Uncertainty surrounds Giambi

NEW YORK -- As Jason Giambi walked out of Yankee Stadium on Thursday afternoon, all his ghosts were still in hot pursuit. A 45-minute apology, lacking in substance or purpose, only heightened the curiosity about Giambi's steroid use. Until he comes clean, the slugger is at the doorstep of a long summer of public skepticism.

The Yankees are already bracing for the turbulence, even in the Bronx. Club officials worry that Yankee fans will deny Giambi a full pardon, especially now that Tino Martinez -- a real-time reminder of the 1996-2000 glory years -- is back in pinstripes, ready to take over first base.

Of course, Giambi has an easy way out of the steroids-cesspool. He can tell the truth. He can use himself as an example of how steroids can ruin an athlete's career, his reputation and his health. Giambi could send a powerful message to thousands of teenagers who glorify steroids, and by doing so, he could emerge as this scandal's first and only hero.

But no such soul-cleansing will take place any time soon, at least not during spring training. Lawyers on both sides of the BALCO investigation are exploring the possibility of a plea bargain, and a decision to settle could come as soon as March 16. Still, if talks collapse and indictments are handed down, Giambi is clinging to a promise of partial immunity from prosecution. In the meantime, the U.S. Attorney's Office has instructed Giambi not to discuss the case.

That explains Thursday's non-answers. Not only do they keep the feds happy, they also keep the Yankees on the hook for the $82 million Giambi is owed for the next four years. That's the irrefutable verdict delivered by the commissioner's office lawyers, who informed the Yankees that leaked testimony in a newspaper article is not considered actionable. But that doesn't mean the Yankees aren't still looking for a way to void Giambi's contract once and for all.

So on the advice of his attorneys, Giambi will keep glossing over his transgressions, refusing to utter the forbidden word -- steroids. He says "I totally understand" how empty his defense sounds, but hopes to make it up to the Yankees by hitting home runs again in 2005. Giambi's mission will be fairly obvious: prove that he still has elite-caliber power without the juice.

Whether Giambi can actually prosper without chemicals will be the Yankees' biggest mystery this spring.

"We're all curious to see how he'll recover," said Joe Torre, making sure his words sound more like a curiosity than a threat. The manager told Giambi he doesn't have to necessarily hit home runs in spring training to regain the Yankees' trust. But who knows if Giambi can relax during a game-by-game, even swing by swing audition in the post-steroids era.

The irony that Giambi will be most scrutinized player in baseball in 2005, even though he had enough respect for the legal system to testify truthfully. But his candor to the grand jury only increased Giambi's burden of accountability to the public, and saying he was sorry -- without explaining what he was sorry about -- didn't bring Giambi any shelter from the storm.

Torre bluntly said, "this is not going to go away." Indeed, starting next week, the Yankees will be subjected to hard questions about Giambi's' testimony. Did they suspect he was using steroids? Do they consider Giambi a cheater? Will they forgive him?

The Yankees are just as concerned about the fans' response. Specifically, they wonder whether Giambi will be able to block out the taunting on the road, although team officials aren't even sure if the Stadium will be a safe haven.

"Jason is going to have to understand his home ballpark may not give him the response he wants," is what Torre was saying after Giambi had left the room on Thursday. That was more of a warning than anything else. The Yankees like Giambi, but without the cold exterior of say, Gary Sheffield, they fear his comeback could shrivel in a hurry, especially if he hits poorly in April.

Even if Yankee fans do embrace Giambi, no one really knows if he still possesses the physical skills that once made him an American League hitting machine. Giambi ended his nightmare 2004 season with a .208 average, almost 90 points below his career mark, having lost much of his bat-speed and once-formidable plate discipline.

Giambi insists a winter of two-a-day workouts and proper nutrition have made him whole again. And if looks count for anything, the slugger looked healthier and more robust on Thursday than at any time in 2004. But none of that will count for much if Giambi suffered any long-term damage since the second half of the 2003 season, which is when he told the grand jury he stopped using steroids.

Since then, Giambi has played with a bad knee, intestinal parasites and a benign tumor in his pituitary gland. For two years, Giambi's path has been pockmarked by setbacks and scandal. Whether his journey will ever be easy again is anyone's guess.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.