It is almost hard to believe that former Red Sox icon Johnny Damon is in the fourth and final year of his $52 million deal with the Yankees. His departure following the 2005 season (which served as a prelude, in many ways, to the Yankees' 11th hour swoop on Mark Teixeira this offseason) sent the Sox front office as well as New England into a state of shock.
Since then, Damon has become, in many ways, the epicenter of the New York-Boston fault line. He is booed more lustily than perhaps any other visiting player at Fenway Park. Apparently, Damon has become the defining emblem of Yankee evil when in Boston, a development that no longer troubles him.
To the contrary, the notion that he would be so closely identified with his current franchise serves as a point of some pride. Damon, after all, is hopeful that his time in New York will continue beyond this year.
“I love it so much (in New York) I actually hope it can become longer,” Damon said. “I know I’m getting towards the end of my career, but I’ve enjoyed every moment of being in New York: the atmosphere, the players, the ownership. Everything was great except that this could be my last chance to win a World Series here in New York. … Hopefully, I can be happy in New York for a few more years. It’s tough to keep moving around teams. Hopefully this will be my last.”
While his hostile treatment by Red Sox fans makes it seem as if his departure is still fresh, to Damon, Boston now seems to belong in a far-removed moment of his career. From that distance, Damon still expresses satisfaction not just with the memory of his role in bringing a title to Boston in 2004, but as part of a group that changed the culture of the franchise.
“I’m definitely going to remember what the team accomplished here: winning, changing people’s perceptions of what they thought of Boston,” Damon said during his trip to Fenway. “Before, people didn’t think too much of coming here. Then they brought in characters like me and (Kevin) Millar, it kind of helped change what people around the U.S. thought. It seems like it’s still going. I feel strongly that it’s because of what the players were able to bring here. That part I’ll always remember.”
Even so, four years later, there is still lingering dismay about the end of his tenure in Boston. The outfielder maintains to this day that the Sox made no more than a half-hearted attempt to get him to return to Boston.
“I know deep down that there was no way I was going to come back with the lack of negotiations (by the Sox when he was a free agent),” said Damon. “I knew I wasn’t coming back.”
For the sake of perspective, it is worth mentioning a couple of facts related to that negotiation. The Sox made clear at the time that their four-year, $40 million offer (which represented a raise from the four-year, $32 million deal that Damon was concluding) was sincere.
However, they felt that it was important to set and establish a value for a player who would be in his mid-30s for the life of a four-year deal. Boston was willing to nudge its bid upward towards $11 million a season, but refused to be drawn into a bidding war.
Even in the final hours before news of Damon’s signing with the Yankees broke, agent Scott Boras was calling the Sox to insist that he had a six-year, $72 million offer in hand. That being the case, though the Sox were unsurprised to learn that Damon had turned down their offer and signed with the Yankees (who had both a need and money), they were stunned to learn that he took a four-year, $52 million deal.
Nonetheless, once the initial shock of the deal subsided, the Sox were able to take comfort in their process. The team was concerned that Damon’s age would lend itself to a decline in performance, and a likely move from a premium defensive position to another spot on the field by the end of his contract. As such, the team viewed a move towards youth in center (in the form of Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury) as a sound course when Damon declined their offer.
Damon’s absence was most acutely felt in Boston in 2006, when Crisp broke his finger in the first week of the season and the team never effectively replaced their departed centerfielder while missing the playoffs for the only time since 2003. Since then, however, the team has had little reason to regret Damon’s departure. The Sox won the World Series in 2007 without him, and by last year, his days as an everyday centerfielder were effectively over.
That does not mean, however, that his contract was a bad one for the Yankees, for whom a $13 million annual salary is less of a financial burden than it would be to any other club, including the Red Sox. Damon’s offensive performance as a Yankee has been entirely consistent with what he did as a Red Sox.
DAMON - THE RED SOX YEARS (2002-2005)
.295 average / .362 OBP / .441 slugging / .803 OPS
Average per 162 games: 125 runs, 15 homers, 81 RBIs, 27 steals
DAMON - THE YANKEE YEARS (2006-2009)
.286 average / .362 OBP / .449 slugging / .810 OPS
Average per 162 games: 114 runs, 20 homers, 80 RBIs, 30 steals
“I think that’s how my career has pretty much been. It’s been consistent,” said Damon. “This is my 15th year. I’ve had two bad years, I would say, two mediocre years. The others, I feel, have been pretty good.”
Of course, the one significant change is that Damon now patrols left field rather than a premium defensive position in center. As such, even with his consistent production at the plate, the dynamics of his last free-agent negotiations will not exist when Damon reaches free agency this winter.
He will be 36 rather than 32 when he hits the open market, and so he recognizes that the power will be tilted decisively towards the Yankees in negotiations, especially given the dynamics of the free-agent market this past winter.
Players such as Adam Dunn (2 years, $20 million), Bobby Abreu (1 year, $5 million) and Pat Burrell (2 years, $16 million) made far less than expected as free agents this past offseason. Damon watched them and realized that his options for another long-term deal will be limited.
“There’s going to be concern out there this offseason. I still feel like I’m going to be a pretty good commodity. Hopefully the New York Yankees will think that I’m still very important to them,” said Damon. “I would like to at least get two years, but we’ll see what happens. If I need to take a one with an option or a vesting option, then so be it.”
That contract model is close to the one that friend and former Red Sox teammate Jason Varitek ended up signing with Boston this winter. For Damon, that contract negotiation was something of an eye-opener.
“I couldn’t believe that they were letting him walk and try to find a team,” said Damon. “That’s the difference between New York and Boston. … If you’re a part of New York, they’re going to keep you there: (Jorge) Posada, (Derek) Jeter, Mariano (Rivera), it’s the first time in history guys have been on the same team for 15 years.
“It goes to show you something about how the Yankees think, and how many Yankees players have been exclusive with one team. They keep them forever,” Damon continued. “(The Red Sox) were ready to let (Varitek) go. He’s their starting catcher. That’s how the two teams work. You know his days are going to be numbered here. But hopefully not -- he deserves to be here until his career is over.”
Of course, given that he is now in his 15th season in the majors, the notion of the end of a career is a topic of relevance for Damon as well. A couple years ago, as he struggled while dealing with injuries, the outfielder openly contemplated whether retirement might be near at hand.
For now, such considerations have been set aside. Damon is off to a solid start this year, hitting .276 with a .366 OBP, .460 slugging mark, four homers and three steals. He continues to enjoy playing, particularly in New York, and believes that he can remain a productive player beyond this year.
“(Retirement) is going to be there eventually, but as far as right now, I don’t think I’m quite ready for it,” he said. “It could change after the season, but I feel like I can go a few more years at a pretty good level.”
It remains to be seen where that will be. But it is clear that the drama surrounding Damon’s about where to play after this year will be nothing like it was the last time he reached free agency.