Thursday, June 19, 2014

Did Brian McCann just have his Giambi moment as a Yankee?

The night of May 17, 2002, was a warm Friday, and Mustang, Moose and I hit bars across Syracuse, always monitoring the Yankee game on overhead TVs. We played the Twins, THE power of the AL Central, with Torii Hunter in CF and a nobody DH named David Ortiz. The Twinks cuffed around Mike Mussina and devoured our bullpen - Mariano pitched two - and the game was tied after nine. In the 14th inning, Minnesota scored three off Sterling Hitchcock, and - bah! - we knew it was over.

Back then, every winter - just to piss off Bud Selig - Old George signed the top free agent on the market. The previous winter, he'd added Mussina. Now, he'd brought in the tank, Jason Giambi, from Oakland. But in April, Giambi had stunk out the Stadium, generating boos. Lately, he'd shown a spark - 8 HRs and rising average. But he hadn't won us anything. He was an Oakland player in a Yankee jersey.

For some reason, we kept watching. Shane Spencer led off the bottom of the 14th with a single. Our young 2B, Alfonso Soriano, flew out to left. Derek Jeter singled, and Bernie Williams drew a walk. One out, bases full. Up came Giambi, whose walk-off grand slam is still relived - via John Sterling's delirious call - on one of my most precious keepsakes, the Yankee Talking Bottle Opener.

Memories blur. But on that spring night, in my beer-fogged mind, Jason Giambi became The Giambino, and his Pinstripes, permanent tattoos. That year, he hit 41 HRs, drove in 122, and batted .314. His seven-year Yankee run ended in 2008 - when Torre's team collapsed and our young 2B, Robbie Cano, didn't even bother to dive for a ground ball that sealed our fate. That year, at 37, Jason Giambi hit 32 HRs, but he'd become a dead-pull hitter with lice for batting average and a ton of life baggage - the steroids scandal, the withering physique, the "parasite" he picked up in Japan, the public confession, the public apology, the public testimony and his expected retirement.

When I think of Giambi, I remember those two home runs against Pedro in THE GAME - hint: Aaron Boone - rousing us from what seemed a 4-0 certain defeat, and - of course, that wondrous grand slam against the Twins. Close my eyes, and I'm there. And someday, when Giambi returns to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timer's Day - damn - I will stand and cheer, even from my living room. He was worth every penny of Old George's money - and I don't say that about every Yankee.

Well, last night, the Atlanta Braves' Brian McCann - a month late and a few HRs short - won a game for the Yankees. Take away his home run and two-out, bases loaded double, and the Yankees would have mounted another simpering, brain-dead offense, scoring one run, maybe two. Take away McCann, and the mighty Blue Jays would be on the verge of winning a three-game series at the Stadium.

I'm not saying McCann is about to become The McCannbino and lead the Yankees anywhere. But maybe last night, the pinstripes took hold. It always takes a while for new Yankees to learn the truth: One week in New York City equals a month in any other city - that as a Yankee, the world turns over every 24 hours - and you're either on top or the bottom - no in-between. Atlanta is not NYC. No matter how experienced a player may be, it takes a month, maybe three - which is a lifetime - to learn the new reality.

The worry, of course, is that McCann is fazed by over-shifts, his BA will never rise above .230, and we own another Andy Hassey, but this time for five years. Well... maybe not. If McCann can hit 30 HRs, he is the best catcher in the AL. No kidding. Look around. With Matt Wieters out for the season, there aren't any catchers who can have an impact like McCann.

Hey... it is, after all, Hope Week.

As for Giambi - well - who would have thought it: He is still around - ah, but not for long. This year, in 52 plate appearances, the Giambino has 2 HRs and is hitting .128. For him, the days are already getting shorter. But Giambi is projected as a future manager, and - who knows? - after Joe Girardi's run, Giambi could be in the mix. And it all began in the 14th inning of a game we all knew was lost. Funny how that goes. One day, you're a bum. Next day, you're a bottle opener. Welcome to NY, Brian. Glad you finally made it.

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