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Jason Giambi, the face of a generation

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How Will Jason Giambi Be Remembered? (2:44)

Jerry Crasnick reflects on the career and legacy of Jason Giambi, who announced his retirement from baseball Monday. (2:44)

I know, I know. With Jason Giambi it's hard to ignore the guy once looked like this and then, a few years later, looked like this.

That Sports Illustrated cover was dated July 17, 2000, and heralded "The New Face of Baseball: How the Home Run Has Changed the Game."

Ahh, more innocent times.

Five years later, in the same magazine, Gary Smith was writing less nostalgic about an era we were still trying to understand.

"When that magical summer of '98 ended I went home, put all these photographs into an album, etched captions beneath them so that one day someone else would understand the significance of what I'd seen and felt ... then sealed my moments beneath protective plastic so they'd never be smudged. ...

"My eyes shift to the other faces in the snapshot. Another summer full of moments will soon begin, the biggest home run record of all ripe to fall. What will we do, each of us, now that we know?"

What do we do? Here's what baseball did. It forgave. Maybe not Barry Bonds. He was unable to find a job after posting a .480 OBP in his final season. Nobody wanted to give work to a guy with a .480 OBP? But the others? Mark McGwire has coached for the Cardinals and now the Dodgers. Jason Giambi, the new face of baseball, was so beloved and admired in clubhouses that he found work until he was 43 years old and hitting under .200. The Colorado Rockies interviewed him for their managerial opening two offseasons ago, when he was still an active player. After Giambi announced his retirement on Monday, Indians president Mark Shapiro tweeted, "An honor to have had G in the Tribe. A generous, wise spirit with so much to offer. True pro."

Many of the writers, of course, haven't moved on. Bonds, McGwire, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa have been voted down on their Hall of Fame candidacies.

Giambi isn't a Hall of Fame candidate on their level (50.8 career WAR, similar to guys like Fred McGriff and Lance Berkman), but he sort of stands alongside that group as the face of a generation. From 1999 to 2002, he had a four-year run that rivaled that of just about any first baseman in baseball history, hitting .326/.452/.612 while averaging 39 home runs, 126 RBIs and 120 walks per season. He won the 2000 MVP Award -- that was the year he hit .396 in September with 13 home runs and 32 RBIs as he carried the A's to the AL West division title. The next year, he finished second in the MVP voting.

He signed with the Yankees in 2002, testified before the BALCO grand jury in December 2003, admitting to using steroids, and then had some more good years -- although his 2004 season was derailed by a mysterious intestinal parasite and you wonder if he'd been healthy that year and played in the postseason whether Boston's magic ride to a World Series title would have happened.

When he testified before the grand jury, he was asked whether he'd still be using steroids if not for the investigation. "I didn't actually notice a huge difference, to be honest with you," Giambi said. "I, of course, got injured this year. So that's not a fair assessment, either. Maybe, yes, no, I don’t know."

The truth is that Giambi's numbers did decline once baseball starting testing for PEDs, whether it was due to the fact he quit using or the natural decline of age. In 2003, he hit 41 home runs and led the American League in walks for the third time, but hit just .250. Then came the lost 2004 season. In 2005, he hit .271 with 32 home runs, but again led the AL in walks and on-base percentage. Giambi was a smart hitter. He never seemed to get enough credit for that. That's why the Rockies and Indians kept him around at the end of his career, as a mentor for younger players. Even when he was no longer hitting .300, he was still producing runs with his power and on-base ability. He hit 37 home runs and drove in 113 runs in 2006. He played two more years in New York after that; the Yankees never won a World Series with him -- they won the year after he left -- and I don't think they'll be retiring his uniform number.

I view Giambi as a product of his generation. He was allowed to get away with it. The road down from my house is a two-lane back road that winds through trees. There are no sidewalks, not much room on the sides. People walk their dogs or ride bikes along it. The speed limit is 35, but nobody drives 35. They go 50, 60 mph -- there are no speed bumps, no policing. They can get away with it, so they do.

That was the Giambi generation. You can choose to hate and throw the memories away and pretend it never existed. I'm sure A's fans will choose to remember that wet, greased hair that we'd see whenever he removed his helmet after a home run, the high fives in the dugout, that monster September in 2000. The good memories.