I’m Going to Miss Johnny Damon

This column was originally published on WFAN.com on Feb. 1, 2010.

There was a time when the thought of ever being a fan of Johnny Damon’s was laughable. Of course that was when he was patrolling center field for the Red Sox. But after watching Johnny Damon for four seasons in the Bronx, it’s going to be tough to see him go.

Damon – with some help from postseason hero Kevin Brown – played the lead role in the most devastating defeat I will ever endure in my lifetime as a sports fan. When the self-proclaimed “idiot” turned around a first-pitch fastball from Javier Vazquez in Game 7, he ended the deciding game of the ALCS in the second inning. By doing so, he silenced the “1918” chants forever, and kicked off the beginning of my college career in Boston in the worst possible way.

In October 2004, there were few, if any, athletes I despised more than Johnny Damon. I didn’t think I could ever forgive Damon for his Game 7 granny and the deep depression that his one-handed swing drove me into. That all changed prior to the 2006 season when Brian Cashman realized he couldn’t possibly justify having the highest payroll in the league with Bubba Crosby as his Opening Day center fielder. I had spent the last four years using every ounce of my body to dislike Johnny Damon and now I was being asked to do a complete 180 on my feelings toward him.

The thought of Derek Jeter laughing uncontrollably at Damon recapping his Saturday night in Manhattan, or Damon watching Everybody Loves Raymond re-runs with Mariano Rivera in the clubhouse or creating a special handshake with Jorge Posada was too much to bear. I pictured his Eephus-like relays dying in the outfield. It made me want to puke.

Eventually I came to accept the fact that Damon was going to be a Yankee whether I liked it or not. Once I was able to put aside my emotions from Oct. 20, 2004 and think rationally, there were two immediate positives to Damon becoming a Yankee:

1. The Yankees would finally have a real incumbent in center field to Bernie Williams. Cashman had been trying for the previous two seasons to replace Williams in center. His Kenny Lofton experiment in 2004 worked out as well as Jay Leno at 10:00. In 2005, he brought Tony Womack in to play second base, but Robinson Cano’s emergence relegated Womack to the outfield where he was ineffective. That same season Cashman called a 20-year-old Melky Cabrera from Triple-A too early and his short stint ended with an inside-the-park home run in Fenway at the rookie’s expense. Cashman’s lack of roster depth kept Bubba Crosby on the team long enough that his collision with Gary Sheffield in Game 5 of the ALDS cost the Yankees the series. With the signing of Damon, Cashman was bringing in a proven center fielder who could still play the position (or so we thought), and was still capable of producing offensively.

2. There is really nothing that can erase Oct. 17-20 of 2004, the four darkest days in the history of the Yankees. But if anything could put even the slightest blemish on a week that made me light-headed to look up on Baseball Reference, prying Damon away from the Red Sox could. David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Curt Schilling will always be the most recognized players when it comes to the run that reversed the 86-year curse in Boston, but it was Damon who was the center of attention of the 2004 Red Sox. Damon was the founding father and ring leader of the “Idiot” culture the 2004 Red Sox lived by, and along with Kevin Millar, the duo turned the Red Sox clubhouse into Delta Tau Chi. It was Damon’s appeal that helped turn Red Sox home games into social events, attracting pink hats and a crowd whose primary concern seems to be what inning beers sales end. Johnny Damon had become the face of the Red Sox, personifying the change the franchise had undergone by erasing the losing mentality from the team and the city. By stealing Damon away from the atmosphere and environment he helped create in Boston, the Yankees did more than just acquire their rival’s leadoff hitter and center fielder. They acquired the heart and soul of their rival, and at the time it was the only possible remedy – outside of winning another championship – that made 2004 hurt a little less.

Damon’s career in New York went according to plan. He used the short porch in both stadiums to his advantage, served as a run producer at the top of the lineup and was eventually forced out of center field after years of crashing into walls began to take a toll on his body. The Yankees got exactly what they paid for with Damon, as he was as good, if not better than he was in Boston. There were few surprises when it came to his performance.

After four entertaining seasons, a brilliant base-running decision that will make for a nice “Classic Moment” commercial on YES and a world championship, it doesn’t look like Damon will be returning to the Yankees. However, it seemed unlikely that Damon would be a Yankee when he was sporting a Christ-like beard, so never say never.

Damon is still playing the same free-agent poker game he chose to play with the Red Sox during the holiday season in 2005. Except this time no one is calling his or Scott Boras’ bluff. Some Yankees fans are offended that Damon has decided to hold out for every last penny this offseason, but if you have followed Damon’s previous contract negotiations, his decisions this winter should come as no surprise.

If being a fan favorite in Boston and part of a championship-caliber team couldn’t keep him with the Red Sox at their price, why would Damon sing a different tune under the same circumstances with the Yankees?

Damon has always cared about winning; he has just cared about money more. To his credit, he has never tried to hide the fact that he will go wherever the most money is, even if that means taking offers from non-contenders in baseball Siberia. Damon remains a true reminder that Major League Baseball is a business, and that hometown discounts and loyalty are no longer a part of the game. Then again, it’s hard to blame a player trying to get every last penny he can on what is likely the last multiyear contract of his career.

Cashman and Joe Girardi have preached about getting younger across the board for the last two years, and it just so happens that Damon is being used as the example for their newly instituted philosophy. Locking up a 36-year-old defensive liability with a well below average arm doesn’t really fit their long-term plan. The Yankees never met Damon’s minimum of two years, $22 million to stay in New York, and now it’s Feb. 1 and he is still a free agent.

It took the Yankees eight years of coming up short to spend $423 million on the top three free agents in one offseason. It took the first championship in nine years for the Yankees to decide they needed to work under a budget.

Damon will end up in Oakland or Tampa Bay or San Francisco – somewhere that isn’t the Bronx or Boston. No matter where he goes, it won’t compare to the two cities he has spent the last eight years in.

It will be odd to see Damon return to Yankee Stadium in another uniform, though I won’t miss his unorthodox routes to fly balls or throws that roll to the feet of the cut-off man. But I will miss the clutch at-bats and his patented “point” during roll call.

I thought I’d never say this, but I’m going to miss Johnny Damon.

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