Damon's durability, quirkiness defined career

Athletic and memorable outfielder compiled impressive stats

January 1st, 2018

My friend Robert was the first kid I knew who bought baseball cards the way an investor buys stocks.
That sounds more callous than it was: Robert was an enormous baseball fan. He introduced me to the work of Bill James, the thrill of trying to find a distant game through the static on the car radio and the wonder of baseball-preview magazines in February. In many ways Robert made me a baseball fan, rather than someone who just kind of loved baseball.
He also reasoned that if you are going to collect cards (especially once you've become a teenager and other kids had stopped) you might as well take advantage of your baseball knowledge.
As you no doubt know, a player's first card -- his rookie card -- tends to be the most valuable one. This became more complicated as baseball cards became commodities and a bunch of different companies got involved and so on. When we were kids, Topps ruled the world, and the rookie card was the treasured one.
So Robert started to do surprisingly sophisticated research to determine which players were worth investing in. He was the first person I knew to tap Bert Blyleven as a future Hall of Famer. His reasoning: Blyleven had started playing so young and had been so durable that he had 2,357 strikeouts by the end of his age-30 season. That meant he was a virtual lock for 3,000 strikeouts. That meant, at least in those days, that he was a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame.
Robert bought pages and pages of Blylevens. I don't know if he ever cashed in.
Robert's research was not flawless. He and I bought a bunch of Richard Dotson rookie cards, too, for similar reasons as Blyleven: Dotson started very young and was durable, in 1983 he finished fourth in the American League Cy Young voting at age 24, leading us to believe we had another winning stock. That one didn't work out as well.
If Robert was still investing in baseball cards as a middle-aged man, he undoubtedly would have loaded up on Johnny Damon rookie cards.
As recently as 2010, Damon seemed likely to get 3,000 hits. He was 36 that season, played every day in Detroit, and when the season ended he had 2,571 hits, a mere 429 away. If he could stay healthy enough -- and Damon's durability was one of his defining traits -- he could do that in less than three seasons.
The Tigers let him go, but he landed with Tampa Bay and played 150 games. He cracked another 152 hits --- now he was only 277 hits away, and he still had not turned 38. I'd say the odds were probably better than 2-1 that he would reach the 3,000 milestone.
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But age is a funny thing. People don't tend to age gradually; they age all at once.
The Rays let him go, he signed with Cleveland … and he was done. It happened that fast. Damon hit .222 in 64 games. The Tribe released him. And it was over.
He joined that notable group of very good players -- Harold Baines, Vada Pinson, Al Oliver, Rusty Staub, Bill Buckner -- who came achingly close to that magical 3,000-hit mark that might have meant a reserved parking spot in Cooperstown.
I covered Damon from the start of his career in Kansas City. He was drafted in the first round by the Royals and was immediately burdened -- as all the Royals' major prospects were in those days -- with the label of the "Next George Brett." It was a strange time and a strange team. The Royals were so cash-poor in Damon's time (they did not even have an owner; the team was in a trust) that they dreamed up rather nutty ways to inspire loyalty. When Damon came up, the Royals bought him a house in Kansas City. He appreciated the house. He still made it clear he was leaving for more money as soon as he could.

Damon was an unusual player; nothing he did seemed especially smooth or graceful. His throwing motion was this odd multistep process that seemed to be building up to something impressive … and instead the ball would kind of fall out of his hand, helpless, limp, like a firecracker that didn't go off. You could almost hear a sad trombone.
Despite the arm (and he did have 79 assists in his career), he was a fantastic player. It begins with him being a great athlete -- quirky, but great. For one thing, he was virtually indestructible. He played 140 or more games in 16 of his 18 seasons, tied for fourth all-time with a cast of superstars, including Cal Ripken Jr., Derek Jeter and Hank Aaron.
Damon was an otherworldly baserunner. Damon was very fast when he was young (he led the American League in stolen bases in 2000), but his baserunning talents went beyond speed. Damon scored 1,668 runs in his career, 32nd on the all-time list, which is impressive enough. But for Damon, scoring runs was an art form -- most of the players on the all-time list hit a bunch of home runs, which obviously padded their run totals.
Among those who hit fewer than 250 homers, Damon ranks seventh on the list. Every other person in the Top 10 is in the Hall of Fame except Pete Rose, who is his own thing.
Most runs scored (fewer than 250 homers):

