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Johnny on the spot

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 24, 2010 11:01 AM

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Bos-NY 5.JPGAh, well, there will be no second coming for Johnny Damon in Boston after all. Maybe he really did desire to be a Tiger all along. Or maybe the Sox failed to play the obvious trump card to lure him back -- a starring role for his bride Michelle on the hot new show of the season, "NESN Daily."

OK, maybe not. So it's settled, and Damon will remain Johnny Motown now and for the next 36 games, reiterating his commitment to the Tigers -- 63-63, 10 games back in the division,14.5 out in the wild card and going nowhere but to the nearest country club -- with a simple declaration: "I'm not going."

Well, fine. From purely a baseball standpoint, I was skeptical that the Sox had a genuine interest in bringing him back here anyway, even with a perpetually depleted/makeshift outfield that has two of its hypothetical starters, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron, waving "Meet Me in Ft. Myers 2011" flags as they drive away.

Damon's a 36-year-old DH who is losing his legs (eight steals), throws like he has no tendons, and has a .778 OPS this season -- five points lower than that of Darnell McDonald. His experience in big moments would be of value, his toughness is unquestioned, and he can still grind out an at-bat with the most patient of 'em, but he's not the dynamic ballplayer we used to know.

Even in their perpetually tattered and battered state, the Sox don't need him, and I imagine Theo Epstein's true interest level in claiming him was essentially, "Eh, we'll take him if you'll give him to us, Dombrowski, but don't ask for anyone Baseball America has ever heard of. We're really just making it difficult for Tampa and New York in case they want him. Say, any interest in Okajima?"

But from an entertainment/sentimental standpoint . . . well, sure, that would have been fun. While I'm as nostalgic as anyone, I like to think I'm also practical, and I've never been one of those writers clamoring to get the eternally beloved band from 2004 back together. I mean, it's been six years, which is a lifetime in professional sports -- that's longer than Jonathan Papelbon's been around, and he seems like he's been here forever. Time stops for no one, and the names on the roster aren't written in permanent marker; only Papi, Tim Wakefield, Kevin Youkilis, and Jason Varitek remain from that delightful October.

The rest have moved on, and most of us have, too. Pedro is on hiatus at best, Manny's power numbers and estrogen level aren't what they once were, Bill Mueller has been retired for four years, Dave Roberts, bless the man, is outrunning cancer, and Kevin Millar is on pretty much every program with a camera and an inclination to talk baseball. (OK, some things don't change.)

But Johnny . . . it was different with him, and a sequel, even in his decline phase, would have been a good time. With his long hair, famously scraggly beard and carefree personality, he symbolized "The Idiots," a group of remarkably talented and determined free-spirits who had what I will forever believe was the necessary mindset to overcome the burden of the previous 85 years in Red Sox history. It was the right group at the right time, and Johnny Damon is at the forefront of some of our finest memories as fans. His performance in Game 7 at Yankees Stadium in 2004 may or may not have been the most clutch in franchise history -- and we do lean toward the former -- and it was definitely the most cathartic.

It would have been reassuring for some Sox fans to have closure to his career here, to be able to cheer him again. He went from icon to traitor in the time it took for him to scribble his name on a contract with the Yankees, and he seemed mystified and hurt by that, even while repeatedly -- and as recently as Tuesday on the Michael Kay Show in New York -- saying no experience he ever had in baseball equaled playing for the Yankees.

Either 2004 didn't mean as much to him as it did to those in the stands and perched in front of their TV sets, or he's still suffering effects from cracking coconuts with Damian Jackson seven years ago.

But it shouldn't be news to us that logic and especially loyalty aren't his strongest suits. Let's face it, Damon is admirable ballplayer who has always chased the money, whether he was coming to Boston or departing for their rival after saying he never would. He belonged to Kansas City and Oakland long before Boston was his baseball home. He's a mercenary, and as we were reminded today, mercenaries don't mend fences. No surprise, since he still can't fathom how it got broken.

Remember him awkwardly tipping his cap, a weird, puzzled look on his face, as he was greeted by a decidedly mixed reception upon his first visit in a Yankees uniform in 2006? He never understood why the boos nearly stifled the cheers that day, which suggests that for all of the fun he provided and had from 2002-2005, he never understood Boston, either.

So he tells us now he's staying away because he wants to help the Tigers win, which is of course absurd. Maybe they promised they'd consider re-signing him. Maybe he doesn't want to alienate New York like he did Boston. Maybe he is bitter at how it all went down. You know Johnny. If he talks enough -- and he will -- the truth will eventually spill.

For now, though, the scorecard looks like this: At the moment, Johnny Damon remains a Tiger. In our hearts, if not his, he belongs to the Red Sox. And when it comes to business, he's a Yankee through and through. He's got the dollars, but he still hasn't bought the sense.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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