Johnny Damon has done something few people have been able to pull off: He has remained an icon in Boston even though he signed with the Yankees and became a World Series hero in New York.
After a four-year stint with the Red Sox and postseason heroics that brought a championship to Boston for the first time in almost a century, the outfielder put on the pinstripes in 2006. Damon would play the same number of seasons in New York, and he was a major contributor on the Yankees’ 2009 championship team. He batted .282 with 24 home runs and 82 RBI in the regular season before putting together a brilliant performance in the Fall Classic. Besides batting .364 against the Philadelphia Phillies that October, Damon proved that he could again author the type of magical moment that would stay with a city forever.
With Game 4 tied, 4-4, in the ninth inning, Damon rapped a two-out single, then proceeded to steal second and third in one fell swoop. In front of a stunned crowd at Citizens Bank Park, Damon then trotted home on an Alex Rodriguez double. The Yankees would win the game, 7-4, take a commanding 3-games-to-1 lead in the Series, and win their 27th title back in the Bronx a few nights later.
In September, Damon sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III at the Joe Namath Foundation’s celebrity golf tournament in Farmingdale, New York, to reminisce about that special season.
Before we dive into the 2009 season, take me back to when you signed with the Yankees. What was that process like?
I wanted to either stay with the Red Sox or join the Yankees. I was a fan favorite in Boston, and my first choice was to stay there. When the negotiations with the Red Sox were nonexistent, I had to start looking for a team. I was talking to the Dodgers and Detroit, but both of those teams had already made separate plans. I didn’t think the Red Sox were going to allow it to ever get to the point where I would sign with the Yankees, but New York needed a leadoff hitter and a center fielder. I reached out to the Red Sox one more time and heard nothing from them. That’s when I turned my attention to New York, and Brian Cashman and I ironed out a deal over the phone in about 15 minutes.
Why do you think the Red Sox were so unconcerned with the prospect of you signing with their archrivals?
They thought I was lying about how close I was to signing with the Yankees. (Former Red Sox pitcher) Bronson Arroyo told their front office that Johnny Damon doesn’t lie. But they didn’t pay much attention to him either.
That must have been very upsetting for you. What were those first few days like, after you signed with the Yankees?
It was a whirlwind. I had to shave my beard, cut my long hair and get to New York for the press conference. I had no idea how I wanted my hair to be cut; all I knew is that I had to have the exact opposite look as I had in Boston. Looking back, I wish I was more outspoken in that press conference. I wish I had predicted that we were going to kick the Red Sox’s [butts]. I should have told the world that they had made a mistake in not signing me. You think about those things afterward, but that just wasn’t the kind of guy I was. I was upset with the Red Sox. They told me to buy a house the year before that because I was going to be there for a long time. All of a sudden, all of that was gone. It was time to shift my attention to a new team, and thinking about it now, it had to be New York. That was the only place I could be happy after leaving the Red Sox. I’m glad it worked.
How special was it to play in the very first game at the new Yankee Stadium on Opening Day 2009?
It was incredible. We opened up the Stadium with a few key players in CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira, who was a surprise acquisition. We also added Nick Swisher, who quickly proved that he was a big-time player. We were ready for the season, and we thought we would kick everyone’s butt right from the beginning. We took a defeat in the first game, but we knew that we were going to rebound right away. I was definitely swinging for the fences on Opening Day so that I could get the first home run, but I was still happy to have gotten the first hit there.
It took a month or two for that team to really take off. How concerned were you during the early part of that season?
We weren’t playing great as a team, but I wasn’t that worried because we had a tough schedule at the beginning of the season. We were still hovering, and I kept looking ahead and realizing that it was going to get easier. Everything seemed to start coming together -- pitching, hitting and team chemistry -- that June.
Speaking of chemistry on that team, what was the dynamic like between the older veterans and the young guys?
That team jelled very well. We hung out a lot. I felt like I was able to bridge the gap between the younger guys with the older players to some extent in 2009. We all got along great.
What stands out about the offensive lineup on that club?
We had Robinson Canó, who was one of the best young hitters in the game. Derek Jeter was still Mr. Consistent. That spring, I had a little talk with (manager) Joe Girardi about switching Derek and me in the batting order. Derek usually hit into 30 or more double plays each year, and I only hit into about three. Derek got on base more than me. So, I thought we should take advantage of those statistics by moving Derek to the leadoff spot and moving me back to the two-hole. Joe loved the idea, and it made for longer innings throughout the season. Our new one-two punch was really hard for pitchers to deal with, and when you consider the guys behind me -- Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Cano -- we had the best lineup in the game.
After winning the first game of the 2009 American League Division Series, your team needed a ninth-inning home run from Alex Rodriguez to tie Game 2. How differently do you feel that series could have gone if A-Rod hadn’t propelled your team to a win that night at Yankee Stadium?
