasso’s Guernica is about getting on base (take that, Picasso’s Guernica!).
Every baseball game has its 27-out battle with mortality: score one more than the other guy in those 27 and you win, one less, you lose (and sometimes it rains). Players who do the most to push off the inevitable end are the ones to build your offense around. Jason “The Only” Giambi accomplishes this as well as anyone in baseball today because he has the humility to take a walk. Other ballplayers are too good to let a pitcher throw four wide ones. Not Giambi, who learned his devoirs from Mark McGwire and knows that to each batter he faces a pitcher will make some pitches with murderous efficiency, some with suicidal ineptitude. During his two seasons in the Bronx, Giambi has taken 238 walks; the average American Leaguer has taken 99. His Yanks OBP is .423, .090 above the average AL player. In both 2002 and 2003 he ranked third among AL leaders in on-base percentage. Among active players he ranks sixth (behind Barry Bonds, Frank Thomas, Todd Helton, Edgar Martinez, and Brian Giles, ahead of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and Jeff Bagwell). In 2003 he led the AL in walks drawn. In 2002 he was second to Thome. Though Giambi lacks what Casey Stengel called