Johnny Damon's strange new role: the best player without a job
Opening Day, two weeks in the offing stateside, likely will be without Johnny Damon in the big leagues for the first time since 1995, when he was a 21-year-old prospect in the Kansas City Royals system. No team has offered him a job, though last year with Tampa Bay he had 152 hits, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases in what was his 16th straight season playing more than 140 games. Damon, 38, spends his days at home near Orlando and takes batting practice at his old high school field.
"We have heard from teams who say 'We have interest in the guy but we want to see what our players are going to do,'" said his agent, Scott Boras. "We have not had a team make a commitment to Johnny Damon. Johnny has made it clear he is looking at playing."
Damon has the unwanted distinction of being the best player without a job. Every day that passes pushes him further from 3,000 hits (he has 2,723) and closer to a retirement not of his choosing. He has made $110 million and won world championships with the Red Sox and Yankees, but he has been forgotten in a hurry. What he must do now is wait for someone else to fail or be injured.
Damon is not alone. In the new ageism of the testing era, players in their late 30s are looked upon as declining assets who may not stay healthy enough to give whatever it is they have left. Better to trust a younger player, especially when defense is a question for the veteran. And so of the top 15 "active" leaders in hits, six of them still are unemployed: Ivan Rodriguez, Damon, Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, Edgar Renteria and Magglio Ordoñez. Hideki Matsui and J.D. Drew also have not found work.
The older player today stands one poor season away from being done -- or in the infamous case of Jermaine Dye, one poor half. Dye entered the 2009 All-Star break hitting .302 with 20 homers, but he hit .179 with seven homers in the second half as his defense deteriorated. He never played again (though he did get offers, just none he found suitable). He was 35 years old when the door closed on him.
Damon's case is the strangest of all the unemployed elders looking for work today. He has remained remarkably durable, he still can play the outfield part time (Boras would not rule out the possibility of an NL job for Damon), he is a positive clubhouse presence and he put up decent numbers for the Rays. Damon (.261/.326/.418 with 16 HRs and 73 RBIs) posted similar numbers at the plate as Jimmy Rollins (.268/.338/.399 with 16 HRs and 63 RBIs) and Chris Young (.236/.331/.420 with 20 HRs and 71 RBIs).
Damon did get a few nibbles, but no offers. The Yankees, after a split between upper management and field staff, chose to sign Raul Ibañez, 39, who is older and coming off a worse year. (Damon made sure economics were not an issue, telling the Yankees he would play for whatever they would pay Ibañez.) The Orioles opted for Wilson Betemit, 30, a career-long utility player. The Rays chose Luke Scott, 33, who only once has had more RBIs than Damon had last year. The Athletics chose Manny Ramirez, 39, a two-time drug offender who had one hit last year before his "retirement" and must serve a 50-game suspension. Ibañez (.065), Betemit (.138), Scott (.267) and Ramirez (.167) have not distinguished themselves this spring. What hurts Damon is the perception that he is a DH without power -- though he has played 52 games in the outfield the past two seasons and did hit those 16 homers for Tampa Bay.
Said Boras, "If the rule with older players is just look at what he did last year, the stats are there."
Unlike most veterans who are being shunned, Damon has stayed healthy.
"It's like [Greg] Maddux," Boras said, in reference to another client who remained durable throughout his career. "When you have the genetic toolbox these guys have, they're different. Johnny Damon has played 140 games for 16 years in a row. The reality is there is no one that does that. You've got to look at how few games he misses. He is the Greg Maddux of position players because he can do something over an extended period of time with frequency. That's why my belief in his value as a player is so great, because he carries this unusual behavior."
Asked if Damon's quest for 3,000 hits is a potential problem with teams, who might think he won't be happy with part-time work, Boras said, "He knew with the Yankees that would have been 450, 500 plate appearances."
Damon's plunge into this purgatory -- neither wanted nor retired -- is one of the stranger disappearances given how he played last season. (Guerrero, 37, is another weird fadeout, though he has creaky knees and hit just three homers outside Camden Yards last year.) Dave Kingman hit 35 home runs in his last major league season, in 1986, but what often is forgotten is that he did get a job with the Giants for 1987. He was sent to Triple-A Phoenix, where he hit .203 with two home runs in 20 games, whereupon he retired. Dye could have played with the Cubs in 2010 or Dodgers in 2011 but did not like the terms of their offers.
Both Damon (.743 OPS) and Guerrero (.733 OPS) would rank among the more abrupt forced retirements in the past half century, if they are sidelined for good. Here is where their final seasons would rank according to the most hits in a final season since 1962:
If there is one case most similar to Damon's it would be the story of the man who ranks 11th on that list: Kenny Lofton, who had 145 hits (and a .781 OPS) between his time with the Indians and Rangers in 2007. Here is how the last year of Lofton compares to the 2011 season for Damon:
Lofton could not get a job offer after a good season, so he was forced into retirement. Damon is staring at the possibility of the same fate, unless an injury or an extended slump by another player forces a club to reconsider. In that case, this close to spring training, Damon might find himself in the odd position of having to go to the minor leagues to get back to the majors. He hasn't played a minor league game since 1995 at Double-A Wichita.
Damon happens to be one of five veteran Boras clients without a job. Pitcher Mike Gonzalez, 33, who is coming off knee surgery, has been cleared to run and soon will invite clubs to watch his bullpen sessions. Rodriguez, 40, has mulled over interest from Kansas City, but with a son, Dereck, 19, in the Twins system, he may opt to continue spending time with family or wait for a better opportunity. Ordoñez, 38, coming off ankle surgery, only recently began running and taking fly balls and is still deliberating on what he wants to do. Drew, 36, has no imminent plans to announce his retirement, but he is home in Georgia and has no plans to play this year. He is home by his own choosing.