Damon still valued presence

His worth hasn’t declined in Detroit

Unwanted as a free agent, Johnny Damon has fit in with the Tigers. He got this shaving cream greeting after a walkoff HR. Unwanted as a free agent, Johnny Damon has fit in with the Tigers. He got this shaving cream greeting after a walkoff HR. (Leon Halip/Getty Images)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / May 15, 2010

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DETROIT — Johnny Damon kept the 2004 World Series ring he won with the Red Sox at home during the four years he spent with the Yankees. But now, as a member of the Detroit Tigers, he wears it regularly.

“It wasn’t a popular topic in New York, but I have some great memories in Boston,’’ Damon said last night. “That ring means a lot to me.

“Winning the championship, that’s always going to be remembered. That and playing with guys like Kevin Millar, Billy Mueller, Pedro [Martinez]. The list goes on and on. The players we had were a special bunch.’’

Damon said the same was true in New York, particularly last season when he helped the Yankees to their 27th title. But when Damon became a free agent, the relationship soured.

After protracted talks with the Yankees that turned contentious at times, Damon agreed to a one-year, $8 million deal with the Tigers Feb. 21.

“I think what’s going on in this game is they’re trying to make players desperate. I was just sitting around waiting,’’ Damon said. “I contacted Detroit because I had an interest in playing for them. Detroit was where I wanted to go.’’

Damon has been a good value for the Tigers. He went into last night’s game against the Sox hitting .293 with a .405 on-base percentage, but then went 0 for 5 from the No. 2 hole in the Tigers’ 7-2 loss. Manager Jim Leyland used him last night as the designated hitter, but he has also played left.

“We love him,’’ Leyland said. “He gives us something positive almost every day.’’

At 36, Damon does not have the speed he once did. But he has maintained his power and the ability to work counts and get on base.

“I take good care of myself, I enjoy what I’m doing, and I’ve been very blessed,’’ he said. “I’m just glad I can keep putting on a uniform and be somewhat productive.’’

Damon has defied those who thought his all-out style of play would lead to a rapid decline in value.

“When he was with us, it’s hard to find a guy that you appreciate more,’’ Sox manager Terry Francona said. “Running into walls, he plays every day, he plays hurt. I thought the way he played, maybe it does catch up to you. But it hasn’t. He’s found a way to still be productive. He’s a good player.’’

As always, Damon is a positive influence in the clubhouse. He recently purchased his teammates bathrobes with their names embroidered on the back and the Detroit logo on the front.

“He’s a great guy to be around,’’ said Austin Jackson, who got to know Damon in the Yankees organization. “He was one of the leaders when he showed up. He brings people together.’’

The Sox, Damon said, did not contact him last winter and he acknowledged that a reunion is unlikely, even if he agreed to be a part-time player.

“It’s something that was great while it lasted,’’ he said. “But I moved on and they moved on. I’m looking forward to going back there. I hope the people are nicer to me this time now that I’m not a Yankee.’’

Damon follows the Sox and is rooting for some of his former teammates, particularly David Ortiz.

“The team wouldn’t be what they are today without David Ortiz. He’s meant so much to this organization,’’ Damon said. “Unfortunately in this game, people only look at what you’re doing now and not what you did in the past. David is going to turn it around. This is a tough game. People know that to be successful against the Red Sox you need to slow him down and teams focus on that.’’

On certain days, when he wants to be particularly flashy, Damon wears both his Red Sox and Yankees World Series rings.

“Being one of the select few to have rings in both places, I feel very honored,’’ he said. “Now I’m shooting for another ring with another team.’’

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