Image via Johnnydamon.com.
Image via Johnnydamon.com.
On a mid-May segment of the MLB Network chat show Intentional Talk, hosts Chris Rose and Kevin Millar attempted to stump outfielder Johnny Damon on past teammates. The duo asked the current Cleveland Indian and 18-year vet where, if at all, he had crossed paths with five other players. He batted 1.000, remembering not only the big-league clubs but also where they’d played together in the minors. "I pay attention to my teammates," he said, laughing that big Johnny Damon laugh. "The tough thing would have been to ask me about my teammates I'm with now. This is the first time I'm actually with them." Throughout the interview, he frequently glanced offscreen to smile and wave at Chicago White Sox players walking to batting practice. He knew every one of them as well. During the exchange, Damon and Millar only addressed each other as "pimp." It was broish and stupid, but the subtext was clear: nothing had changed from when the pair were in the clubhouse together. For Damon, once someone’s a teammate, he’s always a teammate.
That commit to relationships, however, doesn't extend beyond the diamond. In his 2005 memoir Idiot: Beating the Curse and Enjoying the Game of Life, Damon admitted to cheating on his high school sweetheart and first wife, Angie Vannice, frequently. The couple divorced in 2002.
On one hand, we have Johnny the Consummate Teammate, who has made more than $110 million in his career but remembers the guys he played with in Single-A almost two decades ago. Yet we also know Johnny the Selfish Asshole, a man who will not only gleefully cheat on his wife but proudly detail those exploits in a book published solely to take economic advantage of the Boston Red Sox winning their first World Series in 86 years (although he did later apologize for the book thing). But these two sides aren't necessarily all that different. Damon is all id. Johnny does what Johnny wants, whether that's bro-ing out in the clubhouse or cheating on his wife and repping it hard to the world. He's all instinct and action, leaving the questions and moralization to others.
It's a trait that's served him well in the chauvinist baseball culture. Damon seems to be, for the most part, a well-liked member of the clubhouse. (See those interactions with Millar and the off-camera White Sox.) It's all about Johnny, but Johnny is a fun guy, and teams in the middle of a grueling 162-game season need that. He has burned many bridges—leaving the Red Sox to join the Yankees stands out—but that was more about Damon and the fans than Damon and his teammates. Baseball is an inherently selfish game, batter vs. pitcher, not batters vs. pitchers. Damon isn't any different than many of his fellow players; he is just more honest about his intentions.
He's changed little in the nearly twenty years since the Kansas City Royals picked him in the first round of the 1992 amateur draft. But Damon isn't the same guy who hit .304 for the Sox during the magical summer of 2004—he isn't even the same player who hit .261 for the Tampa Bay Rays a year ago. He left his first game for the Tribe with "general cramping"—"I felt it in my hands. Then my back. Then my calves. And I was like, 'Oh my god.'"—and things haven't gotten much better since. At .190, Damon's comfortably below the Mendoza Line, and looks likely to stay on the interstate as long as he keeps swinging at bad pitches in an effort to get 3,000 hits. (His OBP is comparatively solid, but he drew half of his 14 walks during a four-game stretch between May 15 and 18, and hasn't seemed terribly interested in drawing many more) It's unlikely he'll reach the illustrious plateau, finding himself 254 away with just 23 hits in 121 at-bats this season. Likewise, Damon will probably fall just short of the Hall of Fame. Baseball Reference lists the outfielder-turned-DH with a 90 Hall of Fame Monitor and a 46 in Hall of Fame Standards (100 and 50, respectively, indicate HOF quality). MLB TV's Brian Kenny doesn't think Damon will make the Hall, and he's probably correct. He'll keep swinging, but it won't be enough.
Right now, Damon is slowly fading away. In a way, that’s an impressive achievement in itself. You'd expect a me-first man to burn out, not hang around. But that’s exactly what he’s done: 2011 was the sixteenth consecutive season during which Damon played at least 140 games, a mark he shares with Hank Aaron, Brooks Robinson, and Pete Rose. While he’s made two All-Star teams (2002, 2005) and finished in the top 20 of MVP voting four times, the accomplishments that put him near the Hall of Fame—finishing top 50 all-time in hits and top 35 in runs scored—are products of longevity, not dominance.
The 2012 season might be Damon's final one, but he's not treating it any differently. In May, the media swarmed Damon when he returned to Fenway Park for the four-game set against his former team. A reporter, worried the fans might get on the departed star, asked how he expected to be treated.
"Reggie Jackson said it best. He said, ‘People don't boo nobodies.' Some people will boo me, some people will cheer me. But I'm still going to be the same guy with a big smile on my face."
Everyone knows Johnny. He's just being himself. As if he would do, or could do any different.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly used a piece of satire from brushback.com as an example of Johnny Damon's cavalier attitude toward monogamy (and also one particularly oversexed neonatal ward.) We v. much regret the error and the sort of Rabelaisian excess it implies/condones.