100 Greatest Red Sox: # 51 Johnny Damon
Johnny Damon, CF, #18 (2002-2005)
597 G, 730 H, 461 R, 56 HR, 299 RBI, 98 SB, .295 Avg, .362 OBP, .441 SLG
At 9:11 PM on the evening of October 20, 2004, the centerfielder for the Boston Red Sox hit what many have called the biggest home run in Boston Red Sox history. It was a first-pitch swing against New York Yankees pitcher Javier Vazquez, and he hit it into the short-porch seats in rightfield, just a couple of rows deep. It was a grand slam that gave the Red Sox a 6-0, second inning lead in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, in a game the Sox would go on to win, 10-3, and complete the single greatest comeback in the 101-year history of baseball's postseason.
That one swing made Johnny Damon a legend in the annals of the long, storied history of the Boston Red Sox.
Johnny David Damon was born on November 5, 1973 to a white father and a Thai mother on an Army base in Fort Riley, Kansas. His parents met while his father wasa Staff Sergeant in the US Army. Johnny spent most of his early life as an Army brat travelling with his family to several Army bases before the family finally settled in the Orlando, Florida area. In his early life. Johnny suffered from a stuttering problem, which made his a rather quiet kid.
But he excelled in sports, and at Dr. Phillips High School in 1992 he was rated the top schoolboy prospect in the country by Baseball America, was named to USA Today's High School All-America team, and was the Florida Gatorade Player of the Year. He was the 35th overall pick in the 1992 MLB draft, and turned down a scholarship to the University of Florida to sign with the Kansas City Royals.
Damon was the Royals' Minor League Player of the Year in 1994, and the Texas League MVP in 1995, and was brought up to Kansas City in August 1995. He became a regular in the Royals outfield in 1996, hitting a solid .271 and stealing 25 bases in 145 games.
Damon would soon gain a reputation as one of the fastest outfielders in the game, as he was in the Top 3 in AL in triples three straight seasons from 1997-99. His power numbers steadily increased, as he hit 18 homers in 1998. He stole at least 25 bases in three of his first four full seasons.
But Johnny Damon would have his breakout season in 2000, batting .327 with 16 HRs, 88 RBI, and 214 hits. He would lead the AL with 46 stolen bases, and runs, scoring 136.
The Kansas City Royals had a superstar player in the making, but being a small-market club, simply couldn't pay Damon enough to keep him. He was a free agent after the 2001 season, so in early January 2001, he was traded to Oakland Athletics in a three-team deal that also involved the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Damon's first year in Oakland got off to a rough start, and he struggled a good part of the season. But by August, he finally got hot and managed to salvage what was mostly a lost season for him, hitting .256 with 27 stolen bases and 108 runs.
But the A's had a wonderful season, winning the AL Wild Card with 102 wins. They faced the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series, and it would Damon's first taste of the postseason. He would have a fine series, hitting .409, scoring three runs and stealing two bases. But the A's lost a 2-0 series lead, as the Yankees won two games in Oakland and then wrapped up Game 5 back in New York to advance to the ALCS.
The A's would elect not to pursue Damon as a free agent, as GM Billy Beane would rather let the more expensive players walk and rebuild the farm system with draft picks than increase payroll. So Damon walked away, and on December 21, 2001, Damon signed a four-year, $32 million deal with the Boston Red Sox. This would turn out to be the final move by then-GM Dan Duquette, as he was fired in early 2002, as the Red Sox had been sold that winter to John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino.
It would also prove to be one of Duquette's best moves, as well.
Damon would take over centerfield at Fenway Park and make a big splash right away. He was picked for the AL All-Star team for the first time. He hit 14 HRs, 63 RBI and a .286 batting average. He played a tremendous centerfield, and gave the Red Sox an excellent leadoff hitter and stolen base threat, as he swiped 31 bases.
Damon would put up similar numbers for the Red Sox in 2003, but he would be at the top of one of the most dynamic lineups in baseball history. The Sox faded in June of 2002, finishing second and out of the postseason. But in 2003, they got hot in late August and would go on to win the Wild Card in late September.
The Red Sox opponents in the first round would be Damon's former club, the Oakland A's. The Sox fell behind 2-0, losing the first two in Oakland. They returned to Boston and won Game 3 on a Trot Nixon 11th inning homer, and Game 4 on a clutch David Ortiz double in the eighth inning (it also included Damon's first career postseason home run).
Game 5 would be back in Oakland, and it would be a life-changing game for Johnny Damon.
The Red Sox scored four runs in the sixth on two homers by Jason Varitek and Manny Ramirez to take a 4-1 lead. In the bottom of the seventh, Jermaine Dye of the A's hit a pop up top short center. Damon and Damian Jackson, who had just gone in to 2nd base as a defensive replacement for Todd Walker, both attempted to catch it, but they wound up colliding in a horrendous scene that left Damon unconscious for a short time. He was taken off the field by ambulance, but gave the crowd a thumbs-up before he left. The Red Sox would go on to win, 4-3, to advance to the ALCS and a showdown with the hated New York Yankees.
Damon would be forced to miss the first two games in New York. He wanted to play by Red Sox doctors kept him on the sidelines. He would return for Game 3, but he clearly wasn't the same player before the collision. in the final five games, he would go 4-for-20 with just one RBI. The Red Sox would of course, just miss going to the World Series, but once the Sox season was over, Damon would return home to Florida and do something that would alter his career forever.
He let his hair grow, and he stopped shaving.
