Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year is an annual must-read. Given that the national recognition rarely has anything to do with the teams or individuals whom we cover. In turn, WFNY will soon announce its choice for 2013′s Cleveland Sportsman of the Year. Here’s one of the nominations for that honor by a WFNY writer.
To say it all started with a 1-1 slider would be a lie. The moment that made the city of Cleveland believe, if only for a night, that the baseball Gods were finally smiling down was put in place long before the crack of a bat was subsequently met with a roar that led well beyond the confines of Progressive Field.
When the Cleveland Indians signed Jason Giambi in the early months of 2013, the deal was met with little in the way of fanfare. Giambi, after all, was well into his 42nd year on planet Earth and had considered hanging up his cleats for good, entertaining managerial positions with the Colorado Rockies. To the common fan, the lack of enthusiasm surrounding this free agent contract was understanding—after all, fans aren’t in the clubhouse and this deal was undoubtedly one that hinged as much on character and leadership as it did bat speed.
To read too much into locker placement would be a fool’s errand, but to think that Giambi’s locker—directly across from the assistant coaches’ lockers, a stone’s throw from the showers, essentially having the ability to hold court whenever needed—was not placed with purpose would be even more fatuous. A papa bear dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, the barrel-chested Giambi rocks a greying beard and a set of seasoned eyes that had witnessed countless baseball games unfold—nineteen seasons, to be exact. He would be joining a team that had crumbled in the very middle of the season before, rumors swirling of a manager who had lost the locker room coupled with random anecdotes of dysfunction. Had Giambi never picked up a bat during the season, it could be argued that Chris Antonetti and his staff would have still considered the early spring contract as money well spent. The fact that he would pick up a bat, however, led to much discussion in some circles.
There were moments during the 2013 season where Indians fans became, for a lack of a better term, bored with the Giambi experiment. A player-coach of sorts, the stories of the former MVP being a locker room presence who would occasionally pinch hit in certain situations had started to wear thin as his batting average1 had started a descent to levels below the Mendoza line. Giambi, a five-time All-Star during his prime, had experienced month-over-month decline from June through the end of the season. With the postseason in reach and the Indians using their late-season roster spots on bullpen help, there was little the team could do to avoid having to use Giambi against right-handed pitching as in-game adjustments dictated.
But on that late-September night, Giambi sat on the Cleveland Indians bench and watched his team duke it out with the Chicago White Sox, a team looking to ruin the postseason hopes of a division rival. He watched as his team would strike first, scoring one run in the bottom of the second. He sat idely as the Southsiders knotted things up two innings later, and took a one-run lead in the seventh. He cheered his teammates on as they plated two more players for a one-run lead in that very same inning. He felt his stomach drop as the bullpen would give those same two runs back in the top of the ninth.
When Giambi took that Addison Reed pitch deep into the night, directed in the way of the visitor’s bullpen, it signified way more than the team’s magic number ticking down to five. That never-say-die band of brothers had experienced a handful of walk-off wins during the season, so late-game magic was hardly a surprise. But the roller coaster that proceeded it—the excellent start by Ubaldo Jiménez, the blown save by Chris Perez, the incredible weight of the game given the late-September scheduling—provided what would ultimately be the hallmark moment of the Cleveland Indians’ 2013 season. It would only be Giambi’s ninth home run of the season, but it would instantly prove that not all swings are created equal.
“God. There’s nothing more special,” said Giambi. “That’s what keeps you coming back every year.”
Giambi’s season rendered sample size-discussions and rudimentary statistics useless. Show me a woeful batting average and I’ll show you that at one point during the season, only Giambi and Miguel Cabrera had hit home runs in every three-and-a-half at-bats. Through 10 games in September and October, Jason Giambi produced what would be his worth single-month split as a member of the Cleveland Indians, recording just three hits while striking out seven times—his slugging percentage was actually lower than his on-base percentage. But of those three hits, one of them was a home run. It was the home run.
Find one player, one coach, or any man other than Jason Gilbert Giambi who provided the city of Cleveland with a moment in 2013 that will, without a doubt, live on forever. One that, months later, is still as fresh in our minds. One that will be the subject of murals throughout Progressive Field and whatever stadium is erected as it’s eventual replacement. One that nearly brought tears to the eyes of his teammates. One that forced random, grown men to embrace one another on impulse. One that kept playoff dreams alive.
- As people still insist on pretending that this is an important metric when it comes to value-added… [↩]