Point of no return

Damon rejects a move to Sox

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 25, 2010

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All Johnny Damon needed to hear from Tigers manager Jim Leyland and/or general manager Dave Dombrowski was reassurance that the team still wanted him and would continue to play him.

If Leyland told him the Tigers, well out of the postseason race, were going to go with their youngsters, Damon would have agreed to join the Red Sox, who put in a waiver claim on their former outfielder Monday.

But that’s not what he heard.

Leyland told him, “Do what your heart tells you.’’

But that wasn’t all Leyland said.

“Is he going to play here the rest of the season? Yes, he’s going to play,’’ Leyland said. “Is he going to play every game? No. He hasn’t played every game up to this point.

“Am I going to sit Johnny Damon on the bench and forget about him? No, he’s going to play a lot. Am I going to look at a kid once in a while and give him a day? Yeah. It’s that simple.’’

That’s all Damon needed to hear. So he ended the suspense about whether he would accept a trade or assignment to Boston by announcing to the Tigers media shortly after meeting with Leyland yesterday that he was staying in Detroit.

Damon said he thought long and hard about a return to Boston. He was encouraged by a poll in which more than 60 percent of almost 5,000 respondents were in favor of him returning. Damon seemed heartened by that, but he felt a bond with his Tiger teammates, has enjoyed mentoring young outfielder Austin Jackson, and loves playing for Leyland.

“I understand that, heading into September, certain guys are going to be playing, and so am I,’’ Damon said. “I understand the process. We’re trying to make a push up right now.

“They do plan on playing me. How much, it remains to be seen. Guys get super hot, and we have to use the super-hot guys. But even when I’m not hot, I bring something to the table. They pitch me differently than most guys. The presence in the lineup is key.’’

Damon could have been an impact hitter in Boston’s lineup. His track record in pennant races and the postseason is impeccable. In the absence of Kevin Youkilis — a hitter who sees a lot of pitches and wears down pitchers — Damon would have been a perfect replacement.

The Sox succeeded in blocking the Rays by making the waiver claim. They had first dibs because they have a worse record than Tampa Bay.

Damon’s approval was needed for the Sox obtain him, because his contract gives him veto power on trades to all but eight teams, and the Sox aren’t one of those teams.

Damon said David Ortiz and Jason Varitek tried to persuade him to return.

“I love those guys,’’ Damon said. “They know that. I loved playing for Terry Francona and loved that city. Whether I was going to be a part of it or not, I know that team will compete for the wild card. They’re very good with or without me.’’

Addressing reporters in Detroit, Damon said, “I thought long and hard about it, but after going around and talking to a bunch of my teammates, they want me here, and they feel we can make a strong push — at least make this Central race interesting.

“That’s why I’m going to stay. I’ve said all along I love playing for Detroit, for the city, for the fans. These guys really like me here.’’

Damon, 36, said he was aware that his decision may hurt him in securing a contract for next year, since playing for the Sox would have given him more exposure.

“The tough thing about it is there are no guarantees of where I’ll be next year,’’ said Damon. “As much as I would love to be back here next year, that’s something the team doesn’t really decide on until possibly the offseason. I’m OK with it.

“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. We’re going to continue that. We’re going to go out there and keep playing hard. These kids are going to keep learning and, hopefully, we can keep going.’’

To the Tigers’ credit, they have taken care of their players, which is often why they want to stay in Detroit. The Tigers could have told Damon they were going with younger players and could have saved $1.8 million of Damon’s $8 million salary, but they didn’t.

Now that he has stayed, he might be in position to sign another one-year deal with the Tigers for next season.

Damon said he had not had any contact from the Sox throughout the process and had no idea whether they were merely trying to block him from going to Tampa Bay. Dombrowski indicated that trade talks hadn’t gotten under way because both sides were awaiting Damon’s decision.

Now that Damon has rejected the deal, he cannot be placed on trade waivers the remainder of the year.

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