The Fall and Rise of Jason Giambi, Part One

Booing comes with the territory for a professional athlete. If you’re a good player, you’ll at least hear the taunts on the road—cheers on the road usually means you’re doing something wrong. Even the best and most popular players will hear the boos sometimes at home—when slumps go a little too long, when they strike out with a runner on third, when they make big errors. If you can’t handle a little booing, you can’t handle the major leagues.

But as Jason Giambi stepped into the left-handed batter’s box in the 10th inning on June 15, boos were all he was hearing. After getting off to something like a reasonable start in April, his offense had collapsed completely. In early May he was batting just .195, and even with all the walks that brought his on-base percentage (OBP) up to .386, his on-base plus slugging (OPS) was .711. Not good enough for a first baseman—not even good enough for a second baseman. Certainly not good enough for $20 million.

But Giambi wouldn’t accept a demotion to AAA to work out his problems, and the Yankees kept him in the lineup, hoping that somehow his bat would wake up.

In the month since that decision, Giambi’s hitting improved—marginally. His batting average since then was .286, but his OBP was lower than it had been before, and with only four of his 20 hits going for extra bases, his OPS was just 43 points higher in his last 81 plate appearances than it had been in the first 101.

The team was collapsing, and his career was in tatters. In the offseason the Yankees had threatened to make Giambi the poster child for steroids if he didn’t accept a contract buyout—now he was just that. Like Pete Rose, he was in a “Prison Without Bars,” and like Rose, it was a prison of his own making.

In the 10th inning on June 15, Russ Johnson led off second with the tying run. Jose Mesa looked in and prepared to throw a 2-2 pitch.

In front of 49,000 screaming fans, Giambi was about to stage a prison break.

Professional athletes have been used as pitchmen almost as long as there have been professional athletes. Associate your product with a sports star, and you not only get the public’s attention, but you may be able to connect, in the public’s subconscious, the star’s success with your product’s quality.

Nike had Michael Jordan, Mr. Coffee had Joe DiMaggio. Wheaties has had nearly every successful athlete ever.

BALCO had Barry Bonds.

Unlike other spokesmen, Bonds was not openly pitching the product that BALCO was trying to sell, but by crediting much of his historic performances in the early 2000s to his association with trainer Greg Anderson and BALCO, the effect was inevitable: other players looking to match Bonds’s success would come to Anderson seeking the secret.

The secret was simple: steroids. Not just steroids, but a new, undetectable steroid: THG. But Anderson wasn’t so bold or foolish to openly pitch steroids to a new client who might react negatively to them—he told them he needed a urine and blood sample first, to check for “mineral deficiencies.” With the samples in hand, he’d test for steroids, and if found, he’d know he had a potential client and a ready-made sales pitch.

Since the client already was on steroids, he wouldn’t be averse to trying a new one, and since the tests had come back positive, he would be in danger of failing his next drug test, and an undetectable steroid would be very attractive.

In November 2002, Bonds brought Anderson to Japan with him on the MLB All-Star tour. And Jason Giambi came calling.

We don’t know when Giambi started taking steroids, only that it was before he met Anderson. According to his leaked grand jury testimony, Giambi had been taking steroids since 2001, so we know that it was at least that early.

It’s plausible that Giambi didn’t say that he was taking steroids before 2001 because the season before, 2000, was his true breakout year. Or maybe he didn’t put that much thought into it. Either way, we can’t just go on his word.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

A look at Giambi’s numbers raises suspicions. In 1995, at age 24, he was called up to the majors for the first time. In his minor league career he’d hit for a good average (.294, .313 if a lousy half-season in 1993 is discounted), displayed a great eye, and had excellent doubles power (45 per 162 games). He wasn’t hitting for much home run power (17 per 162), but with all of his doubles it would be reasonable to expect some of those to turn into homers. Once in the majors, they very quickly did. Giambi hit 20 homers in 1996 and 1997, and in 1998 he hit 27.

These first three full seasons are the least suspicious ones. Although Jose Canseco claims he injected Giambi with steroids in 1997, his year-by-year improvement from 1996 to 1998 is pretty standard, and his 1998 OPS of .873 was just below his career minor league OPS of .884.

The 1999 season looks a little suspicious, because in that season Giambi’s OPS jumped over 100 points, but again this is hardly damning in and of itself—over 1,100 players have increased their OPS that much in a single season in just the last 40 years. Giambi was only 28 when he reached this level, still in the age range at which players take the “big leap forward,” and his OPS in his last minor league season had been .981. Giambi hit only six more homers and eight more doubles in 1999, but the biggest improvement was the 24 extra walks he drew. That year could have been Giambi’s first season on steroids, or it could have been his normal breakthrough season. It could have been both.

The next year is the flashing red light of Jason Giambi’s career. His OPS jumped another 148 points, he added 10 homers, 18 points of batting average and 54 points of OBP. His Slugging Percentage (SLG) jumped 94 points, and at the end of the season, he won the MVP.

It was the first season Giambi had that was completely out of line with his past performance. Again, this sort of thing has happened before, but it’s usually been to players in their early 20s or players having fluke seasons. Most players around Giambi’s age who did something like this regressed the next season.

Giambi got better. In 2001 his average rose nine points, his OBP one point, his SLG 13 points. He hit 5 fewer homers but 18 more doubles, and his OPS+ was 14 points higher. He led the A’s back into the playoffs and that offseason signed a huge contract with the Yankees.

But with the Ken Caminiti Sports Illustrated story in the summer of 2002, the issue of steroids in baseball was in the forefront, and the new collective bargaining agreement included mandatory testing in the 2003 season. When Giambi met with Anderson in Tokyo in November of 2002, he may not have been looking for a new steroids program, and he may not have been aware that Anderson was offering undetectable steroids, but he was, no doubt, not averse to either.

Anderson provided Giambi with two forms of undetectable steroids, THG, known as “The Clear,” and a testosterone cream mixed with epitestosterone that was designed to evade steroid tests that measure the ratio between the two. He also provided Giambi with injectable testosterone and Clomid, a female fertility drug that both enhanced the testosterone’s effect and masked it from steroid tests. He provided Giambi with syringes and showed him how to inject the testosterone and the Human Growth Hormone Giambi had acquired independently from a Las Vegas gym.

His first season with the BALCO program was a pretty lousy one for Giambi. With an eye infection and an injured knee, he stumbled out of the gate in April and recovered only slightly in May. He entered June with just a .227 batting average, a .356 OBP and a .784 OPS. But he exploded in June, posting a 1.373 OPS for the month, helping carry the team to a 20-7 record.

But while his numbers had recovered, his knee wasn’t getting any better. Fearing that the steroids were just making the injury worse, he decided to stop using after the All-Star break, and didn’t use the last shipment of testosterone that Anderson sent him. For the second half of 2003 Giambi was, according to his testimony, clean but injured. His numbers slipped again, and he posted just an .899 OPS.

And then things went from bad to worse.

On September 3, 2003, federal agents broke down the doors of the BALCO labs in California, guns drawn. Track coach Trevor Graham had provided federal agents with a sample of THG earlier that summer. They now knew what it was; they knew what BALCO was up to. And they had Jason Giambi’s name.

On October 20 they came for him, serving him with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury in San Francisco. Giambi told reporters he didn’t know what it was about, and he wasn’t worried about it. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said.

That’s not what he’d tell the grand jury.

References & Resources
Much of this information in this article is derived from the grand jury testimony of Jason Giambi on December 11, 2003, as illegally leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle and presented in this article. The author has written under the assumption that this information is factual.

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