Damon Cut, But Is He Dried?

Add Johnny Damon to the ranks of aging veterans now designated for assignment. Barely a day after the Cleveland Indians did it to teammate Derek Lowe, the Tribe dropped it on Damon, which didn’t exactly surprise him. “If we’re not in contention, I’ll be the first one they drop,” he was quoted as saying to MLB.com in May. He was wrong in only one sense: he’s the second one to be dropped since the non-waiver trade deadline expired.

His last stand at an end?

For perhaps one of the only times since he became a frequent traveler, after his Yankee contract expired, Damon allowed the R word to cross his mind and his lips earlier this season. “I’ve been a pretty good hitter throughout my career,” he told MLB.com, “and I still expect that kind of stuff from myself. When it doesn’t happen, you start thinking about [retirement] a bit more.”

To give you an indication about how much respect Damon still sustains, even as he approaches the end of his career, the Indians’ general manager, Chris Antonetti, drove from Cleveland to Detroit to join manager Manny Acta in giving him the news face to face. Men do not drive even 170 miles to deliver bad news to men they don’t respect. Even if they were just about the only ones willing to take a chance on him at all as the season began.

Acta told reporters he thought Damon’s having missed spring training might have hurt him somewhat. Whether or not he was being charitable is just about anyone’s guess.

But it was a far more worthy departure than Damon ended up receiving when the Boston Red Sox let him walk as a free agent after the 2005 season. The Red Sox may have become concerned over Damon’s aging, with his injury history—he’d avoided disabled lists but not a lot of pain playing center field full enough out—not necessarily helping the matter. Formally, they offered him a three-year pact against the five-year deal Damon sought. But as Damon himself noted when he filed for free agency at the time, the Red Sox now had the opportunity “to sign one of those center fielders they’ve been romancing,” or words to that effect.

Knowing the Red Sox were looking for other center fielders even while Damon was posting a season around his career average season surely stung the freewheeling fellow who’d been the spiritual leader of the 2004 Red Sox (We’re just a bunch of idiots who love playing baseball) and a big enough reason why the Olde Towne Team finally bagged a World Series ring after an even more stupefying from-the-grave American League Championship Series triumph.

He was a better than useful Yankee, once the hoopla about his signing with them petered out in earnest. You may remember Damon in May 2005 saying he couldn’t possibly play for the Yankees even if they were going to pursue him with top dollars. Red Sox Nation was so busy remembering that when he did sign with the Yankees that they forgot, or couldn’t bear to know, that the Red Sox were indeed pursuing his successor all season long before standing firm on three and not five years.

The spiritual leader of the Idiots, hitting the ALCS grand slam Boston will never forget . . .

In fact, his performance in four Yankee years was likewise around his career averages; he played well enough in postseason play for them, including helping them win the 2009 World Series. You can look back and suggest the Red Sox were somewhat wrong in letting him go so cavalierly, but you could also suggest that letting him go made it that much simpler to bring along a live wire center fielder named Jacoby Ellsbury in 2007, even if Ellsbury would have benefitted from Damon’s mentorship had they been teammates for his first Boston seasons.

The Yankees, too, would see him leave under some dispute, after Damon out of sheer pride asked them not to make him an offer unless it matched his $13 million-a-year salary under the four-year deal freshly expired. Catching himself a little late, as many proud men do, Damon cut his salary demands but it wasn’t in time enough to stop the Yankees from signing Nick Johnson and Randy Winn for what was, combined, a lower 2010 salary than Damon even at a lower price. Damon signed for a year and $8.8 million with the Tigers, for whom he put up a season slightly below his career average, then moved to the Tampa Bay Rays. He missed time with health issues, but he helped the Rays to the postseason—and whacked a two-run bomb in Game One of the division series, en route a 9-0 rout of Texas, who’d pick up and shove them away without another Rays win.

Damon started 2012 with a minor league deal and was called up in May; he lost his leadoff slot at last, for good, though he had one more shining moment, three hits 20 July against the Orioles, which put him to number 49 on the all-time hit list. He’d made little secret of his one final personal baseball goal, that 3,000th hit, but it doesn’t seem likely he’ll get another chance to do it.

Unlike Lowe, whom the rumour mills have on the Red Sox’s radar for a stretch drive return, assuming the Red Sox have a stretch drive in them, Damon isn’t likely to get the same invitation. There’s no place to put him in the field; and, David Ortiz is now scheduled to return over the weekend, leaving little enough room for Damon’s fading bat as a designated hitter.

Damon at this writing shakes out as all but an average Hall of Famer; he meets 45 percent of the Hall of Fame batting standards by the Bill James measure (the average Hall of Famer: 50), and he scores 90 on the Jamesian Hall of Fame batting monitor. (The average Hall of Famer: 100.) He’s 231 hits short of 3,000, but if he can’t be a full-time player any longer and he’s not considered even a part-time investment, he’s likely to miss the goal. Of his ten closest player comps, four are Hall of Famers (in descending order: Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor, Roberto Clemente, Lou Brock) and one (Tim Raines, who’s a closer comp to Damon than the other four) should be a Hall of Famer.

He may or may not make it to Cooperstown. Professionally, Damon can be proud of a stellar career. Spiritually, of course, he and we will still have the memories. The cheer sobered after Game Three, 2004 ALCS, when he faced reporters after the Yankees made it three games to none with a 19-8 bushwhacking, saying with calm determination, “The good thing about it is, the runs don’t count tomorrow. We really need to play our very best baseball.”¬†The first-pitch grand slam he ripped into Yankee Stadium’s right field seats in the second inning of Game Seven. The one he ripped into the upper deck two innings later. The leadoff double by which he opened the World Series. The leadoff bomb he hit in St. Louis, to launch the Red Sox toward finishing their unlikely Series sweep.

The hustling team player, the cheerful manchild who played the game at his healthiest. Until just about the end, it was as though Damon were still on the Little League fields of his Army brat youth, quietly conquering a fluency disorder by singing to himself, making himself a number one draft pick, and rarely losing his nerve or his verve.

You’d like to hope a man like that, with a glorious enough history for having a big hand in bucking suffocating odds, has a few more innings left to play, yet.

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