PHOENIX – It was like seeing a ghost, if you can imagine a hulking phantom with tattooed biceps, shaggy hair and a compulsion to enjoy every moment.
"Unbelievable,'' said A's infield coach Mike Gallego, the second baseman on the Oakland powerhouses of the late '80s and early 90s. "He was a rookie the first time I saw him walk through here.''
Billy Owens, the Athletics' director of player personnel, laughs.
"We were drafted in the same year, 1992,'' he said. "He was drafted by Oakland with the 58th pick on the second round. The Orioles took me on the next round. I was the 82nd pick. See, the A's knew what they were doing, even then.''
When A's general manager Billy Beane introduced the returning Giambi at a press conference in January, he said, "I feel like I'm marrying my ex-wife.''
That line didn't play real well to one audience, he admitted here Tuesday.
"My current wife said, 'Oh, that's real funny,' '' Beane said.
Say this for Giambi: He's doing his part to help an ailing economy. A's fans who can't afford to splurge can break out their old Giambi jerseys – he's reclaimed the No. 16 he wore during his first go-round with the Athletics, seven seasons of merriment and mayhem which included the American League MVP award in 2000. He had a statistically better year in 2001 and was the scruffy, psychic-consulting, Harley-riding, bungee-jumping face of a franchise that played to a rebel yell.
And now, at age 38, he's back.
"I can't believe how fast seven years went,'' he said.
For his last team, the New York Yankees, seven years of Giambi might have seemed like a Biblical plague: a batting average that only once rose north of .260; a career-worst slump that nearly led to a minor-league assignment; eye infections; pituitary disorders; wrist surgery; bad knees, heel, ankle and foot; and, most damaging of all, grand-jury testimony in the BALCO case and subsequent public revelations of steroids and human growth hormone use.
Yankee fans, as they did with Andy Pettitte, were forgiving of Giambi's drug-enhanced past after he apologized (although he never used the word "steroids"). But the Yankees, who had no World Series titles to show for their seven-year, $126 million investment in the slugging first baseman, did not exercise the $22 million option they held for the 2009 season.
Regrets that he'd ever gone to New York? Hardly.
"I loved it,'' he said. "I had some ups and downs, but at the same time if you're an athlete and you really love the game, there's no better place to play – Mr. Steinbrenner loves to win, tough media, and fans as passionate as you are as a player. You have to put it on the line every single day.
"I know some guys go there and have a tough time, but I loved doing it every day. If I'd had an opportunity where they picked up my option, I would have been ecstatic. But at the same time, I understand the game. I understand, especially in New York, (Mark) Teixeira is now what I was seven years ago. That's fine.
"At the same time, I'm excited to come home.''
And he insists that as much as he enjoyed New York, he never intended to leave Oakland.
"I had a deal done (in 2002),'' he said. "I had my parents here in spring training, I had a deal done for six years, a Chipper Jones-type deal. Unfortunately that day, Billy had to come back and say the offer wasn’t good anymore, the owners took it off the table. I thought I was going to be here for the next six years.''
Now he's back, at a fraction of the cost ($4 million, with a $1.25 million buyout if the Athletics don't exercise a 2010 option) and as a shell of the steroids-enhanced player he was when he left. Still, the A's, who ranked last in the American League in runs in 2008, believe Giambi's power and ability to reach base justify the low-risk investment, much like the one they made with great returns in Frank Thomas two years ago.
Having traded for Matt Holliday this winter and added veterans Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra this spring, the Athletics – with a brace of highly promising young pitchers – have the look of a team bent on making a run at the Angels in the American League West.
"I think this team is going to surprise a lot of people,'' Giambi said. "Hopefully, the offense we have can speed up the learning curve of our young pitchers, like we did with (Tim) Hudson, (Barry) Zito and (Mark) Mulder. I don't want to put that kind of pressure on these young kids – they're all about the same age as those guys were – but those were a special group of guys we had. I don’t want to put that label yet on these guys. They still have to prove themselves. But talking to them, and getting to know them, you can see they're special."
The feeling is mutual, said A's manager Bob Geren. Giambi's presence in the clubhouse is unmistakable.
"He's made quite an impression on everybody,'' he said. "He hasn't changed. He's still kind of a life-of-the-party-type guy, but in a good way.''
Gallego says Giambi is "38 going on 20. He's a lot more mature, obviously, but he still has the energy. He still comes ready to play every day.
"When we made the deal, I knew that it would be nothing but a plus for this organization, and for our young kids. He's so old school, and he realizes how important it is to feed information to the young guys because that's how he learned the game. And he's not afraid to go talk to the pitchers, either.''
"It's always been a loose atmosphere around here, always nice and easy,'' Gallagher said. "But he carries this aura around him. Everything just melts away. No pressure. Come in, have fun, go about your day.
"You can always look over, if you got a frown on your face, he'll go, 'Dude, what?' and have this big smile on his face. He's just glowing all the time.
"This is home for him.''