Johnny Damon: No Longer Just an Idiot, Now Also Pathetic

Johnny Damon:  A Model Idiot

Johnny Damon: A Model Idiot

While a member of the Red Sox in 2004, Johnny Damon famously referred to himself as an “idiot,” and since that time, he has seemingly done everything in his power to substantiate his claim.   Last week, however, Damon proved that he is much more than a mere idiot; he’s also pathetic.

In the wake of Curtis Granderson’s wrist injury that will likely cost him the first six weeks of the regular season, Damon saw an opportunity to reignite his fading career.  Last week, Damon, who has drawn virtually no interest from Major League teams since being released by the Cleveland Indians last year, immediately went on the offensive by appearing on Michael Kay’s radio show and then speaking with as many of the Yankee beat writers as possible.  Damon made it clear that he wanted another chance to play for the Yankees.

In stark contrast to every other point in his career, Damon explained that money was not a factor and that he would play for the minimum salary.  In fact, Damon added, he would agree to only play for the six weeks Granderson is expected to miss: “I would play for the minimum for six weeks.  If Granderson returns, I would leave. If there’s no room for me, I’m gone.”

While Damon’s offer generated plenty of buzz and speculation in the New York media (which was quickly quashed by Brian Cashman), this gesture has to be seen for what it is:  the pathetic end to Damon’s career.

Damon, who was once viewed as a lock to reach 3,000 hits and as being a legitimate Hall-of-Fame candidate, played key roles on two championship teams (2004 with the Red Sox and 2009 with the Yankees).  Indeed, after his second World Series victory, Jayson Stark opined that Damon was “a guy who has put himself into position to make a run at the Hall of Fame if he can keep the hits, the runs scored, and the winning coming for another three or four years.”

Unfortunately, Johnny Damon was also the guy who measured his perceived status in the game by the size of his paycheck.  Accordingly, whenever he became a free agent, Damon always sought to have his next contract be the biggest contract possible, regardless of whether the situation was the right fit for his skill set or how joining that team would affect his legacy.

Damon was considered an above-average major league regular until he had a breakout year at age 26 when he led the league in stolen bases with an .877 OPS (still his career high).  After a fall-back-to-earth year with the Athletics, Damon seemed to find his home after signing a four-year deal with the Red Sox. There, Damon blossomed from a recognizable name into a national superstar.  He was never shy about expressing his opinion and appeared to always be enjoying himself on the diamond.  By 2004, Damon had become the unofficial leader of the team of idiots.  With his long hair and beard, Damon had a devil-may-care attitude, and his teammates and Red Sox fans bought in.

More than anything else, Damon was the anti-Yankee.  The Yankees were stoic, stiff, and business-like.  Damon was loose, goofy, and always looked like he was just awaking from a nap.  Yet, this attitude carried the Red Sox past the Evil Empire, and they went on to win the World Series in 2004.  With this victory, Johnny Damon appeared to solidify his permanent place in Red Sox lore.

The following season, Damon was an impending free agent, but he assured Red Sox Nation that he would never sign with the Yankees:  “There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they’re going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.”

When his contract expired in 2005, both Damon and the Red Sox publicly expressed a desire to have Damon re-signed.  Despite the proclaimed mutual affection, Damon – through his agent, Scott Boras – quickly made it clear that he would sign with the highest bidder as Damon’s camp stated that the starting point in negotiations was $84 million.   The Red Sox ultimately offered Damon a four-year $40 million deal to remain with the team.  But when the Yankees proposed a four-year $52 million take it-or-leave-it offer during the Winter Meetings, Damon did not even blink before signing on the dotted line.

And, just like that, the free-spirited, bearded, and long-haired symbol of Red Sox Nation – the anti-Yankee – was gone.  Damon agreed to shave his beard, cut his hair, and fall in line with the “Yankee way.”  During his introductory press conference, Damon explained that he “tried everything” to return to the Red Sox, but that it could not work out.

“My message to Red Sox fans is I tried, I tried everything in my power to come back, but unfortunately, I know they’re going to be upset.  I’m always going to have a strong feeling about them and I’m always going to remember the great times and the World Series and [how] three out [of my] four years there, we made the playoffs.  . . . .  I just want them to know that I appreciate them and I tried and that’s the least I can do. I know they’re going to continue to root for the Red Sox, which they should, and I’m going to win another World Series, so that’s going to have to be right now. It’s going to be tough to say bye to some of the greatest fans in the world. Unfortunately, they had to see this day and it’s time to move forward.”

