Giambi hopes to turn back clock with A's

There was much laughter and soft, wan smiles in the clubhouse of the Oakland Athletics. Reunions are like that, spurring big emotions, the impossible desire to put time in a bear hug and hold it in place. Reality eventually sets in and spoils the party, the bittersweet recognition of just how fast the time really goes.

Not so long ago, Eric Chavez walked into the A's clubhouse as the future. It was September 1998, the A's were on their way to losing 88 games that year, but help was on the way. One rookie, Miguel Tejada, had already arrived earlier that May. The next year, in June, Tim Hudson appeared. The year after, two more -- Mark Mulder and Barry Zito -- made their big league debuts. Jermaine Dye and Johnny Damon came in trades.

All were to provide assistance to the established young star at the time, Jason Giambi, whose promise was so great that even Mark McGwire became expendable. Yet one by one, they all left to become famous, each never having it as good as they did when they were in Oakland, when they were together. Giambi was first, off to New York for seven years and $120 million after a 102-win season in 2001 and an MVP trophy the year before. Two years later, Tejada went to Baltimore for six years and $72 million after a 102-win season and that year's MVP. Hudson and Mulder were both traded after the 2004 season. Zito went to San Francisco for seven years and $126 million after the 2006 season.

Even Chavez, who stayed with the A's for six years and $66 million, would finally win a playoff round, in 2006, but would never again play with a group so talented. Another member of the 2001 band, Damon, reflected in the Yankee clubhouse. Damon left after that season for Boston, for four years and $32 million.

"That [2001 A's] team," Damon said, "was so freaking good it was scary."

Remembering the past is central in Oakland, for so much of it is germane to the present. The A's are turning back the clock. Chavez is now in his 11th full season in the big leagues. In the free-agent era, only McGwire has more service time with the A's. A few stalls from him, wearing No. 1, is Nomar Garciaparra, who when Chavez first came up was riding a bullet train destined for the Hall of Fame.

At the center of the return, as he was back then, is Giambi. He is reunited not only with Chavez and the A's, but also with Garciaparra, with whom he played on the California sandlots in the early 1980s. Giambi's hair is awash in gray. He's 38 now and ready to pilot the time capsule with most of the same ebullience that once made him a star. The only question is whether his body will cooperate with the grand design he has planned in his mind.

Reunions are hard, and rarely successful, for the very reasons that make them so attractive: to reanimate the good years, take them out of memory and make them real again. This desire, of course, is the very definition of nostalgia. At 41, Henry Aaron came back to Milwaukee for two seasons in 1975 and '76, hit .234 and .229, respectively, with a combined 22 home runs over 222 games. As a 43-year-old, Pete Rose returned to the Reds, hit .365 in 26 games to end the 1984 season, and then hit .264 and .219 respectively in the next two seasons. Willie Mays came back to New York to play for the Mets, hit .267 and .211 respectively in 1972 and '73, and then retired. Greg Maddux returned to the Cubs, gamely, won 16 games at the age of 38 in 2004, but pitched over an earned run more (4.02) than his career average of 3.16.

Rickey Henderson returned to the A's successfully three times, but there is only one Rickey Henderson.

Giambi is full of optimism, quickness of wit and good humor, just as always. He isn't, however, as young as he was in 2001, when he nearly won a second straight MVP with a .342-38-120 season and subsequently left the A's, but believes there is enough of the old player left to be a force in the Oakland lineup.

Jason Giambi I feel good. I'm playing first base again. I'm healthy. I didn't come here for the swan song. I'm not ready for that yet.

-- Jason Giambi

He is convinced that he is past the strategy of sacrificing average for power he employed during his final years in New York because he no longer swings in agony. He believes the things his body can no longer do he can compensate for with experience and -- most importantly -- the absence of pain.

Giambi hit .247, averaging 27 home runs and a shade under 100 RBIs over his final three seasons with the Yankees. The difference was in his batting average, where pitchers and managers realized his vulnerabilities.

"One big thing that got to me was the shift. The shift affected everything," he said, adding that it was Joe Maddon, the Tampa Bay manager, who when he was the bench coach with the Angels first began shifting against him. "The other thing was the pitchers. You saw the patterns: hard in, soft away … always hard inside late in the counts. When you can't turn on the ball, everybody knows it fast enough.

"I still wanted a good pitch to hit, and hit it hard, but in that situation, my job was to create runs, to hit home runs and drive in runs," he said. "You had the short porch in right [at Yankee Stadium], and in run-producing situations, you had to go for it."

In his first year in New York, in 2002, Giambi hit .314 with 41 home runs, 122 RBIs and 34 doubles. That was the last year he resembled the hitter he was in Oakland. He has not hit .300 since nor has he hit 30 doubles since that season.

For him, the proof doesn't lie in his words, he says, but in the craft itself. That means hitting. The combination of playing with a painful left knee and the inability to conquer the cavernous left center alley in Yankee Stadium turned Giambi into more of a one-dimensional hitter in New York. Giambi was candid in acknowledging the differences in being a Yankee Stadium hitter. In six full seasons in Oakland, Giambi hit 35 doubles or more four times, 40 doubles three times. He might be seven years older, but Giambi doesn't think physical limitations will prevent him from returning to being the kind of hitter he was in Oakland. In New York, Giambi became a boom-and-bust guy.

"The problem in New York is that once you hit a ball good that gets caught out in left center that would have been extra bases, you know it. When it starts happening a lot, you start thinking you can't go there anymore.

"Donny was the only one who could master left field as a left-handed hitter. The biggest reason is that when I get it out there, it is with a lot of air under it. Donny was a line-drive guy. The ball got down faster than they could get to it."

"Donny" is, of course, Don Mattingly, who in a 14-year career with the Yankees hit 35 doubles eight times. During the three years between 1984 and '86, Mattingly hit 44, 48 and 53 doubles, respectively.

Mattingly said he thought the Giambi he coached was well-suited to return to being a higher-average, higher-slugging hitter because of the Oakland effect.

"What he needed to do was stay in the strike zone a little longer, get that bat flowing through just a little more," Mattingly said. "I never had to worry about the things he thinks about, because I didn't hit with that kind of power. I wasn't thinking about anything other than the gaps. He'll be fine."

Giambi admits he is transitioning as a hitter, but only in terms of his preparation. He says his diet has changed -- no more (or not as many) late-night runs to In-N-Out Burger, a Giambi weakness -- and he does more quickness drills and more overall work. But he does not believe he returned for a nostalgic finale with no production.

"Hopefully, my doubles will go up. That ball I rip over the first baseman's head is a single in New York, because of the dimensions and the foul territory," he said. "In Oakland, that's an extra-base hit. I feel good. I'm playing first base again. I'm healthy. I didn't come here for the swan song. I'm not ready for that yet."

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.