Jason Giambi’s Next Training Ground

With baseball in the twilight phase, the All-Star slugger has a full-time Vegas career on deck

“Party like a rock star, hammer like a porn star, and hit like an All-Star.”

I was told by an Oakland A’s fan that Jason Giambi came up with that emotive quote, but I was skeptical. Upon meeting the All-Star first baseman in the foyer of the Hard Rock Hotel’s opulent new HRH Tower before our interview, I thought he could undeniably pass for a rock star, with ripped jeans, faux hawk and tattoos. I didn’t know how to gauge that second simile, but he looks like he could hit a baseball to California.

I suppose I could have asked him. For someone who delivered such a candid line, Giambi is an incredibly down-to-earth fellow. He is star-quality relaxed as we ride the elevator with his entourage (a.k.a. “his boys”) up to a delightfully plush suite, especially considering it’s 10:30 on a Friday night in Las Vegas. His demeanor tells me there’s been no rock-star partying yet—or any other kind of Giambi fun.

In fact, he’s just come from a meeting that ran 30 minutes over. Maybe this is the new Jason Giambi, hard-core businessman who’s transitioning from a 15-year career in the major leagues. He makes very precise eye contact, speaks with an authoritative voice and once in the suite, he takes his seat like the pro he is, satisfying just another chump interviewer with a column to fill (cue my sinking ego). Even when I flat out ask him, “Was that infamous sound bite really yours?” he confirms it with a knowing laugh. “Yeah, that was me.” It’s clear this isn’t the first time he’s been asked about that quotation. He owns it, and the entourage has a giggle, too.

Giambi is no stranger to controversy (he’s OK with that, too) but he’s been good to baseball overall, with a .282 lifetime average, more than 400 home runs and six All-Star appearances. And baseball has patently been good to him, affording a breathtaking lifestyle that includes a house in Las Vegas, an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a house in Cabo San Lucas, a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a ’67 Shelby Fastback, a Range Rover, a Porsche, an Escalade and (why not?) a private jet. All of it only overshadowed by a lifetime of extraordinary memories.

The mere mention of spring training—Giambi’s about to head down to Arizona for a month of baseball with a bunch of youthful athletes who might need shaving tips as much as they need hitting tips—sparks a glint in his eye. “All I ever wanted to be was a ballplayer,” says Giambi, now a pinch hitter and backup first baseman with the Colorado Rockies. “I never wanted to be anything else, not a fireman, not a cop. A ballplayer. And the more people told me I couldn’t do it, the more I wanted to prove them wrong.”

This is a recurring theme throughout the evening. Proving people wrong is not driven by malice, but with an impish grin that conveys he is likely to get his way in the end. “I know I will work as hard as necessary, whatever it takes, in whatever I do.”

Giambi is under no illusions about what it takes to make it in his new training ground: Las Vegas nightlife. “You have to respect this town, you have to respect what people have done, what they’ve achieved. Whatever you have done before you come to Las Vegas, especially career-wise, you need to start again here, prove you can do it here. Las Vegas is a very small family when you get down to it, and I’ve always responded well to that environment, like teammates in a locker room, you know?” So far so good. He’s been a partner in Man Down (as in, you have too many drinks, wake up and text a friend, “I went man down last night”) for a couple of years, and when he has to hit the road for baseball, his business interests are attended to. “I have a family here I can trust. My partner [Cory McCormack] will make sure everything is dealt with. You have to know who you can trust, and I’d take a bullet for my guys, and I know they would for me.”

Giambi has several business interests in the Hard Rock Hotel, including Rare 120º restaurant, the Wasted Space rock ’n’ roll club and Vanity, a nightclub that opened New Year’s Eve and continues to evolve (there’s an after-hours spot planned called After Life, as well as Johnny Smalls, a restaurant where people can catch a quick bite before they hit the clubs).

When I make the mistake of asking a question that implies Giambi is simply the money man for Vanity, the response is swift and unambiguous: “I’ve been involved to the point where I wanted to know what the fabric for the couches was—the littlest things. I drive Cory crazy with this stuff, but it’s really important for me. I’m not just a money man; I want ownership.”

But why be bothered with the hassle and stresses of nightclub décor when he can have someone else do that work? “I’ve been to a million nightclubs. I’ve been talking about this for 10 years. We want people to have an experience. I want to have responsibility for that experience, not leave it for everyone else to do. This is like my baby. One day I will make the transition from baseball into nightlife full time, and I want to be ready for that.” When Giambi was going full steam in his heyday, the party train never really stopped, and his eyes widen as he remembers those days. It’s clear that while he was tearing the roof off various clubs all over the country, he was also taking note of what made that experience work for him. Now those indispensable fundamental features of the good times are being transferred to his projects here.

It is clearly important for Giambi to convey the message of the moment (Vanity) in this interview, but after that he proves to be exceedingly easy company. There’s no brush-off. No hurry to the action downstairs. He’s certainly achieved enough in his career to behave like an arrogant athlete, but that plainly isn’t his style.

“It’s always been important for me to treat people with respect—on the ball field, but also in my nightclub, whether it’s signing autographs or buying a tray of shots. I remember all my first autographs—Tommy John in baseball, Vince Ferragamo in football. That stuff was really important to me, and that’s how I want to treat people. I try to make time.”

And what about the fun? “The truth is, I’ve lived here 11 years now and I do love the action, but you learn to pace yourself. It’s a tight-knit place. It really is a small town in the end. … I love that about Vegas. It really is a small circle. Unwritten rule: It’s like baseball, you gotta look out for your teammates. You look after Vegas, and Vegas will look after you.”

I would be remiss not to explore Giambi’s career, so I asked whether it was possible to isolate a standout highlight. “Yeah, for sure. The greatest day of my life was with the Oakland A’s in 2000 when my teammates carried me off the field [after clinching a playoff berth]. I won the MVP that year, but it didn’t mean as much as when they carried me from the field—that just isn’t done in the big leagues. To know your teammates care like that means everything to me. It surprised me and it shocked me, I was pretty overcome. I’ll never forget that, ever.”

After a pause, Giambi begins again unprompted, ostensibly realizing what this year is going to be about for him, and where he sees himself right now. “I’m not a 23-year-old rookie anymore, I’m 39 years old. And I do feel I work twice as smart, because it’s simply impossible to work twice as hard as some of the young guys. If this is my last year, it won’t be because I wasn’t prepared.”

When he does retire, he’ll miss the camaraderie most. “Someone once said, ‘You don’t miss the game, you miss the guys,’ and I totally understand that. You miss the whole being a part of something. That’s what I have here with Vanity, Wasted Space, the Hard Rock and my other projects. I feel like I’m part of something special, something that’s going to grow, that we can share, and it’s a great feeling to have that.”

Giambi invites me out to Vanity before he leaves the suite with his entourage—another night on the town before he flies out to spring training on his plane. You can’t guarantee much in this world, but his roguish countenance told me a couple of things were absolute certainties: the shots would be on him, and the night wasn’t ending early.

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