After four seasons in pinstripes, Damon again became a free agent in 2009.  The Yankees had just won the World Series, and Yankee fans appeared to finally embrace Damon.  Tailoring his swing to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short right field, Damon tied a career-high with 24 homeruns (a career high he originally set during his first year as a Yankee).  Over his four years with the Yankees, Damon averaged 102 runs, 19 home runs, 74 RBI, and 23 stolen bases per season to go along with a .285/.365/.458/.821 slash line.  However, despite the success, there were some signs of a deteriorating player.  For example, after serving as the team’s primary center fielder for 2006-2007, Damon was moved to left field in an attempt to hide his declining range and worsening arm.

Once the 2009 season ended, both Damon and the Yankees stated that re-signing Damon was a priority.  Following the same playbook from 2005, Damon, through his agent, again made it abundantly clear that his goal was to attain the highest annual salary possible.  The Yankees offered Damon a two year contract worth $14 million.  Apparently oblivious to his declining defensive skills, Damon scoffed at the offer and feigned indignation:  “I heard that [my offer] was pending, but I really didn’t care too much.  It wasn’t going to be taken. . . . . I definitely wasn’t in the mode to take it.  Taking a 40 percent pay cut just didn’t seem to be the right thing.”

Ultimately, the Yankees traded for Curtis Granderson and signed Nick Johnson and Randy Winn (!!) to fill the left field and DH roles.  Johnny Damon settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Tigers.  Unsurprisingly, playing at the more cavernous Comerica Park, Damon’s power numbers took a dive, and his overall statistics looked decidedly mediocre.  In the following seasons, Damon then had to settle for one year deals with the Rays ($5.25 million) and the Indians ($1.25).  His time with the Indians came to an unceremonious end when he was dumped mid-season after posting downright abysmal stats over 200 at-bats.

This offseason, the name “Johnny Damon” has been mentioned infrequently during the “hot stove” discussions.  Damon’s agent, Scott Boras, spent the offseason thumping for his higher profile clients (such as Michael Bourn, Josh Hamilton, and Nick Swisher).  In truth, Damon isn’t even an afterthought for teams; he’s simply not a consideration.

Apparently, Damon saw Granderson’s injury as a legitimate opportunity, but Damon’s appearance on Michael Kay’s radio show reeked of desperation.  Damon sees that the end of his playing days is near here, and since he has always paid close attention to where he ranks on the all-time lists (for hits, doubles, and runs), he probably realizes that his career statistics place him on the outside looking in for the Hall of Fame.   Although Damon has been a part of two World Series titles, he has no other tangible accomplishments.  He has never won a Gold Glove Award and his highest finish in the MVP balloting was 13th.

Ordinarily, I would feel sad for the once-great athlete who is desperately trying to stay in the game, but I feel no such sorrow or pity for Damon.  Damon consciously and consistently made the choice to play for the highest bidder.  Please don’t get me wrong – it was certainly his right to seek the highest salary possible.  However, that was his choice, and he has to live with it.  At some point, Damon made the decision that earning the most amount of money was his goal in baseball.  I have no sympathy for a player who was so shortsighted that the only factor he ever considered when deciding where to play was the dollar amount of the contract being offered.

More than the fact that Damon’s only goal was to maximize each contract, the biggest reason I feel no sympathy for Damon is because it appears that he still doesn’t get it.  He said this to Kay last Monday

“You guys know that I would have tons of interest to go to New York, 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 be a perfect fit. It always had been.”

Damon’s “not exactly sure what happened?”  The Yankees had “plenty of opportunities” to re-sign him?  Damon’s doltish comments parallel the ones he made after signing with the Yankees in 2005 when he assured Red Sox fans that he “tried everything in [his] power to come back.”  It appears that no one ever told Damon that he didn’t have to sign with the team that offered the most money.

Normally, when a person sees that the end is coming, they begin to reflect upon their decisions that led to this point.  Things that a person may have thought were important 10 years ago now may no longer seem as important.  One would think that looking back on his quest to maximize each contract without consideration of the locale he was stepping into must fill Damon with pangs of regret.  How many more home runs would he have if he played at Yankee Stadium instead of in Detroit and Tampa Bay?  How many more runs would he have scored batting In the Yankees lineup?  More than that, what would his legacy have looked like if he had remained with the Red Sox for 8 to 10 years as opposed to becoming a Yankee?

However, I don’t think Damon regrets his prior decisions.  I honestly think Damon simply does not understand that his prior decisions had repercussions which he is now feeling.  Much the same way, I don’t think Damon comprehends why Red So fans don’t like him or why the Yankees did not re-sign him despite the fact that Damon “kept raising his hand.”

Johnny Damon’s begging for a roster spot was the pathetic act of a desperate man, and his recent statements prove to me that he is, indeed, nothing more than what he has always claimed to be:  an idiot.  At least Damon can find solace in the fact that he is a rich pathetic idiot.