The Twins were a scrappy team. They played great defense, so instead of getting 27 outs to work with, we got less than that because they typically robbed us of a few hits. They were scary for sure, and they had a great closer in Joe Nathan. If he had closed it out that night, psychologically, it would have been harder to travel to Minnesota and battle them the way we did in the third game.
Well, you guys came back again in Game 3, closing out the sweep. How would you describe the team’s mood that night at the postgame party in downtown Minneapolis?
Our mood was great. When it started snowing, a few of our players went out to the street, and they were eating the snow as it fell from the gods. Overall, that night was more about spending time together than it was a celebratory thing. We knew that we had a job to do in the next round, but there were a few guys who were eager to have some fun in the snow.
Just as the case was in the AL Division Series, your team won the first game of the American League Championship Series convincingly and then battled back to win Game 2 against the Los Angeles Angels. What are your memories of the 13-inning marathon that lasted more than five hours on that cold and rainy night in the Bronx?
Our team needed to win that game. We had three games after that in Anaheim, and we didn’t feel like we could afford to lose either of the first two at home. It didn’t look good when we got into the bottom of the 11th inning down by one run. Alex came through again with a home run, and we just felt that we had to find a way to win. It seemed to get colder as the innings went along, but we were relieved when Jerry Hairston finally scored the winning run in the bottom of the 13th.
How did you feel about Jimmy Rollins’ prediction that his Phillies were going to defeat your club in the World Series?
The media made a big deal of it, but he had to think that way. You have to have confidence, so I took that with a grain of salt. It really didn’t bother me that much.
The Phillies took an early lead in the World Series when they defeated CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium. How important was it for A.J. Burnett to get your team back on track against Pedro Martinez in Game 2?
That’s why we signed A.J. (Third base coach) Rob Thomson and I had a conversation that October, and we basically said that if A.J. gets hot, we’re going to win the World Series. That was a real swing game, and he came through for us when we needed it most.
Game 4 was another pivotal juncture in the Series, and Philadelphia tied it up with a big eighth-inning home run. When you singled off Phillies closer Brad Lidge with two outs in the top of the ninth, did you feel like your teammates could get a rally going?
I was hoping they could, but Philly really had a lot of momentum. Pedro Feliz hit that home run, and Lidge retired the first two batters in the ninth quickly. When I got to first base, I felt like I had to give us some kind of spark. You don’t win by being scared, and you have to take advantage of the situation that’s given to you.
What transpired next became your signature moment in pinstripes. How did the play where you stole second and then third come to be?
I just told myself that if Lidge picks his leg up, I’m going. He picked it up, and I ran. I knew that the Phillies had the shift on for Teixeira, so there was no one covering third base. Before the play, I saw (third baseman) Feliz standing in the shortstop’s area. (Second baseman) Chase Utley was in short right field, and (shortstop) Jimmy Rollins had no chance of getting to third base. I knew that if the throw into second was behind me, I had third base. When the throw came in, I said, “Thank you very much.” It would have been easier if he didn’t catch the ball, but I was happy that I was still pretty fast at 35 years old. All of a sudden, we were playing Little League baseball, Bad News Bears style.
How many times have you been asked about that play since you retired?
Quite a bit. That’s why I hang out in New York so much and come to events like this. It’s part of history now, and that’s pretty cool. That’s the benefit of not playing anymore; you can’t make any negative plays after you’re retired.
When you made it to third safely, what did it sound like in the ballpark?
You heard a collective gasp. Everyone in the stadium was shocked that I got up and ran to third. I heard later that my own teammates on the bench were yelling, “What’s he doing?” “Does he think he’s out?” “Does he think the inning is over?”
It was quite a heads-up play.
I prided myself on always thinking ahead when I was on the basepaths. And, I was a former track star, so I could accelerate quickly. I knew that scoring from second off of their outfielders was going to be hard. Getting to third put a lot more pressure on Lidge. He knew that we could score on a passed ball, a wild pitch, an error or an infield single. After he hit Teixeira with a pitch, he wasn’t able to get his fastball past A-Rod.
What did you think of your team’s chances of winning the World Series after A-Rod doubled you home in that at-bat?
For starters, I knew that Mariano Rivera was going to close out Game 4 and give us a 3-games-to-1 lead in the Series. You have to like your chances at that point, especially considering that we were going to be playing two of the last three games at home.
I’m sure when you won the World Series, you had even more fun than you did in Minnesota. What can you share about the celebration in the hours after defeating the Phillies in Game 6 of the Fall Classic?
Oh, man, that night was incredible. We all went to some little hole-in-the-wall place and had some cocktails and food. We sang karaoke later in the night. It was surreal.
What does it mean to have won a championship in the Big Apple a decade ago?
It made leaving Boston worth it. I was really upset when I left there, and I was even more upset when they spent a lot of money the next year and won the World Series. But when we won the World Series in 2009, I felt like my transition to New York was worthwhile.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.