  1. Ty Cobb, 2,244
  2. Pete Rose, 2,165
  3. Tris Speaker, 1,882
  4. Eddie Collins, 1,821
  5. Paul Molitor, 1,782
  6. Charlie Gehringer, 1,775
  7. Johnny Damon, 1,668
  8. Paul Waner, 1,627
  9. Lou Brock, 1,610
  10. Tim Raines, 1,571
    On that list are some of the greatest baserunners in baseball history; Damon belongs with them. He scored 100-plus runs in nine straight seasons, and led the AL in runs for Kansas City in 2000.
    Damon proudly called himself an idiot -- and co-wrote a book called "Idiot" -- but he had a unique and innate sense of the game. Remember in the 2009 World Series -- Damon's Yankees against Philadelphia -- when Damon stole second base and then noticed that nobody was covering third, so took off and stole third too? That was a nice summation of Damon's baseball intelligence.
    As a hitter, he was, yes, peculiar, but effective. He had superb bat control and would flare, bloop, chop, clank, fight-off and flick more hits than anyone of his time, with the possible exception of Ichiro. A typical Damon hit would leave the pitcher kicking the mound in frustration; nobody seemed luckier than Damon. But he also hit plenty of shots in the gap and he was brilliant at turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples.
    There are two players in baseball history -- TWO -- with this brew of numbers: 2,500 hits, 500 doubles, 100 triples, 200 homers, 400 stolen bases:
  11. Molitor
  12. Damon
    Even if you take away the stolen-base qualifier, there are still only 11 players on the list and the other 10 are in the Hall of Fame: Stan Musial; Molitor; Willie Mays; Brett; Robin Yount; Rogers Hornsby; Al Simmons; Babe Ruth; Goose Goslin; Lou Gehrig and, yes, Damon.
    Well, you could make a lot of cool lists like this with Damon -- hey, the guy finished in the top 75 in games played (62nd), at-bats (38th), runs (32nd), hits (54th), doubles (48th), total bases (72nd) and stolen bases (67th) -- but I suspect they conceal as much as they reveal.
    There are six Hall of Famers in Damon's top 10 list of "most similar batters," but the most similar -- Pinson and Steve Finley -- are not in the Hall of Fame.
    Pinson is a particularly good comparison; he and Damon were roughly the same player. Pinson stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot all 15 years, but he never got more than 16 percent of the vote. Damon will certainly fall off the ballot after one shot; of the 136 ballots made public, he has received only one vote.
    That's OK, I think. I'd prefer to think of Damon not as a Hall of Famer -- a level I don't think he quite reached -- but as a force of nature who invented his own way to be a star. He was outstanding in the two World Series he played in, and he played a vital part in the Red Sox finally breaking their long championship drought, and he provided many unforgettable moments.
    Think of the way he changed his style, his hair, his look. If there was a Fun Hall of Fame -- and there should be -- he would absolutely be in it.
    And from a personal standpoint: Damon was one of my all-time favorite players to cover. After the World Series game where he stole the back-to-back bases, he was in the postgame press conference and he was asked about it.
    "You know," he said, "I used to be pretty fast."
    He then saw me and pointed at me.
    "Joe remembers," he said.
    I do remember.
    The next day, a New York paper used that quote and wrote, "You know, I used to be pretty fast. Joe [Torre] remembers."
    It was the only time I've ever been confused for Joe Torre, one of the many gifts Damon gave me in his wonderful career.