Thursday, January 21, 2010

Another Point Of View On Damon

Good morning Fackers. While the great left field/Johnny Damon debate rages on, it's a far cry from last year at this time when the pilot light had all but burned out on the Hot Stove. After a gluttonous pre-Christmas spending spree that saw the Yankees land CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira, we were all fat and happy. There was some talk about whether Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady would be the right fielder, or whether Melky Cabrera or Brett Gardner would be the center fielder, but for the most part we were sitting around waiting for Spring Training to start.

The biggest topic of conversation at this time last year centered not around the team for the upcoming season, or even the previous season, but upon the manager that had departed the team more than a year prior. As news of Joe Torre's and Tom Verducci's The Yankee Years began making the rounds, much of the chatter centered on the dirt Torre dished on his twelve years as the Yankee manager. Inside stories that had previously not been discussed much, if at all, garnered newfound media attention. One such story was about Johnny Damon, and I was reminded of it yesterday.

In the morning, Bob Klapisch of The Record had a story suggesting that Damon might just retire if he doesn't receive a suitable contract offer. Klapisch cited "a friend of Damon" who said "Johnny is in complete family mode right now", implying that retirement is a real possibility. The Klapisch story inspired a score of other blog postings on the topic, and was later refuted by Dave O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who tweeted that a friend of Damon (presumably a different friend than the one Klapisch consulted) stated that Damon is not considering retirement.

I'm inclined to believe O'Brien's friend of Johnny, and think that whatever friend Klapisch spoke to (Jon Heyman maybe?) is just trying to apply what little leverage Scott Boras and Damon have left after grossly overestimating the market for his services. But if there is some validity to Klapisch's speculation it wouldn't be the first time Damon has considered retirement. And if we take The Yankees Years at face value, the results weren't very pretty the first time.

During the 2006-7 off-season, Damon allegedly did not work out at all. As he may be now, he was very much "in family mode", and reported to camp out of shape and somewhat disinterested in baseball. Early in camp he approached Brian Cashman and Torre, stating he was contemplating retirement. He left camp for a few days to ponder his future, but eventually returned. But his late start hampered him. It took him some time to round himself into shape, leading to nagging injuries and poor performance throughout the early part of the season.

Torre further speculated that Damon still wasn't completely committed to playing baseball, and The Yankee Years suggests that a disinterested Damon lost much of his characteristic enthusiasm in the clubhouse and on the field. It further states that Damon's performance and attitude drew the ire of several teammates, notably the "old guard", including one unnamed teammate who approached Torre "near tears" suggesting that Damon had to go for the good of the team.

I'm not suggesting that all of that is the gospel truth, but in general terms, I'm willing to believe it's mostly correct. Verducci has direct quotes from Damon about the situation at that time, and nothing in his statements denies out and out that this was an issue. Damon's current contract situation, or lack thereof, makes it something of a different kettle of fish this time around. But there is some precedent for an uncommitted Damon reporting to camp, and if The Yankee Years is to be believed, I don't think that's an experience the organization wants to relive.

Another thing to consider are comments made by Brian Cashman early in the off-season. Speaking in general terms about free agents, Cashman speculated that not only do players not want to take pay cuts, but that they're less likely to take them from their previous team. It's an easily understandable theory, and if correct, I imagine the potential is greater for such a player to be a malcontent when returning to his previous team than it is when joining a new team. Buster Olney speculated that such a thought process might have played a role in the Yankees' December negotiations with Damon.

None of this is meant to disparage Johnny Damon. I'm of the opinion that he would be helpful to the 2010 Yankees, and if Jerry Hairston's comments to Jim Bowden on XM last night are to be believed, the Yankees are still in on him. However, virtually all of the discussion regarding Damon and the Yankees has revolved around salary - and salary is likely the biggest issue on the table. But, if the recent past is any indication, when it comes to Damon there may be more issues to consider other than if there's enough loose change in the couch cushions to pay his salary.