Johnny Damon Blew It
Johnny Damon blew it.
And not by signing with the Detroit Tigers a few days ago. That was just more fallout.
No, Damon blew it in December 2005, when he agreed to sign a free agent contract with the New York Yankees.
Let me start by saying this: I’m a Boston Red Sox fan, but this isn’t a fan’s rant about how Damon turned his back on Red Sox Nation to join its most hated rival. The thought never really crossed my mind.
This is simply a practical look at a short-sighted decision made by Damon and his camp four years ago, one that will haunt him for years.
The Red Sox were a year removed from a miraculous World Series title when Damon’s four-year contract concluded. Of course, this wasn’t just any World Series championship, and in New England, it wasn’t just any miracle. This was the championship that ended “The Curse,” the victory that soothed years of heartbreak, the title that had eluded generations. That the Red Sox downed the hated Yankees in a first-of-its-kind comeback only made the win that much sweeter.
It was won by a team of personalities. Manny was being Manny, Big Papi was clutch, and Bronson Arroyo was in cornrows. Curt Schilling was forging a legend with his bloody sock when he could pull himself away from calling in to local radio shows.
Damon was one of those leading personalities. Popular in the clubhouse and the stands, his moniker for the team – “The Idiots” – was embraced by Red Sox fans everywhere. But he was more than just long hair and a caveman beard. Batting leadoff, he finished in the AL top ten in hits, walks, and runs. His two home runs, one a grand slam, helped clinch Game 7 of the ALCS and seal the history-making series against the Yankees.
Had Damon never done another thing in his life, he would have been revered in Boston and throughout New England. He could have retired on the spot and made a living doing endorsements, signing autographs, and simply being Johnny Damon.
I grew up outside Philadelphia, and I remember Tug McGraw. Tugger was a Philadelphia institution after he retired, appearing in commercials and getting a regular gig with a local TV station. He was everywhere – and Tug never even won a World Series! Imagine the life Damon would have had!
But Damon wanted to keep playing. I don’t begrudge him for that. In fact, he wanted to keep playing for a while, more than the three years the Red Sox were offering. Scott Boras, Damon’s agent, was asking for five years or more. With the Boston front office in relative disarray after the resignation of Theo Epstein, Boras wasn’t getting it. The Yankees swooped in and offered four years. What was a guy to do?
Damon did the unthinkable.
Just months after famously saying, “I could never player for the Yankees,” Damon was looking for a barber so he could conform to New York’s dress code. He said about his decision, “They [the Yankees] showed they really wanted me… I tried with Boston.” And then, in classic Damon fashion: “I wasn’t quite sure what happened.”
To a fan base where the Red Sox are religion, Damon’s desertion was blasphemous. Discussions of years and dollars did nothing to explain away the betrayal, even in this modern age of sports as a business.
When Damon returned to Fenway Park as a Yankee in May the following season, he was met with an outpouring of vitriol that only Judas would have known, had he ever played center field. Red Sox fans made it quite clear to Damon that they didn’t want him anymore, ever.
Fast forward four years to the end of his Yankee contract. Damon is richer, and he won a world series in New York. Still, I imagine he’s come to the private realization that it was nothing like the title in Boston. It was historic in that it was a championship, but it wasn’t an achievement that changed the psyche of city, if not an entire region. It’ll get him invited back for Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium, but he’ll be just a role player, not a marquee attraction.
This off-season, Boras bungled Damon’s negotiations and misinterpreted the market for his client. He kept Damon in the news in all the wrong ways until the sad merry-go-round stopped with the Tigers. Detroit was “where I wanted to be, from Day 1,” said Damon. Really? I mean, really?
In watching all of this unfold, and reading Damon’s comment, I couldn’t help but think. If there were a place Damon should have always been able to return, a ballpark that always should have welcomed him, it was Fenway Park. Whether his trademark locks were flowing as he rounded third or he crept across the grass with the aid of a walker, Damon would have always been at home with Red Sox fans.
I could picture Damon throwing out first pitches for years, visiting the Sox television booth to offer absolutely nothing of substance but a smile and fond memories. He’d be doing commercials for products he couldn’t comprehend and companies he couldn’t pronounce. No one would care.
When Damon passed away, we would have wistfully recalled a season that changed anyone who experienced it. We’d have talked about the man who bestowed upon us “The Idiots.” We would have recalled a grand slam that, by then, we’d probably say actually left Yankee Stadium.
Instead, he’s just that guy who played center field before Coco Crisp. And he has no one to blame but himself.