Jeremy Giambi, RIP: What broke him?

The Flip

Jeremy Giambi’s brief major league career was defined too powerfully by The Flip, but he was an on-base machine in Oakland until he was traded under dubious circimstances.

Sad enough that Jeremy Giambi was reported dead at 47 two days ago. Sadder still was the Los Angeles County coroner affirming what Giambi’s former Athletics teammate Barry Zito hinted in a text message to San Francisco Chronicle writer Susan Slusser.

Giambi, Zito texted, “was an incredibly loving human being with a very soft heart and it was evident to us as his teammates that he had some deeper battles going on. I hope this can be a wake up call for people out there to not go at it alone and for families and friends to trust their intuition [w]hen they feel somebody close to them needs help. God bless Jeremy and his family in this difficult time.”

At his best, Giambi was an on-base machine with a little power and a preternatural ability to wear pitchers out comparable to his brother, Jason. He wasn’t particularly swift afoot and he was defensively challenged, but in two and a third full seasons in Oakland he posted a .369 on-base percentage, including .391 in 2001, his seond and last full season there.

The bad news was that year’s American League division series and Giambi getting nailed at the plate famously, when the Yankees’ Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter executed The Flip, running down from his cutoff position and across the lower infield, over the foul line, to grab an errant throw toward the plate and back-flip to catcher Jorge Posada to get Giambi a second before his foot hit the plate.

Giambi would have tied the game at one each if he’d scored. Depending upon the angle you see, there are those who argue he might actually have been safe on the play. But the play cemented Jeter’s image as a game-changer and thwarted the A’s from tying the game at one each at minimum. (The Yankees went on to win, 1-0.)

For years to follow Giambi was questioned over going home standing up instead of sliding on the play. (A’s catcher Ramon Hernandez could be seen raising and lowering his hands adjacent to the play, the signal for urging a runner to slide.) Most likely he—and maybe everybody else in the Oakland Coliseum—didn’t see Jeter coming at all, never mind having a prayer of getting him out.

As I write I’ve seen no published indication that the play, the aftermath, and even the questioning affected Giambi in any negative way. The 2001 A’s manager, Art Howe, told Slusser on Wednesday, “I know how hard Jeremy played every single day. I know our fans remember him for that non-slide, but I think it’s a shame anyone even thinks about that. He was a good kid, he was well liked, and he gave me everything.”

A’s GM-turned-president Billy Beane now remembers Giambi as “a fun guy, a good guy, and an underrated player, particularly an underrated hitter. He was quite frankly an important piece of probably the best team we’ve had since I’ve been here, that 2001 team.”

This is now, but that was then, as Michael Lewis recorded in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game: Beane sent three-eighths of his starting lineup “and a passel of pitchers” out of town by 23 May 2002, including Giambi, after Beane became “erratic” in his behaviour and steaming mad with his front office and the team’s coaches following a mid-month sweep by the Blue Jays in Toronto.

Just before the Toronto series the team had been in Boston, where Jeremy Giambi had made the mistake of being spotted by a newspaper reporter at a strip club. Jeremy, it should be said, already had a bit of a reputation. Before spring training he’d been caught with marijuana by the Las Vegas police. Reports from coaches trickled in that Jeremy drank too much on team flights. When the reports from Boston reached Billy Beane, Jeremy ceased to be an on-base machine and efficient offensive weapon. He became a twenty-seven-year-old professional baseball player having too much fun on a losing team. In a silent rage, Billy called around the league to see who would take Jeremy off his hands. He didn’t care what he got in return. Actually, that wasn’t quite true: what he needed in return was something to tell the press. “We traded Jeremy for X because we think X will give us help on defense,” or some such nonsense. The Phillies offered John Mabry. Billy hardly knew who Mabry was.

. . . After he’d done the deal, he told reporters that he traded Jeremy Giambi because he was “concerned he was too one-dimensional” and that John Mabry would supply help on defense. He then leaned on Art Howe to keep Mabry out of the lineup. And Art, occasionally, ignored him. And Mabry started to swat home runs and game-winning hits at a rate he had never before swatted them in his entire professional career. And the Oakland A’s began to win.

The 2002 A’s were 20-25 before the Giambi-for-Mabry trade, including losing fourteen out of their prior seventeen games. Giambi was hardly to blame; at the time of the trade, he was hitting .274 with a .390 on-base percentage and a .471 slugging percentage. Two months after the trade, the A’s stood at 60-46.

Maybe Beane really wanted to send the message that even a .390 on-base percentage was expendable if he was the same fellow in losing as he was in winning.

Maybe Giambi didn’t go into black-band mourning after losses often enough for Beane’s taste. Maybe Beane didn’t grok that it doesn’t always do any favours to insist you must sink into a vale of tears following a loss. Maybe he forgot it’s often best to just shake off the loss because you get to play another day, another season, after all.

“Everyone,” Lewis noted, called Beane a genius for seeing Mabry’s heretofore hidden abilities, never mind that the deal was anything but comparable to a lab experiment: “It felt more as if the scientist, infuriated that the results of his careful experiment weren’t coming out as they were meant to, waded into his lab and began busting test tubes.”

Giambi with the 2002 Phillies hit a mere .244 but posted a .435 on-base percentage and—with twelve homers and ten doubles among his 38 hits—a .538 slugging percentage. Mabry’s line with the 2002 A’s: .275/.322/.523, with eleven home runs and thirteen doubles among his 53 hits. But Mabry went 0-for-2 in the 2002 postseason while Giambi and the Phillies didn’t quite make it there.

Both men moved on after that season, the Phillies trading Giambi to the Red Sox and Mabry signing with the Mariners as a free agent. Giambi incurred injuries and was finished as a major leaguer after 2003. He was the first incumbent or former major leaguer to cop to using actual/alleged performance-enhancing substances, but 52 homers in six major league seasons (17 per 162 games, average) doesn’t exactly make a case for their doing him any favours.

(That Vegas pot bust—at a McCarran Airport checkpoint while he was traveling to Phoenix —ended up a big nothingburger: Giambi’s pot was confiscated, he was issued a simple citation, and released to continue his travel.)

Who knows whether some heretofore undetected combination of criticism over The Flip and the true reason behind his trade out of Oakland didn’t start puncturing part of the younger Giambi’s psyche?

The former’s easily discarded; Giambi wasn’t the 2001 division series goat, and Jeter was a division series hero coming from nowhere to make an unlikely play. Giambi said in a 2020 interview that “maybe I should have slid” but he didn’t necessarily commit to that thought even two decades later.

Those are things we can’t analyze. Obviously, I think about it. I don’t dwell on it, but I think about it. I think that’s part of our competitive nature. I mean, we were going to win a World Series. I know that was the first round, but we always felt like we had to go through the Yankees, and if you got through the Yankees, you had a pretty good chance, at that time. They were the team to beat.

The trade issue may or not be discarded or defined so easily just yet.

Who knows, either, whether it was too difficult not being able to post anything close to his older brother’s major league numbers and compensation? (Tainted or not, Jason Giambi per 162 games hit almost twice as many homers, and finished his career with 388 more home runs and $130 million more career earnings.)

We don’t, yet. Nor do we know what in his post baseball life piled onto the issues his former teammate Barry Zito—himself a haunted man as a pitcher in both grand success and bewildering failure—referenced.

For now, we know only that an apparently likeable, fun-loving fellow with an apparent heart of gold saw fit to end his life with a gunshot into his chest. Whatever drove Jeremy Giambi to end his life, may the Lord have mercy upon his apparently haunted soul and grant him peace.

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