Damon Looking To Still Make His Mark On and Off the Field
By Mike Brandyberry
It wasn’t the start Indians outfielder Johnny Damon wanted, so instead he is just focused on the finish.
Damon, who was signed by the Indians on April 17 with the hope to provide some offensive pop, was activated to the Tribe 25-man roster on May 1. Originally slated as the Tribe’s leadoff hitter, Damon struggled mightily.
Without the necessary six weeks of Spring Training to prepare for the season, he opened the year hitting .152, going 12-for-79. He swung his way out of the leadoff spot and back to the bottom of the order, where he platooned with Shelley Duncan. It would be easy to point to no Spring Training as the reason for Damon’s poor start, but he feels other factors were in play.
“I think it was probably more mechanical,” Damon said. “I felt good up there. I never felt like I was lost or anything. I felt good and I’m normally a slow starter regardless.
However, fans who thought Damon’s signing weeks earlier was a great spark to the offense, quickly felt the 38-year old outfielder could be done as a Major League Baseball player.
“I wasn’t swinging the bat great, but I felt good,” Damon said. “I understand baseball though, sometimes when you feel good, hits don’t come.”
The slow start was frustrating not just to fans, but to Damon himself. An 18-year veteran and two-time All-Star was fearful this could be the end of the road for his career, one he is not ready to hang up yet.
“It starts with the bat and I know what I need to do to stay in the league,” Damon said. “No one is happy with the numbers. You do have to produce and hopefully it will be a better second half for me.”
Damon took to the batting cage, early batting practice and video to analyze and work on his swing. Throughout May, Damon could often be found out for the Indians’ optional, early batting practice. On the road he took to the batting cages early, working on the hitting tee to make the mechanical adjustments necessary to find his old swing. The hard work has started to pay off.
“I’ve been putting in quite a bit,” Damon said. “I get in the gym and ride the bike to make sure my legs are fresh, even on days I don’t play. I go in the cages and work with my swing. Right now at the plate, I feel good, I can cover any fastball and foul off pitches. The extra work and early BP has helped.”
Once the calendar turned from May, Damon has seemed to become more of the ballplayer the Indians thought they were signing in mid-April. Since May 30, Damon is hitting .274 (23-84), with four doubles, a triple, three home runs and 12 RBIs.
While his offense has rebounded, he’s continued to work on playing defense, too. Damon has not played the field regularly since 2009, but has never let that aspect of his game go. He’s always continued to work to take fly balls and stay physically strong.
“I always prided myself to get out there regardless of how the body feels,” Damon said. “I like the fact that I can go out there and show that I can still be decent out there. Everyone expected the offense to be a little better and the defense a little worse.”
Damon’s work ethic has been noticed by his teammates. His work and drive to get back to the player he has been, combined with his two World Series rings makes his a player many of the young Tribe players gravitate to in the clubhouse. Damon was a key member of the 2004 Boston Red Sox and 2009 New York Yankees World Series championships.
“Players talk to me quite a bit. Some of it happens before and during the game, but a lot of it happens after the game when we talk about what could’ve happen and what we tried to make happen,” Damon said. “The last three years have brought back the fun again. You’re out of the big markets and the constant attention.”
He helped lead the Red Sox back from a three game deficit in the 2004 American League Championship Series to win in seven games. In the decisive game, Damon hit a grand slam to help give the Red Sox a commanding lead. Now Indian Derek Lowe pitched six innings for the win in the game.
Away from the spotlight the last three seasons, Damon has enjoyed teaching young players the game. He enjoyed his time teaching Austin Jackson the nuances of the game, along with the young core in Tampa last season, and now in Cleveland. His message to each core has been to play the game with pride and make a mark.
“My biggest thing is, don’t play the game just to collect a check,” Damon said. “Play the game to leave a mark. That’s what Frank White told me when he was a coach for me in Kansas City and that’s something I take with me every single day. I want to leave a mark. I want these guys to talk about me 20 years from now and say I was a big influence in their career.”
Photo: Bob Levey/Getty Images