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ON BASEBALL

Leaks leave Giambi in tricky waters

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Indestructible? Long before Jason Giambi ever told a grand jury that he'd injected human growth hormone into his stomach and testosterone into his buttocks, rubbed a steroid called "the cream" on his body, and took drops of another steroid known as "the clear" under his tongue, Giambi placed no limits on what his body could withstand.

Fun for Jason and his little brother Jeremy was to hoist their bikes onto a neighbor's roof, take aim at a swimming pool below, pedal to the edge, and launch into the blue void, nervelessly believing there would be an exhilarating splash.

But at age 34, the safe landings are far less certain than they were as a child for Giambi, a marked man in baseball's steroid scandal who is also coming off the worst season of his career, something perhaps more egregious in the eyes of indiscriminate fans who expect their superstars to perform on demand, regardless of the means they employ to do so.

When Giambi signed a seven-year, $120 million contract with the New York Yankees in December 2001, he was arguably the most devastating hitter in the American League: MVP with the Oakland A's in 2000, runner-up in 2001, a man whose batting average had risen six straight seasons to .342 in '01, a slugger who projected a devil-may-care biker lifestyle while showing a watchmaker's eye at the plate. He cut his hair and cleaned up his look for George Steinbrenner's Yankees, and while he didn't deliver a World Series title in either of his first two seasons, and his surgically repaired left knee was a source of concern, he became just the fourth Yankee to have multiple 40-homer seasons, joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle.

All he needed, it seemed, was to add a ring or two to his resume, and Giambi would take his place among the pinstripes' finest.

But then came BALCO, and a shrunken Giambi showing up in camp last spring, claiming he was smaller because he'd chosen to lay off the In-n-Out burgers. It would only get worse. Giambi sprained an ankle and landed on the disabled list. He was diagnosed with a mysterious intestinal parasite, sidelining him again. Then an even greater mystery, finally confirmed as a benign tumor in his pituitary gland, causing another prolonged absence.

Giambi made a cameo appearance in September but was a pathetic imitation of himself, going 0 for 32 before mercifully hitting a home run. He finished the season with a .208 average in 80 games, with just 12 home runs and 40 RBIs, and was not on the Yankees' postseason roster.

Then came the leak of his grand jury testimony in the San Francisco Chronicle, and the steroid scandal had its first real smoking gun, aimed squarely at one of the game's biggest names. Last month, Giambi appeared at a news conference in New York in which he apologized without ever giving a name to what he was sorry for, the obfuscation apparently necessary for legal reasons.

His acceptance -- by his teammates, by his manager, and by Yankee fans -- will depend less on the sincerity of his words than on the sweetness of his swing. Yankees manager Joe Torre is blunt when he says he doesn't know what to expect from Giambi. General manager Brian Cashman brought back Tino Martinez, the popular first baseman the Yanks allowed to walk when they signed Giambi.

There will be rough times ahead, a taste of which Giambi received last night when he accompanied the Yankees here to play the Red Sox. It was his first venture this spring into truly hostile environs, and Giambi, who has been cheered warmly by home crowds in Tampa, received the predictable reception. There were boos, chants of "ster-oids" and "Bal-co," and one fan rushing down to the box-seat railing with a sign that read, "Got Milk," but had "Milk" crossed out, with "Juice" its substitute.

"I'm not going to hear anything that I haven't heard before, or haven't said myself," Giambi had said the day before.

"I feel good. I feel great. I'm working my butt off down here, which is all I can do. [Coach] Don [Mattingly] has been great; Joe, too.

"I was miserable last season. I was sick about it. But the thing I can live with is I gave everything I could to get back out there."

Giambi said he was looking forward to seeing Johnny Damon, his former A's teammate, unaware Damon was taking the day off.

"Johnny's been great," Giambi said. "I've been lucky to have played with some pretty incredible people. Tim Hudson, [Mark] Mulder, [Barry] Zito, Chavey [Eric Chavez], Johnny, the guys in this clubhouse -- they know the tough situation I've been in, and they've been pretty incredible."

After the game, a 9-2 New York win, Giambi said, "It was nice to get results tonight. It's going to take all six weeks, but that's the key to me, just getting back in the groove. If I work on the ingredients, the results will come."

In his first at-bat, Giambi grounded a single through the right side. On his third at-bat, against a big league lefty, John Halama, Giambi launched a grand drive that cleared the right-center-field fence. It was his first home run of the spring.

You could almost hear the splash.

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