GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- By all rights, Jason Giambi should be unchallenged as the most intriguing fringe player in camp with the Cleveland Indians this spring. The American League MVP of 2000 and a Rockies' managerial candidate of recent vintage, he slipped a red carpet under one of baseball's least glamorous roles and most awkward phrases -- "non-roster invitee."
He is 42, hoping to stick around one more year and mocking himself whenever possible. Asked whether any teams had hinted at a major-league contract in the offseason, Giambi said: "I'm too old, those days are over. They just want to make sure you're not going to fall down and break anything."
Scott Kazmir can't roll out quips at the same rate, but he can absolutely take down Giambi, or anyone else in the game, as a celebrity non-roster invitee. The 2007 AL strikeout leader, Kazmir has quickly elbowed aside another highly decorated holder of a minor-league contract, Daisuke Matsuzaka, in the race to claim the fifth spot in the Indians' starting rotation.
All three ex-heavyweights got playing time in Monday's exhibition against the Angels, although Dice-K cramped up after one inning of scoreless work and had to leave. The game felt a bit like a rerun of the "Law and Order" episode that featured Samuel L. Jackson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman in small guest roles. Fame lay ahead for them. It sits over the shoulders of Kazmir, Matsuzaka and Giambi.
The Indians attracted them in part because Terry Francona chose to rebuild his managerial career in Cleveland, the town where his father played ball and where he worked as a special assistant for Mark Shapiro, now the team president, in 2001. Francona's history with Dice-K in Boston is well-known, but he and Giambi apparently have been conducting an underground bromance for years.
They met in Double-A, when Francona managed the Birmingham Barons in their brief Michael Jordan era. Giambi came through with the Huntsville team and got to know Francona through a friend on the Barons' roster. Then they spent years on opposite sides of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, "and we got to be friends," Giambi said.
"I'd always say 'I'm going to play for you some day,' and vice versa, he'd say, 'You're going to play for me someday,'" Giambi said.
They almost missed each other. When the Rockies fired Jim Tracy and made it clear that they wanted a fresh manager, someone with minimal experience in the mold of Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura, Giambi told the club that he'd retire from the active roster for the opportunity. Over three and a half seasons with Colorado, baseball's life of the party had transformed himself into a mentor for younger players.
The Rockies interviewed Giambi, Matt Williams and Walt Weiss, and chose Weiss in the end. But the club made it clear that it had taken Giambi's candidacy very seriously, then offered him the hitting coach's job.
"I just didn't feel it was the right situation, with Walter just getting the job and getting a one-year deal," Giambi said. "I didn't want to be like I'm looming in the background. I'm not that guy."
Some other teams asked about his interest in coaching, "But I wasn't ready to take that path yet," he said.
Cleveland offered him a shot at a roster spot and the chance to play a role much like the one Jonny Gomes filled in Oakland last year, albeit with a decade's less mileage than Giambi. He'd be the designated hitter once or twice a week, pinch hit and function as what Francona called "a manager-in-waiting."
It's rare to see a former MVP and five-time All-Star accept such downsizing, embrace it even. But even when he was a hyperactive pup in Oakland, sharing his theory that hitters had to feel sexy at the plate, Giambi didn't bring a lot of vanity to the field.
After Monday's game, he was batting only .150 in spring training, but he had a .333 on-base percentage, a tribute to his A's lineage and the "Moneyball" ethic. Even in those early years, before his biker image yielded to the Yankees' clean-shaving regimen, Giambi might have been constructing a career in management through regular discussions with Billy Beane.
"There were times he'd come down and say 'Hey, J, we want to make a trade. Here's three guys, who do you think would fit on this team?' " Giambi said. "… By sabermetrics, their values would be same, and (he'd ask) who do you think will fit in this room? That was when we got guys like Jeff Tam and Johnny Damon."
For the Indians, Kazmir could become the rediscovery of the season. He is only 29, a lefty who once had a lethal slider akin to Steve Carlton's as part of the Tampa Bay Rays' rise to prominence. But by age 25, his career went into decline. More and more, he pitched like a golfer with the yips. He estimates now that he lost almost 10 mph off his fastball, as an array of injuries nibbled at his body.
He believes that a pulled triceps in 2008, compounded by a groin injury, threw off the rhythm of his delivery, and he couldn't reinstate the mechanics that made him the 15th overall pick of the 2002 draft. Playing for the Angels in 2011, he lasted one start, then went to the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees for a rehab assignment that redefined regression. In five starts, he had a 17.02 ERA.
"By the last year with the Angels, I was trying anything I could to have something click," Kazmir said after four scoreless innings Monday. "Bottom line, it just wasn't me. Stuff that always came natural just wasn't there. For me it's just kind of going out there being free and easy. And if I'm watching (tape from that time), it's like I'm out there trying really hard to do something and nothing's really coming out."
Last year took him to the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, where certain fans in road crowds liked to note that a 2006 and 2008 two-time All-Star had become … well, a Skeeter. But the team played close to his house in Houston, and manager Gary Gaetti had reached out to him. He got to spend some time with fellow Skeeter Roger Clemens, attempting a comeback at 50.
"That was a good time," Kazmir said. "He brought the celebrities with him, Toby Keith in the dugout, the whole nine."
From there, Kazmir went to Puerto Rico for winter ball, playing for Edwin Rodriguez, who also manages in the Indians' minor-league system. He now has thrown eight scoreless innings, allowed five hits and a walk, and struck out eight. He also pitched three innings of a B game, a minor-league contest, specifically to work on his slider.
Over the last few years, he watched countless hours of video from his days in Tampa, trying to become himself again. At one point, he decided to be someone else, and gained weight to put more muscle behind his velocity.
He shot up to 205 pounds from his usual 180 to 185.
"I was trying everything. Even scouts said I was built like a bodybuilder" Kazmir said. "And that didn't work; I was throwing 86-87. So back to the drawing board."
He returned to normal weight, and the fastball gained speed through mechanical adjustment. It peaks at about 93 now, midway through spring. Kazmir knows what is different now, but is reluctant to share the information. "I just want to keep looking forward," he said. "It's something I figured out. I don't want to dissect it. I want to keep it simple."
So far, he has made things very simple for Francona, who had several options for a fifth starter (some of whom might be worthy of replacing one of the top four) as camp opened. Kazmir believes that by fixing himself, largely on his own, he has learned how to control his game in the future.
That may be a premature assessment, but more than ever, a non-roster invitee can dare to dream.