Damon showed up at spring training in Ft. Myers in February 2004 with a beard and hair down to his shoulders. It was the talk of training camp and around baseball. More than one sportwriter made the analogy that he looked like Jesus Christ. "How can we lose now that we have Our Lord and Savior playing center field?" T-shirts popped up with Damon's new look, and one catchphrase on one said, "What Would Johnny Damon Do?" Damon would later explain that the migrane headaches he suffered over the winter made him tired to the point where he didn't shave for some time, so he kept the beard when he came to camp.
2004 would be Damon's best season to date. He would hit 20 HRs, a career-high at the time, drive in an amazing 94 runs for a leadoff hitter, and hit .306. The Red Sox struggled through a good part of 2004, playing .500 ball for a good three months, before finally getting hot in mid-August and wrapping up a Wild Card berth in late September. Damon would have a terrific ALDS against Anaheim, going 7-for-15 with 4 runs scored in a three-game sweep.
The next ALCS would be a rematch with the Yankees. It would be the worst of times, and then the best of times for Johnny Damon.
The first three games of the 2004 ALCS were a total disaster for the Red Sox. They lost all three, and Game 3 was the worst of all, losing 19-8 before the Fenway Faithful. They were now in a 3-0 hole, and no team in history had ever comeback to win after being down so far. And Johnny Damon was having an absolutely terrible series, going 0-for-8 with 5 strikouts in the first two games. But like that person Damon was once compared to, the Sox rose up and made it a series again. They won Games 4 and 5 both in extra innings and in dramatic style to get the series back to New York. Curt Schilling pitched one of the most heroic games in postseason history to even the series and force a winner-take-all Game 7. But through those three wins, Johnny Damon still wasn't hitting. He was 3-for-29 in the first six games.
All of that was forgotten the next night.
Damon led off with a single to open Game 7, but was thrown out at home on a Manny Ramirez single. David Ortiz would homer on the next pitch to give the Sox a 2-0 lead. Damon's second at-bat would be in the next inning, with one out and the bases loaded. Javier Vazquez came in to relieve starter Kevin Brown. Damon later said he knew Vazquez would try to get ahead with a fastball, so he looked for it on the first pitch and drove it over the rightfield wall near the pole to give the Sox a commanding lead of 6-0.
But Damon's heroics weren't through. In the fourth with another man on, he drilled another first-pitch from Vazquez into the upper deck to give the Sox an enormous 8-1 lead. Two pitches, two homers and six RBI. The previous six days were a long and distant memory for Damon as the Red Sox went on to win, 10-3 and advance to the World Series for the first time since 1986. They had pulled off the greatest comeback ever in baseball history, and they did it to their longtime rivals in their own backyard. It was a gift to every Red Sox fan, and Johnny Damon became an instant legend in Boston sports history.
The NL Champion Cardinals were simply no match for the Red Sox, who were now Destiny's Darlings. Damon opened the World Series with a double, and scored on David Ortiz' three-run shot. The Sox took the first three, and Johnny Damon would personally make sure it would be a four-game sweep. Damon would hit .286 for the Series.
He hit the fourth pitch of the night off Jason Marquis for a long homer to right to open the game and get the Sox on their way. The Cardinals were kept off the board all night, and the Sox won, 3-0 for their first World Series championship since 1918. It set off wild celebrations all over New England and Red Sox Nation.
And it made a national celebrity out of Johnny Damon.
He turned up on "The Late Show With David Letterman," "Live With Regis and Kelly," "Saturday Night Live" and "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy," among other TV shows. He also collaborated with Peter Gollenbock on a biography about his life. (It's a shabbily written book.) He also appeared in the film, "Fever Pitch" which centered on one Red Sox fan's obsession with the team. He had become the face of the club, and you couldn't go anywhere without seeing him that winter.
He had another good season in 2005, but he began to show signs that he was peaking as a player. His arm, never strong to begin with, seemed to be getting even weaker, and his defense wasn't as good as past years. His Home run numbers dropped by half, down to 10, in 2005. He battled injuries, but Damon kept on playing through them. He was in the batting race for most of the year, and finished fourth at .316.
Damon was a free agent after 2005, but most fans thought he would be back. But in mid-December, the baseball world was stunned when Damon, the face of the Red Sox and the man who termed the 2004 club, "The Idiots," signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the rival Yankees. The Yankees desperately needed a centerfielder and made Damon an offer he couldn't walk away from and the Red Sox wouldn't match. It was all the more stunning after Damon made the following statement about the Yankees in May 2005:
"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."
Damon was vilified as a traitor and a turncoat for going to New York. Red Sox fans who once compared him to Jesus were now calling him "Judas." Fans burned Damon jerseys and other Johnny paraphernalia. Damon made his return to Fenway with the Yankees on May 1, 2006, to a crowd that booed far more than they cheered. Damon took the hostile reception in stride. He also had one of his best years in 2006, hitting 24 home runs, 80 RBI and a .285 batting average.
Johnny Damon became a father for the third time this past January, as his second wife Michelle had their first child together, a girl named Devon Rose.
He will always be part of one of the most beloved Red Sox teams in franchise history, "The Idiots" who won the first title in team history since 1918, and one that did it in a way that will be remembered forever in baseball history. But as a businessman, he made a decision to continue his career in New York, rather than stay in Boston for less money. His legacy was at Fenway, but there most fans just look upon him with vile, because of the team he signed on with. If he'd gone anywhere else, it wouldn't be like this. His decision to leave would be more respected.
I can't help but think one day after his career is long over, Johnny Damon will give an inevitable interview about his baseball life. And in it, no matter what he's accomplished from 2006 on, he will say, "I made a mistake leaving Boston. Not signing with New York, but leaving Boston."
We can only hope so.
John Quinn is a writer who lives in New York City and runs the web site, "The Mighty Quinn Media Machine," and writes for the Red Sox fan site, Bornintoit.com, as "Brooklyn Sox Fan."