Commentary

Johnny Damon at 'planned' destination

At least, that's what the outfielder is saying now that he's finally signed with Detroit

Updated: February 22, 2010, 11:44 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

LAKELAND, Fla. -- He made it sound like a dream come true. And it was, right? Had to be, because Detroit, said Johnny Damon, was "where I wanted to be, from Day 1."

Oh, OK. So maybe not Day 1.

Maybe not Day 30. Maybe not even Day 60. Possibly not even Day 75.

But somewhere in there, somewhere in between stealing two bases on one pitch in the World Series and slipping on his No. 18 Tigers jersey Monday, Damon figured out where he "always" wanted to be.

Of course, it became clear, the longer he talked, that "always" didn't exactly date back to birth. Or childhood. Or even, to be technical, Thanksgiving. It actually dated way, way back to, oh, about 26 days ago.

Which was the day the Yankees signed Randy Winn and it became absolutely, positively, 1,000 percent certain -- to Damon and the rest of the world populace -- that he wasn't going to be a Yankee anymore.

But whatever. At that point, for sure, Damon knew the Tigers were "No. 1" on his shopping list. Yep, for sure. No doubt about it.

"I probably felt," he claimed at one point Monday, "like I was a Tiger probably a month and a half ago."

Wait. A month and a half ago? If he really knew a month and a half ago, he owes his new general manager, Dave Dombrowski, about a billion hours of normal life he'll never get back because he used it up the past few weeks trying to finish this deal with Damon and Scott Boras.

"Sorry, Dave," Damon apologized, immediately after that "month and a half" line, "if you didn't know."

"Boy," Dombrowski replied, "I wish you would have told me that."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Damon
AP Photo/Eric GayBy signing with the Tigers, Johnny Damon joins his fifth team in the big leagues.

And boy, we bet the White Sox, Rays and Braves wish he would have told them that a month and a half ago, too. Would have saved everybody a lot of trouble. Not to mention a lot of billable cell phone minutes.

There was a large contingent of New York media in attendance for Damon's welcome-to-the-Tigers press bash Monday, intent on reconstructing his negotiating debacle with his former team. And you can read all about it in those New York papers any second now.

As for the rest of us, we can leave it at this: If Johnny Damon really, really, really wanted to remain a Yankee more than anything on Earth, he screwed this one up. Or Boras screwed it up. Or both.

Whatever went wrong, it's clear there was some sort of massive communication gap between the Yankees and Damon, or between the Yankees and Boras, or between Damon and Boras -- because there was a deal there to be made early in the offseason, and it never got made.

But Damon still leaped to Boras' defense Monday, saying: "Scott Boras and I -- we're at peace. Scott put me in a place that I really wanted to be."

Right. From Day 1.

Regardless of which day Damon really decided Detroit was his kind of town, he's a season-changing kind of guy in that new town. And season-changing kinds of guys don't generally drop out of the sky on Feb. 22.

"To be able to pull this off this late, when it looked like we were going to have some real issues," said Damon's new manager, Jim Leyland, "I mean, that's great. … It doesn't put us anywhere in the standings yet. But it puts us in a better position than we were in two, three days ago. I know that."

And he's not kidding. Two, three days ago, the Tigers were looking at having to fill the canyons left by the exits of their No. 1 and No. 2 hitters, Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, with two rookies -- Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore.

Now, all of a sudden, one of those two spots is going to be occupied by a man who led all top-of-the-order offensive forces in runs scored in the 2000s, and ranked in the top three (along with Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki) in hits and most times reaching base.

So that'll work -- whether Damon hits first or second. And right now, Leyland isn't sure about that. He also isn't sure how he'll split up the left-field/DH at-bats between Damon and Carlos Guillen. But there's plenty of time to figure that out.

What the manager has already figured out, though, is that when he looks at Damon, he sees more than just a bat.

In fact, Leyland had a description of this signing that fits Damon even more perfectly than his new uniform:

"This," the manager said, "is a huge 'presence' move."

Good word -- "presence." It isn't always easy to define what that means. But it's easy to see that Damon has it.

He's a man who can light up any room he enters, a man who shows up for work every day with a smile on his face, a man who definitely aced chemistry class. And right now, just four months removed from a devastating collapse that ripped a playoff spot out from under them, the Tigers need Damon's presence nearly as much as they need his on-base percentage.

Damon I probably felt like I was a Tiger probably a month and a half ago.

-- New Tigers outfielder Johnny Damon

"The way the season ended last year, for every guy who played on that team," third baseman Brandon Inge said, "I'm not going to lie. I still have a burning, ticked-off feeling in me. I can't believe that that happened. So you need that little fire in you to motivate you for the upcoming season, and send you on a different path. …

"You need to throw a guy like Johnny Damon into the mix, to be able to loosen things up so you go, 'All right.' I mean, you need to work. But you still need to have fun. And he's almost the perfect combination."

Oh, he'll make it fun, all right. We've seen very few players over the years who had more fun playing baseball than Damon. But he's also a guy who, for the past eight years, has fed off the energy of Boston and New York.

Now he's in a town where the lights won't be anywhere near that bright. But Damon said that's not going to be an issue.

"The lights don't need to be bright for me," he said. "I'm a baseball player."

And he's a great baseball player, too -- a guy who has put himself into position to make a run at the Hall of Fame if he can keep the hits, the runs scored and the winning coming for another three or four years.

But that's what makes his long, jobless, offseason odyssey so bizarre. He's coming off a season in which he tied his career high in homers (24), scored 100-plus runs for the 10th time, played in more than 140 games for the 14th consecutive year, and might have turned around the World Series with his bat, his legs and his baseball smarts in Game 4.

So you wouldn't have expected to see a guy like that signing a one-year contract on Feb. 22. But when Damon was asked Monday whether he thought, in retrospect, that he and Boras had misread the market, he essentially implied that the market misread him.

"No one really could have anticipated how this market was going to be," he claimed. "I mean, I'm very happy with the deal we eventually signed. But the bottom line is, it's a tough market when you have players like Jermaine Dye still out there, and Felipe Lopez still out there. I mean, that's a tough market."

So no, he didn't see it coming, even though the Yankees say they pretty much spelled it out for him in capital letters before the negotiating season was 30 seconds old. But as he sat at the mike Monday in his Tigers shirt, he still sounded skeptical that the Yankees could ever have said, with a straight face, that they couldn't afford him.

"Any time you have offers thrown out there from the richest team and they say that's all they can do," he said, "well, it's definitely going to be a tough market. … I think it's a shock when you go into the offseason and you win the World Series and you have a good year and the market's tough. But you deal with it. You move forward with it. And that's exactly what we did. I'm happy with how it turned out. And I'm glad to be a Tiger."

He looked out there into the cameras, knowing that somewhere out there were the citizens of that town where he "always" wanted to be. He had one more thing he needed to say.

"Sorry it took so long," he said.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com