Johnny Damon decided four years in Boston were enough -- especially after the verbal beating he took for leaving. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
First, Johnny Damon made his pledge to stay, and the sentiments were nice to hear. Then he made his plea to stay longer, and that's where it gets tricky.
Damon chose the Tigers over the Red Sox, who'd claimed him on waivers, and from the outside, it seems like a curious decision. From Damon's perspective, it's a worthwhile gamble, to prove to the Tigers he's deserving of another season.
It won't be easy and it might not be plausible, with the Tigers facing plenty of difficult free-agent choices. Sentiment makes people feel good, and Damon's desire to stick with Detroit surely warms a few hearts. He's well-liked, but production trumps sentiment, and his production has been sporadic.
Damon is a great baseball guy, a winner and a hustler, and nobody denies that. He's also 36, with a .273 average and shrinking power (seven homers, 41 RBIs). He knows his numbers won't land him another big contract. He hopes his reputation will.
And speaking with strong emotion before the Tigers slugged the Royals, 9-1, on Tuesday, he enhanced his reputation, at least around here. It couldn't have been that easy to turn down the Red Sox, even though his messy departure from Boston five years ago was a major impediment. The Red Sox are on the cusp of a pennant race while the Tigers, even after five straight victories, are barely within cusp range, nine games behind the Twins.
"I think it sends the wrong message to say, 'Well, here's an opportunity to jump ship,' " Damon said. "I'm not going to do it, not to these guys. ... I love Detroit and I love the fans. The tough thing is, there's no guarantee where I'll be next year. As much as I'd love to be back here, that's something the team doesn't really decide until the offseason. And I'm OK with that."
General manager Dave Dombrowski confirmed that, saying there have been no discussions about next season. He said he hadn't even decided whether to let Damon leave for Boston (Detroit could have revoked the waiver if it didn't agree on a deal), and said Damon has done a "nice, solid job for us."
But Dombrowski also must decide how to handle Magglio Ordonez, officially out for the season with a broken right ankle. Ordonez will be a free-agent, and should rank as a higher priority than Damon.
Saying 'yes' to Detroit
If Damon had acquiesced, the Tigers could have saved almost $2 million. Lots of players are placed on waivers, so that's not a big deal. But because the Red Sox are on Damon's no-trade list, the decision became his.
I think Damon does like it here, and clearly likes his teammates. I'm sure he also appreciates the Tigers were the team to step forward with a one-year, $8 million deal last offseason.
The specter of returning to Boston, where fans fumed when he left, was an issue. If the Yankees or Rays had claimed him, maybe he'd be gone. Damon said the Tigers didn't pressure him either way. Jim Leyland's only advice was to "go with his heart."
"I'm flattered that he obviously likes it here," Leyland said. "He probably hasn't produced quite as much as he would've liked, but he's been fantastic."
If he'd gone to Boston and helped spark a pennant run, Damon would have stirred suitors. Instead, he's trying to cement the connection he's forged here. He enjoys working with younger players, but that's not how the Tigers will make their decisions, not with a batch of their own free agents.
Staying put ... for now
Leyland made it clear Damon wouldn't be pushed aside right now for youngsters, although the Tigers will alter their strategy somewhat in September. Anyone who has watched their hitting slumps knows they need more production.
Damon figures he still can supply it. And after talking to teammates and management, he confirmed his initial belief that he wanted to stay.
"If they needed me to go, I would've gone for them," Damon said. "I wanted the assurance from my teammates they really wanted me here. The higher-ups like the attitude I bring."
As heartfelt as those sentiments are, baseball decisions almost always come down to production and price. Damon's agent, Scott Boras, bargains hard.
On this day, not so subtly, Damon was bargaining softly.
"I hope I'm back, I've made that clear, but there obviously are no promises," Damon said. "I understand the team wants to figure out who they're going to pursue. I don't know if they're going after (Tampa Bay's) Carl Crawford or (Washington's) Adam Dunn or whoever, but I understand the process."
He understands it very well. Damon made one big decision Tuesday, but the Tigers' biggest are still to come.
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