There was a time not long ago when Johnny Damon was ready to walk away from baseball. According to Joe Torre, in his recently published memoirs The Yankee Years, Johnny Damon was not sure if he wanted to continue playing, showing up late to spring training in 2007 while mulling over the decision of whether to continue his career. With a World Series championship under his belt and big contract from the New York Yankees paying his bills, the player, according to his own admission, had lost his passion for the game. Commenting to Sports Illustrated's John Heyman about the 2007 season, Damon confessed, “I was just exhausted … burnt out. [Retirement] definitely crossed my mind.”
Two years ago it was the Yankees who were left wondering about the return of one of their marquee players. Now, ironically enough, in the final year of his contract with New York, it is Damon who is left in limbo, desperate for a return to New York — wanting badly to finish his career as a Yankee – even while the prospects of his resigning are cloudy to say the least.
As it is, the Yankees feature a packed outfield with Nick Swisher, the injured Xavier Nady, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner, Hideki Matsui, and Damon all capable of playing the position. In addition, highly touted prospect Austin Jackson is currently tearing through AAA, posting a .344 average and a .426 OBP for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees minor league affiliate. While Matsui likely will see little time playing the field, the future of the Yankees outfield would seem likely to involve Jackson, Gardner, and the recently revived Cabrera, leaving Damon's possible function with the team beyond 2009 unclear.
As Johnny himself said to 1050 ESPN New York, "I know where I want to be next year, I want to be here in New York. I also know New York has a lot of young outfielders coming back. Austin Jackson is in the wings. At least, in this situation, I know my chances of coming back could be slim because of the young talent the Yankees do have.”
But in the face of these seemingly insurmountable odds, Johnny has made a resounding case for a new contract with his bat. Damon's hot start has been well documented, but importantly he has kept up his consistently proficient batsmanship throughout the season. Johnny's .327 batting average is a solid 37 points above his career average, and his stellar .393 OBP has been crucial in terms of run production for the team.
And while his main role in the power-laden Yankee lineup is as a tablesetter, Johnny has also displayed a resurgence of the power he displayed when he slammed a career high 24 home runs in his first season as a Yankee in 2006. While Damon had only 17 home runs all of last season — actually not bad for him — he has 10 already this year in only 150 at bats. Add to that his 28 RBIs and especially his completely uncharacteristic 1.006 OPS (.877 is his career high) and Damon has proved to be a complete and versatile offensive force for the Yankees. A vital producer when the club was struggling, in the midst of the team's eight-game winning streak, Damon has provided constant RBI opportunities for the sluggers that follow him in the lineup, scoring 32 runs leading into Wednesday night's game, good enough for 10th in all of baseball.
Damon, now 35, has seemingly matured with age. Once a brash, slick, self-assured "hired gun" that moved from Kansas City to Oakland to Boston and finally to New York — following the money trail — Damon is now fully aware that the time has come to put the finishing touches on what will ultimately be his baseball legacy. While concepts of this broad a scope were most likely out of the realm of consideration for the 21-year old-Royal, for the 35-year-old Yankee his words indicate that these things have obviously taken on a new importance. "I respect everything that the Yankees stand for and how they conduct their business," Damon told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I would love to say I'm going to be back. This would definitely be the best place for me."
For many years Johnny Damon never had to worry about his starting job on whatever team he played for. His combination of speed, ability to hit for average, and patience at the plate has been invaluable to every squad that has employed his services. But as the aging Damon watches the next generation of Yankee outfielders rise up around him, and finds his own place on the team in doubt, he is showing a dedication and vigor for the game that has been absent from the talented player's on-field persona for some time. As Damon himself said, while acknowledging the realities of his current situation, "If I go out and play the game well and play the game right, there obviously will be some interest, but I understand the business of this. I’ve been a free agent twice already.”
On the field, Damon's dedication to the franchise is self evident, but the real tell as to whether he truly wants to finish his career in the Bronx may come in the offseason during contract negotiations. If Damon wants to stay a Yankee and is as realistic and contrite about his role on the team as he has professed in the media, then he will be willing to accept less than what he may feel he's worth monetarily, possibly even moving into a part time role on the club, something Damon would definitely not be accustomed to. But in the twilight of his career (thanks Dan Duquette), if his priorities are focused on winning one last championship ring — and not on signing one last big contract — Damon may be in more control of his fate than even he realizes. Johnny's bat has made the arguement so far this season but it remains to be seen if his ego and integrity can close the deal at the year's conclusion.