COMMENTARY | Johnny Damon still wants to play baseball.
That much was clear Monday, Feb. 25, when the 39-year-old veteran told ESPN's New York-based radio station, 98.7 FM, that he would be willing to play for the New York Yankees for just the time that Curtis Granderson is expected to miss and would do it for the league minimum.
Granderson was hurt Sunday, Feb. 24, when the Yankee outfielder was hit by a pitch from J.A. Happ of the Toronto Blue Jays in the team's second Grapefruit League game was suffered a broken forearm. He is expected to be out until at least the first week of May.
"You guys know that I would have tons of interest to go to New York," Damon said. "But I just don't think they would be interested. I'm not exactly sure what happened over the years or something.
"They have had plenty of opportunities and I kept raising my hand, wanting to go back and, you know, hopefully it would have been a perfect fit. It always had been. Have me for six weeks and then send me off on my merry way. That's fine."
What happened is what happens to every athlete at some point or another: Damon just got old.
The 18-year-veteran has had a nice career, but the last four seasons have shown diminishing returns. A lifetime .284/.352/.433 hitter, Damon hit .282/.365/.489 for the Yankees during the World Championship season of 2009, with a career-high 24 homers and 82 RBI.
But management must have seen something in the then-35-year-old, because they let him walk away in free agency. He eventually signed a one-year deal with the Detroit Tigers and his numbers slide to .271/.355/.401 with eight homers and 51 RBI in 613 plate appearances.
The Tigers weren't interested in retaining Damon and off he went to the Tampa Bay Rays on another one-year deal for the 2011 season. His numbers continued to fall; he hit .261/.326/.418 for the Rays, although his power numbers jumped back up to 16 homers and 73 RBI in 647 plate appearances.
At the same time his offensive numbers were dropping, his defense was becoming a bigger liability. His throwing arm, never a strong suit, had deteriorated to the point that by his last year in New York, even the league's slowest baserunners were taking liberties on the paths when the ball was hit Damon's direction.
The Rays didn't offer Damon a new deal and he sat through all of last winter and spring training without a job. The Cleveland Indians finally signed Damon in mid-April 2012, but he didn't last the season with the moribund Tribe. He hit .222/.281/.329 with four homers and 19 RBI in 224 plate appearances and was released on Aug. 9.
So why, exactly, would the Yankees be interested in bringing back Damon for a return engagement in the Bronx?
The short answer appears to be: They wouldn't. General manager Brian Cashman told Newsday's Erik Boland via email on Monday, Feb. 25, that the team was "going to focus on what we have now."
To reiterate, Damon has had a nice career. He's a two-time All-Star who played a key role on a pair of championship clubs, the 2004 Boston Red Sox and the 2009 Yankees.
He's accumulated 2,769 hits over his time with the Kansas City Royals-for whom he debuted in 1995, the Oakland Athletics, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Rays and Indians. His 1,668 runs ranks 31st all time. He's stolen 408 career bases at a 79.8 percent clip.
He's not a Hall of Famer; not even close. There's no chance Damon gets enough at-bats-or more importantly hits-to reach the 3,000 plateau, not with him still 231 safeties short of the mark.
Johnny Damon was a solid player for a lot of years, a player who showed a lot of leadership in the clubhouse and was a valuable member of a couple of World Series winners.
It's a nice resume. Thanks for the memories, Johnny, but it's over.
Phil Watson is a freelance sports journalist and commentator currently based in upper Michigan.
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