Giambi back to being a 'premier player'

Jason Giambi would be hard pressed to think of an uglier scenario than the one that threatened his career last February. The BALCO scandal was already hanging over him like an anvil, and now the Yankees' hierarchy was looking to slip out the back door of the final three years of his contract.

The public? Even in New York, the reservoir of sympathy for Giambi had run dry.

"Boot the Bum" was the New York Post's verdict late in 2004, after Giambi had appeared before the grand jury investigating steroids.

By the time he arrived for spring training, a not-so-silent countdown had already begun for Giambi's release. The Yankees didn't distance themselves from the discussion, either. General manager Brian Cashman bluntly said, "We were unsure how we could salvage our investment."

Just how far could the Yankees have gone in protecting the $84 million Giambi was still owed? The GM is thankful he doesn't have to discuss the war that was, ultimately, never fought. Not only did Giambi survive spring training, he flourished through the 2005 season and ended with numbers at least comparable to his career averages.

Giambi, 35, hit one home run per 13 at-bats last year, not much worse than his career-best 11.8 average in 2000, when he was the American League's MVP. His .271 batting average was still 24 points below his career mark, but his ratio of walks to plate appearances was higher than ever, evidenced by a .440 on-base percentage, his best since 2001.

That resurrection may or may not have been linked to Giambi's removal from the cleanup spot. But nearly three-fourths of his at-bats were in the No. 6 spot or lower, and he responded by batting .302 with runners in scoring position. And 22 of his 32 HRs came after the All-Star break.

Put the data into the blender, and the Yankees are convinced Giambi's darkest hours have passed.

"As far as we're concerned, Jason hit our best-case scenario," Cashman said this week. "Now we're back to business as usual; to me, Jason is back to being one of the premier players in the game right now."

The Yankees say there's no reason not to project similar numbers for 2006. As long as he remains healthy -- and 37-year-old Gary Sheffield hasn't aged overnight -- the Bombers figure to lead the American League in runs, especially now that Johnny Damon is batting leadoff.

But that's not to say the Yankees aren't aware of their vulnerabilities. Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina don't figure to be any better, only a year older. And when Cashman speaks of a "whole new bridge" to Mariano Rivera, it means he has no idea how the middle relievers will perform.

But at least the black cloud that followed Giambi in 2004 and early 2005 will be gone. Spring training's first-week buzz will generate from Damon's locker, not Giambi's -- a stark contrast to last year's opening of camp, when the first baseman arrived with the residue of the '04 season still clinging to him.

There was that bout with intestinal parasites that was so severe Giambi literally couldn't remain standing during a game. After the All-Star break he went 0-for-16, dropping his average to .224. Further tests revealed that Giambi had a malignant tumor in his pituitary gland, which some medical experts suggested was the result of suddenly withdrawing steroids from his system.

By the time October rolled around, the Yankees decided that Giambi's medical issues had eclipsed his bat speed. That prompted Joe Torre to leave Giambi off the roster in both the division series and league championship series.

Through it all, Giambi never directly addressed juicing, although he called a press conference last February, only a week before pitchers and catchers, to say he was "sorry" for his mistakes. When asked directly what mistakes he was referring to, agent Arn Tellem instructed reporters to "read between the lines."

The stage was set for an ugly ending. Even Torre seemed braced for a struggle. "Jason's going to have to understand even in his home ballpark, he may not get the response he wants," is what the manager said.

But Giambi never wavered in his belief that getting healthy -- ridding his body of the parasites and the tumor -- would rebuild his career, if not his reputation. He spent less time at his locker and more time with hitting instructor Don Mattingly, as well as Azra Shafi-Scagliarini, his friend, consultant and spiritual adviser.

It didn't hurt Giambi, either, that the steroids scandal eventually shifted its focus to Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, both of whom performed disgracefully before a Congressional hearing. Palmeiro jabbed his finger at the committee members while insisting he "never, ever" juiced, while McGwire stonewalled the nation by repeating, "I'm not here to talk about the past."

That investigation gave Giambi breathing room to reclaim his best skill -- hitting line drives. If he wasn't quite the threat that he was in his MVP season, he was at least close enough, and certainly better than in 2004.

These days, when Cashman and Giambi speak over the phone, the conversation is upbeat and forward-directed.

"Jason sounds great, he tells me he's been working out and feeling strong," Cashman said. "That's exactly what we want to hear."

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.