The ever-cool Johnny Damon is embracing his newest challenge, one he hopes is a precursor to a Major League reprise.
Team Thailand, which has aspirations of making the World Baseball Classic, has brought Damon back to his roots. His mother, Yome, comes from the country, where baseball still has immense room to grow. And Damon is loving it there.
In a text message from Thailand, Damon didn't identify himself as Johnny Damon.
"Thailand Johnny," he wrote.
It might be some time before that catches on.
"Not too many people know about baseball and who I am," said Damon, who's running clinics and making goodwill visits while he trains with the team. "Guys who play baseball and people from the U.S. [know who I am], obviously. But, yeah, it's a different environment. And it's cool to see the Thai people, and see how my mother grew up and how much further we need to help out and try to get fields out here and try to get better equipment for these kids.
"It's a challenge. Playing in the big leagues was a challenge. But I think this is probably going to be a tougher challenge -- trying to get these guys to that next level."
Damon's agent, Scott Boras, reportedly said last week that Damon wasn't sure he wanted to return to pro ball after the World Baseball Classic -- which is still in a qualifier stage. Damon, who turned 39 on Monday, was definitive: He wants to be back in the Majors. And if that doesn't work out, he's happy to go out by helping Team Thailand.
The Indians released Damon in August, after he hit .222 in 224 plate appearances.
"Of course I didn't like the way the season ended this year," Damon said. "I definitely thought I was going to be picked up by somebody. But it didn't happen that way. I didn't want to leave baseball that way. I hope I can still get a job. You have to be honest with yourself and say, 'Well, back home, a team didn't pick me up at the end of the season.'
"If this is the end for me in baseball, I just want to go out on a positive note, spreading the game of baseball. And represent my mom's country ... I feel [she] is a big reason why I've been able to stay fast, strong and durable throughout my career. So I thought it was a great opportunity to help raise awareness of baseball in Thailand, try to help them get on the map -- but also it could be a nice departing present."
Damon thinks it could take 10-20 years for baseball to really thrive in Thailand. Its opponents in the WBC qualifier, a modified double-elimination tournament, are New Zealand, Chinese Taipei and the Philippines. The games will be held in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Thailand's first game in the qualifier is scheduled against the Philippines for 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday at Xinzhuang Stadium. A winner of the qualifier is to be crowned by Nov. 18, and that country would advance to the 16-team World Baseball Classic, which starts in March.
"[Baseball is] really almost non-existent [in Thailand]. Guys play softball more here," Damon said. "This is actually very good timing that I can come out and talk about it. There are some talented guys who may have been equivalent to, [in] the U.S., ... Double-A [players]. There's still some work to do. There's not fields for kids to go and play baseball. I think they are working on building a field closer to Bangkok now that's going to have turf, so that's a start. ... This could be a region that's successful in baseball.
"It's going to take years," he continued. "It took Japan a very long time since Babe Ruth went over there on a goodwill tour. You're looking at 10 years, maybe 20 years, for it to get going [in Thailand], if it gets going."
There are a few Major League clubs Damon hopes will give him a look. He lives in Orlando, Fla., so a team that holds Spring Training in Florida would be ideal.
"I'm hoping there's a couple of teams who may be interested," Damon said. "Tampa Bay -- hopefully we can go down that avenue again, maybe the Marlins, maybe even Houston. ... Maybe Atlanta, you know, I'd like to try to stay somewhat close to home. I'm sure there's a few other teams that I'll consider, but hopefully those are the first teams that may call. If not, I'll continue to [live] my life and carry on the good game of baseball to whatever."
Damon will be best remembered with the Red Sox, and he talked with Boston last season. While the Red Sox fell out of the race early, the club did invite back their 2004 World Series championship team as part of Fenway Park's centennial celebration. Damon, of course, was a key part of that team, and he wanted to be a part of the celebration -- as a player. They couldn't make it work.
The Red Sox needed help in the outfield, and if they came calling this year, Damon would love the chance to come back.
"Yeah, absolutely. I was hoping for it this year, too," Damon said. "I told them I would show up to the eight-year anniversary if I'm a player. They couldn't work around the 40-man roster, so I didn't show. But yeah, yeah, I would love to. I think everybody knows now that it's about wanting to play, wanting to not settle into retirement yet."
Damon thinks Yankees fans could be understanding to that, too, if he went back to Boston.
"I don't think any fans could despise that, because I've given myself opportunity to try to go back to former teams and all that stuff," Damon said. "I don't think it's going to be, 'I can't believe you're going back.' It's water under the bridge now. I gave the Yankees plenty of opportunity to bring me back, so I know their fans can't be too mad."