Wednesday August 25th, 2010

BOSTON -- The hero's welcome is gone for good, and so too may be the spark the Red Sox needed to make a serious playoff push.

On Tuesday afternoon, Tigers outfielder Johnny Damon told local media that he was invoking his no-trade clause to block a waiver deal to Boston, home of his former employer whose fan base turned on the one-time hero two years after he helped deliver the Sox' first World Series title in 86 years because he joined the archrival Yankees in free agency.

This could have been a redemption story for Damon, who has been mercilessly booed in each subsequent trip to Fenway Park as a visitor, but instead will stand as the final unforgivable act for a fan base that feels scorned once again, having missed its last and best chance to add a player to help make up the 5 1/2 games it trails the Rays and Yankees in the American League East.

Each of about a dozen Red Sox fans approached before Tuesday's night tilt with the Mariners was rained out said they would have cheered Damon had he returned, even by those who added to the jeers the past several years.

Why the change of heart? "He'd have been in the Red Sox uniform," said Greg from Boston, as he stood behind Grandstand Section 22. "That's how Boston works."

It was hard to imagine he wouldn't have received the same thunderous ovation afforded other former Sox players from the 2004 championship team upon their returns, including those, like shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who was heartily welcomed despite the sour terms on which he left. Damon is, of course, forever a part of the history here. He branded the '04 team the "Idiots," and a pair of his autographed batting gloves still sit in a World Series display at Fenway Park.

Fair or unfair, that the news of the Red Sox claiming Damon leaked put him in the uncomfortable position of making a very public decision. Had he returned, many fans would have overlooked his time with the Yankees because he was actively choosing to come help Boston. A poll on wasn't quite as clear-cut as the responses of the fans at the game but still more than 60 percent of its respondents were in favor of Damon getting a second stint with the Red Sox.

Even a fan who blasted Damon's initial decision to leave -- which prompted the sale of contraband T-shirts near the park that read, "Looks like Jesus, Acts Like Judas, Throws Like Mary" -- said a moment later that he would have welcomed the player's return.

"It was just the stupidest thing," said Don from Wellesley, who only gave his first name. "He said he wanted to retire with the Red Sox and then he signed with the Yankees. You can't say one thing and do another. If he went to any other team, it probably would have been cool. But the Yankees? C'mon."

Sitting next to him and wearing a Carl Yastrzemski T-shirt was Tim Cleveland, the son of former Red Sox pitcher Reggie Cleveland, who agreed that he too would have cheered Damon.

After all, the need was obvious. Given the injuries to Mike Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Red Sox needed a veteran outfielder who would give them quality at-bats and lighten the load on rookies Ryan Kalish and Daniel Nava and journeyman Darnell McDonald, but Damon didn't need to play the role of team savior.

Though Damon is not having his best season -- he's batting just .273 with a .361 on-base percentage and seven home runs -- he has experience in pressure situations and would be a significant upgrade to Boston's left-field platoon. Even his weak throwing arm could be hidden at home, where it's a small field in front of the Green Monster.

The selfish decision, one made purely to bolster his baseball legacy, would also have been to choose Boston. He's only 462 hits shy of 3,000 and thus at least a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, so any heroics he may have contributed to the Red Sox' stretch run -- or even in the postseason -- could have gone a long way to enhancing his credentials. Worst case, he could have earned himself more money as a free agent with a strong finish to the year while playing for a pennant.

Catcher Jason Varitek, Damon's teammate from 2002-05, said he reached out to the outfielder in a recruiting effort and, speaking Tuesday, sounded disappointed that Damon didn't return to revive the old glory days.

"I don't know the particulars of what he's had to base his decision on," Varitek said. "I only know what Johnny has meant here and what he has done as a player and what he is as a teammate. He would have been a big addition to our team."

Few others on this team understand that, as only Varitek, pitcher Tim Wakefield, designated hitter David Ortiz, closer Jonathan Papelbon and first baseman Kevin Youkilis played any meaningful time as Damon's teammate.

"It's on Johnny," Youkilis said. "He had that right [to veto the trade]. If he likes where he's playing and he loves his teammates and loves Detroit, that's a good thing for him and Detroit. You can't be mad at people, and the waiver wire's a crazy thing anyway. It's his decision, so we've got to respect it."

Said Papelbon, "The game's tough enough when you're in a place where you want to be and a place where you're happy. I find no real reason to leave that. Johnny's going to do what's best for him and his family. I've always admired Johnny since I came here in '05, and he was one of the players that took me under his wing and showed me the ropes of the big leagues."

Instead, Damon looks like he's shying away from meaningful baseball.

He may have offered the platitudes this week that the Tigers were still in a playoff race, but at 10 games behind the Twins in the AL Central and 15 games behind in the wild card race, the reality is that the Tigers' season is done.

On Monday, Damon was noncommittal, saying he never considered the possibility that he might be welcomed back in Boston and adding that he was already leaning against moving. Those words may well have been earnest all along, but at the time they sounded like they could have been part of a careful negotiating ploy, one designed either to set up a return to Detroit as a free agent this offseason or to garner leverage for some additional compensation in exchange for waiving his no-trade clause. There was even precedent for such a move: Last season, Mets closer Billy Wagner only relented on a waiver trade after the Red Sox agreed not to pick up his option for 2010.

But by Tuesday, Damon had made up his mind, saying that he believed the Tigers could at least make the division race "interesting" despite the long odds.

"I've said all along I love playing for Detroit, for the city, for the fans," Damon told reporters in Detroit. "These guys really like me here.

" ... I know going to Boston probably could have helped out my free agency. But so be it. I felt like, when we started this season, this team was all together in our thought process. We're going to win and lose together."

One can't speculate on how a late-season trade might impact his family, but in a strictly baseball sense, the decision was clear. While he may have feared upsetting Yankees fans by playing again for the Red Sox, there was a better chance New Yorkers would forgive him than Bostonians would because his move was not directly from the Yankees to the their rivals.

And so after flattering the Tigers the way he did, Damon had already covered his tracks for a return to Detroit, and so he should have taken this six-week stint -- or longer with a playoff berth -- to rehabilitate his name in Boston, which in turn could have helped move him a little closer to Cooperstown, too.

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