Regardless of role, Giambi giving his all

Regardless of role, Giambi giving his all

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Don't tell Rockies veteran Jason Giambi he's too old, or he's made too much money, or he's been too renowned or too successful to care. Don't tell him it was just a Spring Training game.

The triumphant toss of the bat as he watched a monstrous home run off Rangers right-hander Mark Lowe sail more than halfway up a terrace above the center-field wall at Surprise Stadium on Wednesday night spoke for the awesomeness of the moment.

Actually, Giambi did quite well with the spoken word.

"It's the purest form of perfection that you can reach in this game," Giambi said softly, savoring each syllable. "It's like a warm butter knife through butter. It's just smooth, easy and it comes off your bat. When you're rounding the bases, there's that sense, that moment in time when you've done something perfect.

"Even if it's a Spring Training game."

It seemed like the end of the Rockies' 2010 season was time to say goodbye to Giambi, who helped lift the team into the playoffs in 2009 and had a credible followup campaign in his first full year as primarily a National League left-handed pinch-hitter.

He would turn 40 in January. The thought in Denver was he was headed elsewhere, either by reprising his American League designated-hitter role or into retirement and life as a high-profile businessman who would attend to his Las Vegas nightclub, fashion website and sports parks designed as replicas of Major League stadiums.

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But the Rockies, who learned quickly that Giambi has tremendous fun playing and almost as much fun using his accomplishments to help teammates, wanted more of him. Giambi signed a Minor League contract, but the team came to Spring Training planning on converting that to a $1 million Major League deal if he is healthy when the season starts.

Giambi didn't want to take his 415 home runs, 1,365 RBIs, eight years in the postseason and five All-Star Games and go home. All that doesn't make him too good to throw everything he has left into a bench role.

"To me, when people say that, ride off into the sunset at the top of your game, that's all ego, and I've never played with an ego," Giambi said. "I enjoy playing the game. I enjoy everything that goes with it, being in the clubhouse, having 25 guys go in the same direction. If you talk to every single guy [who retires], that's what they miss."

Giambi relishes his teaching role with the Rockies. It's one he vowed to do when he broke in with the Athletics in 1995 and was tutored by players such as Mark McGwire, Terry Steinbach, Rickey Henderson and Carney Lansford, who has become the Rockies' hitting coach.

"I met him when [former teammate and current Cardinals slugger] Matt Holliday was with Oakland," outfielder Ryan Spilborghs said. "Matty gave us the report: This guy is awesome. He welcomes everyone. All those guys in the clubhouse loved him. He was the catalyst for that whole group. With the Yankees, you could see how much they loved him.

"When you've got an MVP and a guy who has 1,600 RBIs and over 400 homers, plus an MVP award, how can you not listen to that? He's a book of knowledge. The thing is he can remember at-bats from years and years ago. If you're looking for a scouting report on a guy, you just walk up to 'Big G' and ask him."

But his aptitude as student has equally endeared him to manager Jim Tracy this spring.

Last season, Giambi struggled with irregular playing time until gaining his footing as a DH during Interleague Play. By season's end, he had two pinch-hit, game-ending home runs. No other player in club history has more than one in a career. Giambi also hit .291 with five of his six total home runs with men on base. Giambi also started 35 games at first base.

To improve, Giambi is playing first base and building at-bats with greater regularity this spring -- a benefit of the team's move of its spring headquarters from Tucson, Ariz., to the Phoenix area. He and Tracy also are scheduling the playing time to mimic the regular season, with multiple days off between starts. He'll have some pinch-hit opportunities in the final days of Cactus League play.

"His swing right now, let's put it this way, it's months ahead of where it was at the early stages of last year," Tracy said. "That's how good he looks at the plate."

Regular first baseman Todd Helton, who pushed for the Rockies to re-sign Giambi after he hit .292 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 19 games during the playoff run in 2009, said Giambi might be the oldest player on the team but he interjects youthful spirit.

"He acts like he's 12, but in a good way," Helton said. "And he's still really, really good at what he does. If you can still rake, why would you not? I don't think you would see him on a team that didn't have a good group of guys on it. If he felt in his heart we truly didn't have a shot, I don't think he would be here."

He is back with the Rockies for a chance to play on a contending team, the opportunity to mentor the way he was mentored.

More than anything, for a chance to blister a baseball, even if it's in Surprise, Ariz., he may never grow too old.

"That's the one part of this game you try to strive for," Giambi said. "That's what keeps you coming back."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.