Friday, August 29, 2008

A Man Of Many Mustaches

On paper, Giambi is everything I cannot stand in a player. He is tacky and crude. He has that ridiculous mustache, which—let’s face it—only really worked for pitchers in the late 70’s. He speaks freely and publicly about the gold thong to which he attributes his ability to pull out of a slump. He gives people the bird on camera, which is admittedly hilarious, but not exactly in the spirit of Lou Gehrig. He is not in particularly good shape. And, of course, Giambi’s name is practically synonymous with the BALCO scandal. Basically, if you boil Giambi down to his essence, he is a sloppy, meathead, frat boy, undisciplined buffoon. By all rights, I really shouldn’t like him.

And for a long time, I didn’t. All of the characteristics that I felt separated him from the Torre boys—the Riveras, the Posadas, the Jeters—made me lament his addition to our team. The 'roids didn’t do much to help. Yet, somehow, over the years, something has changed. Maybe I’ve just gone soft, but when Giambi gives Kevin Millar the bird in the middle of play, I laugh. And when I read about some disgusting pair of underwear that Giambi has everyone passing around the locker room, I just roll my eyes and think, “The effort at creative thinking is there. If the guy were a little bit smarter, he could probably be doing something more amusing—like sitting in birthday cake.”

This change in attitude came upon me gradually. For a number of reasons. Funnily, the BALCO debacle was the catalyst. I have little patience for juicers because I believe that there are certain rules that exist for a reason. There is the one where drivers have to stop at red lights, the one where people who cook food at restaurants have to wash their hands, and the one where sawed-off shotguns are illegal. These are rules that exist to hold society together. I am sure we can all agree that these are good rules.

For an example that bears closer relation to the steroid rule, let’s discuss the rule where you are only allowed fifteen items or less in the express lane at the grocery store. A few weeks back, while I was in the checkout line at the market, I witnessed a girl as she blatantly spat in the face of this rule. You remember. She had four items—Splenda, heavy cream, ice, and chocolate syrup. I will not repeat for you what was wrong with the assortment of items on her grocery list. However, the main issue is that, while she had only four items, she had a great enough quantity of each of them to make her total number of items add up to thirty. Now, let’s say the express lane is the baseball book of records. And let’s say that the fewer items you have, the more ability you have. It is unfair for someone to waste my time by worming her way into the express lane by using a false measure to determine the number of items in her cart. So, it follows that it is also unfair for someone to get his name into the record books by using a false measure to determine his actual level ability.

To take this analogy a step further, what happens when people start fudging the express lane rule is that it inspires resentment in those who are still waiting in the other line. They, too, start to rationalize reasons for being in the express lane. This one only has sixteen items, this other one is in a major hurry. You get the point. Steroid use begets more steroid use. It makes the playing field uneven and creates the feeling that one has to cheat to compete. For these reasons, I am disinclined to sympathize with a juicer.

That said, Jason Giambi did something that surprised me. He took responsibility for his actions. He took responsibility, and then he apologized. Don’t get me wrong; I was not immediately won over. In fact, when shortly after his public mea culpa, he started striking out his way through the first half of the 2005 season, I was wholly unimpressed. But when Giambi kept his head down, and his mouth shut, and turned things around to become the AL Comeback Player of the Year that season with 32 dingers and 87 RBIs, he showed me something. And he did it despite the chorus of our boos that he heard along the way. As a follow-up, he gave us 37 home runs and 113 RBIs in 2006. All that took a little grit.

In 2007, Giambi gave us a more comprehensive apology for his steroid abuse. It was a supplement to his previous public statement, which some felt was too vague. “I was wrong for using that stuff," he said in an interview with USA Today. "What we should have done a long time ago was stand up—players, ownership, everybody—and said, 'We made a mistake.’” Can I get an “Amen?”

