Johnny Damon enjoyed time with Rays
Veteran happy for opportunity but misses playing near home
Johnny Damon knew he'd be back at Tropicana Field this season. He just didn't expect it to be in a uniform with "Indians" stitched across the front.
He was Tampa Bay's designated hitter in 2011 -- a position he slipped into when another first-time Ray, Manny Ramirez, retired after five games rather than face a 100-game suspension for failing a drug test for the second time.
Damon had a decent season, batting .261 (fourth-best on the Rays) with 16 home runs and 73 RBIs.
"I expected to be back," he said. "From everything that was said in the final days and during the offseason and hanging out with the players and all that stuff, I think everybody expected me to be back."
It dawned on him that he might not be "as soon as they signed Luke Scott (on Jan. 12). Then I thought there was a possible chance (he'd return) when a bunch of the outfielders were going down (with injuries).
"But it didn't happen. It probably wouldn't have looked good, guys getting hurt and the old man comes in healthy and ready to go, so that didn't work out.
"I miss not being here every day," he said when the Indians visited St. Petersburg, Fla. It "felt like home, playing in front of a lot of Orlando fans (where he grew up) who drove over to see me. And then, obviously, the (Rays) fans truly embraced me."
He's been through this before. Cleveland is his seventh team in 18 Major League seasons. The difference, he said, is that Tropicana Field "is home. This is the place I'm going to come to watch ball games when I decide to hang it up. I'll bring the family, and I'll come see former teammates and all that good stuff."
The 2012 season hasn't gone very well so far. He signed a Minor League contract with the Indians on April 17 and spent two weeks working out at their training camp in Arizona for two weeks -- a very abbreviated version of the five-plus weeks of workouts and preseason games -- before playing his first game May 2.
"I tried cramming everything in two weeks, which could be a reason for the slow start, but I never want to attest to that because, who knows, it might have to happen again next year," Damon said.
In 2012 with the Rays, he had 152 hits, nearly the same as he had in 2010 with the Tigers (146) and in 2009 with the Yankees (155). He began 2012 with 2,723 career hits, 277 short of 3,000. At that point, if he could average 139 in 2012 and 2013 he'd reach the magic number with one hit to spare.
But with each passing game, 3,000 becomes less likely. It is one of baseball's cherished numbers, a virtual guarantee of election into the Hall of Fame. In Major League history, 28 players eligible for enshrinement have 3,000 or more hits, and all but one are in Cooperstown.
For the time being, the 3,000-hit plateau is not on Damon's mind, but, "if I start getting closer, I'll start thinking about it a bit more," he said. "It's always been about winning, and I've accomplished so much in my career.
"Three thousand would obviously be nice, but two world championshops (2004 with the Red Sox and 2009 with the Yankees) ... doing certain things that only certain players have done -- all the stolen bases and triples, and extra base hits -- I'm proud of it.
"I'd never give up the championships for 3,000 hits. That's just not me. I'd rather get one more championship and call it a day."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.