NEW YORK – There is a defiance in Johnny Damon’s voice, one seldom stirred and then by only one device: the Boston Red Sox. Damon is generally a passive observer or a clown who trolls through the New York Yankees clubhouse quoting “Talladega Nights” – “Shake and bake,” he likes to say – and not a firebrand apt to running his mouth.
Yet here are the Yankees, with a vice grip on first place in the American League East, with a team poised to make a run at the World Series and, not coincidentally, with Damon the flint for the rest of the lineup’s steel. And there are the Red Sox, beaten down, their No. 1 hitter campaigning for the MVP award, their No. 1a hitter injured and showing up less than two hours before game time, their manager having coughed up blood, their fans forgetting any kind of grace period the 2004 World Series victory – the one with Damon and his bunch of Idiots – was supposed to buy.
And though it’s not in Damon’s nature to kick anyone when they’re down – well, it hasn’t even been a year since the Red Sox lowballed him in contract negotiations, and breakups take far longer to reconcile.
“I gave them every opportunity (to sign), and that’s why I don’t feel bad,” Damon said. “I don’t feel like a traitor. I don’t feel like a sellout. I just feel bad I tried to do it for those fans, and now they treat me like this, call me this.
“I just wish I didn’t try as hard to go back.”
A few grains of salt in a wound hurt enough. An entire lick burns like the seventh level.
All year, acrimony between Damon and the Boston organization has infused the rivalry, Damon’s defense of David Ortiz (the braggart) and Manny Ramirez (the sloth) notwithstanding. During the five-game sweep at Fenway Park, Damon pummeled Red Sox pitching, and even with his 0 for 4 in the first game of back-to-back doubleheaders here Saturday, he still had 13 RBIs against Boston this season, more than he has against any other team.
“It was pretty clear they thought I was getting too old,” Damon said, this time without a hint of bitterness. “I was banged up at the end of the season. Because I played hard. That’s how the game goes. It’s a big swing, because New York is an opportunity.”
“Really?” chimed in teammate Aaron Guiel.
“I like you here better,” Guiel said.
Damon, 32, is an ideal teammate. He plays hard. He’s got talent. He siphons media attention from the rest of the Yankees. He hits for average (.293), power (22 home runs, a career high) and when he needs to (.363 in close-and-late situations). If Damon had anything resembling a throwing arm, they might try to clone him, and as it stands he got $52 million over four years from the Yankees.
Next to Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore, Damon is the best leadoff hitter in the AL, certainly one of the five best in the game and, perhaps most important, an exponentially better player this year than his Boston replacement, Coco Crisp.
“It wasn’t even as much that we signed Johnny,” Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield said, “as we took him away from Boston.”
Not that the Red Sox’s troubles with health – from Ortiz’s heart palpitations to starter Jon Lester’s lymphoma diagnosis to manager Terry Francona’s hacking up flotsam from a blood-thinner OD – would have been solved by Damon, of course. It’s just that he’s been so good, it makes you think.
About his nasty collision with Damian Jackson that concussed him or his monster home runs in Game 7 of the 2004 AL Championship Series. About his christening the Red Sox’s merry band of marauders “Idiots” or his dance in the batter’s box, a two-step that he somehow tempers in time to fling his bat head at the ball.
Johnny Damon is a great baseball player, and memories of that don’t die. Though the numbers sometimes don’t vet it, the combination of statistics and persona will. His teammates and manager and coaches and general manager respect him to the point it’s cloying. When the Yankees’ captain, Derek Jeter, walked by Damon on Saturday, he stopped, tipped his cap and said, “Jonathan.” Damon’s given name isn’t even Jonathan – he was born Johnny David Damon – and still, the air of formality pervades.
Because with Damon, the Yankees believe, and with the World Series drought they’re in – relatively speaking – belief is a powerful emotion.
“We haven’t won since 2000,” Damon said, “and these guys are pretty hungry.
“It hasn’t come yet, though. You can’t be happy with what goes on until you win the World Series. Reflection takes success.”
For one moment, Damon broke his own rule. He has been in Kansas City and Oakland, in Boston and New York, in two of the more apathetic markets and the two most rabid. Everywhere Damon goes, he massages himself into the center of attention, knowingly or not, and the people love him.
Who, then, loves him the most?
Damon leaned back, his mind racing like the stock cars he loves so much, before he said: “I’ve only been a Yankee for nine months. Hopefully, when it’s all said and done, the greatest love will be here.”
He sounded genuine. He sounded like he meant it. He sounded like someone who’s glad he didn’t go back.
- Johnny Damon