The Commissioner’s Office was less than thrilled with Giambi’s implication that anyone but the individual players involved were somehow to blame for the scandal, but let’s get real. I’m sure we all remember the famous scene from Casablanca when Captain Renault shuts down Rick’s operation, saying with some outrage, “I am shocked—shocked to find gambling going on in this establishment.” Right before he collects his winnings. It reminds me of the MLB front office response to steroids. You see, steroids really emerged as a major part of baseball right around the time that the baseball strike had cast a pall on the sport. Fans were bitter and disillusioned. Some even swore off forever. But then, you want to know what happened? Right around the time players starting using steroids, they also started hitting home runs. A whole heck of a lot of them. And that was fun. Watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire battle it out for the new home run record in 1998? Fun. So fun that, hell, who wanted to hold a grudge over a silly little strike? For a new record of 70 dingers, who wasn’t willing to just let bygones be bygones? And all this worked out pretty well for the owners and the Commish. As Tim McCarver would put it: It is more profitable for the people at MLB if people are watching baseball than if they are not. So, are we really to believe that a steroid epidemic of such massive proportions could have broken out without any top brass in the sport being the wiser?

The people in all of this for whom I have the most respect are, of course, the players who never got involved. I am going to go out on a limb here with some educated guesses and say guys like Mike Mussina, Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera. Players who have proven that you can make it to the express lane without fudging the number of items in your cart.

Then, there are those who, once enmeshed, find a way to handle it with as little grace and integrity as is humanly possible. There is Jose Canseco, who has used his literary prowess and his propensity for squealing into an opportunity to make a buck. Here’s hoping he turns the series into a trilogy. In the meantime, buddy, I’d enroll yourself into the Penguin Books Witness Protection Program.

Then we have, of course, the man, the myth, the brain trust, Rafael Palmeiro. He persuaded us of his innocence in a hearing before the House of Representatives, saying, “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids. Period. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never. The reference to me in Mr. Canseco's book is absolutely false. I am against the use of steroids. I don't think athletes should use steroids and I don't think our kids should use them.” Sounds pretty darn convincing to me. Unfortunately, Raffy, pee tests speak louder than words. And you failed yours only weeks after wowing us with this State of the Union address.

There are those who don’t deny receiving the injections—they just claim not to have known what was in them. Bonds thought his were flaxseed oil. Because who doesn’t prefer to inject his flaxseed oil? Clemens thought his injections contained lidocaine and Vitamin B12. And he has turned his attempt to prove this to us into nothing short of a circus with video taped rants, and interviews, and secretly recorded phone calls.

Finally, we have the players who fall into another, more sympathetic category. Guys like Pettitte and Giambi, who I do not necessarily commend for their behavior. True, juicing is cheating. And I hold cheating among the gravest of all possible offenses. But we are all fallible, after all. I admire their courage in admitting they were wrong.

This brings us back to Giambi, who has still not quite found a place in my heart. But he has, over the years, managed to crawl his way out of my bad graces and make me willing to even tolerate that mustache, that ridiculous thong talk. It certainly doesn’t hurt that while he may be a thong-wearing, mustachioed doofus, unlike some Yankees I know, Giambi CAN clutch this. Something he’s shown us time and time again. Most recently, he came into last night’s game in the 7th as a pinch hitter and got us a much needed two-run dinger. He went ahead and capped it off in the 9th with a walk-off single. This earned as a three-to-two win in what will all but certainly be our last Chowda Series ever in the House That Ruth Built. Even if we continue to tank, if the Yanks keep twisting the knife they have been inching into my heart all month, at least we will be able to say that this series was not a sweep. That the last game of this series was, in fact, a win. For that, we can thank the Giambino. And Moose, who despite a solid outing with two runs and five hits over seven innings, still got a no-decision. His third in four outings. Alas, he remains stuck at sixteen. Let’s hope that he isn’t simply fated to be the player about whom we always said, “Missed it by THAT much.”

With Moose stuck at sixteen and the Yanks stuck at six back, some say it’ll take nothing short of a miracle. But I don’t think it’s going to take a miracle. I just think it’s going to take a whole lot of late season wins—the Yankees specialty. And the will to give the Chowdas the metaphorical bird—to show Coco Crisp just how much he truly sucks. Who’s with me? I know Giambi is. That guy’s psyched to give anyone the bird.

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