Back home in New England, nearly everyone is still freaking out that Johnny Damon signed with the Yankees. He’s a traitor and a sellout, he sold his soul for a few extra bucks, he’s Judas, he’s Anakin Skywalker, he’s the Reverse Earl Hickey. That seems to be the general consensus. For an extra $12 million — actually, less than six million when you remove taxes and his agent’s commission — Johnny D burned his bridges in Beantown and tarnished every Sox fan’s memories of the glorious 2004 season. For that, he’s going to burn in hell. Apparently.
Late Tuesday night, the e-mails started multiplying and piled into my mailbox for 48 straight hours. You have to write about this. You need to weigh in. You must be going crazy. Where’s your column? We need your take? Were you too angry to write rationally about this? Johnny Damon has ruined Christmas, WHERE ARE YOU????? YOU’RE A SELLOUT JUST LIKE HIM!!!!!
Well, I’m right here. Perfectly calm. Not even remotely surprised. Wondering why I’m not more outraged by the whole thing.
Here’s the problem …
After Roger Clemens fled for Canada in 1996, I lost the capacity to be surprised/wounded/outraged/enraged by any athlete’s departure from Boston. Basically, Roger took my Sports Fan Cherry. Nineteen out of 20 times, I realized that athletes are loyal to dollar signs and that’s about it. That’s just the way it is. Two years later, when Mo Vaughn signed with the Angels and fans were alternately blaming Mo and Red Sox GM Dan Duquette. On WEEI, drive-time host Glenn Ordway would let them finish their rants, then grumble into his microphone, “It’s ALLLLLLLLL-ways about the money.” He kept saying those five words 10,000 times all winter.
And maybe I hated hearing it every time … but Ordway was right. For every Bruschi or Varitek who values teammates, fans and community over his market value, 19 Damons leap at the highest offer and never look back. That’s the way sports work. That’s the way life works. So why would anyone be shocked by Damon’s choice this week? Did you really think someone who wrote an autobiography in which he bragged about adultery would do the right thing? More important, what WAS the right thing? Is it even for us to say?
For instance, let’s say your buddy has spent eight quality years working for a law firm. He loves everyone in his office, loves his job, never imagines going anywhere else … and then another law firm comes swooping in and offers him a partnership and big bucks. And let’s say he asked you for advice. Well, you know what you would do? You would tell him to take the big bucks. You would. I’m telling you … you would. And when he does so, you would praise him for doing the right thing for his family. That’s the way life works. With sports, for whatever reason, we expect athletes to do the right thing … for us, not for them. When they choose themselves, we act like they mailed us a pile of dog poop. Somehow they’re the ones being selfish.
Fans can be incredibly unrealistic and naive. We expect athletes to maintain an unyielding loyalty to their current cities, even if they have been playing there for only 3-4 years. We expect them to understand the “importance” of something like the Sox-Yanks rivalry, to think exactly like us, to say to themselves, “Wait, I can’t switch sides to the Yankees, that’s our archrival!” We expect them to feel hatred for the teams that WE don’t like, ignoring the fact that rivalries thrive solely because of the fan bases, because we’re the ones keeping them alive. And we expect them to turn down Godfather offers out of loyalty to their fans, only we’ll turn on them the moment they start struggling.
How is that fair? Last season, Damon watched from afar as some Boston fans turned on Millar, Embree, Bellhorn, Foulke and even Schilling — five key members of the Greatest Comeback In Sports History — and probably wondered to himself, “Wait, I’m supposed to remain loyal to them?”
It’s a two-way street. We always forget this. When our favorite players struggle and we start grumbling and bitching, the message always remains the same: “Hey, he’s making a ton of money, I spend my hard-earned money on tickets, it’s my right as a fan to boo.” You never hear the word “loyalty” mentioned. Ever. These guys are only as good as their last few games. History rarely matters, which is fine, because that’s part of the bargain. Most players seem to understand that. But if that’s the case, why should we expect them to remain loyal to us?
Throw in Boston’s floundering front office, which pursued Damon this winter with the same enthusiasm of Nicole Richie halfheartedly poking at a Caesar salad, and this seemed like a foregone conclusion. Damon would leave the Red Sox, it was just a question of where. Last week I appeared on two different Boston sports radio stations and predicted the Yankees would sign him, for four reasons:
1. Unleashed in New York, Damon could conceivably cross into the mainstream, yet another lovable, quotable, handsome celebrity/athlete who makes regular “Regis and Kelly appearances,” shows up at relevant magazine parties and movie premieres, maybe even gets his own ghostwritten column in the New York Post. He’s like a much savvier, gentler, less-stupid version of Dennis Rodman. And I mean that in a nice way.
2. Did anyone really think the Yanks were heading into 2006 with Bubba Crosby as their centerfielder? I mean, really. Come on.
3. Historically, the Yankees have always tried to stick it to Red Sox fans whenever they could — for further evidence, look at the baseballreference.com pages for Tiant, Boggs and Clemens. This is why we call them the Evil Empire.
4. Nobody else had the money to overpay him except the Dodgers, and they already made their dumb winter signing (Rafael Furcal for $39 million).
Add everything up and it made too much sense: Damon would leave for the Yanks. As it turned out, they needed to offer only an extra $12 million and Damon was more than willing to relinquish his status as a Boston icon, although I still think he would have stayed had one of the 29 people running the Red Sox upped the team’s offer at the last minute. And that’s why Red Sox fans think that they’re upset, because they can’t believe Damon would turn his back on Boston fans and join the dark side that abruptly, especially after vowing that he would never play for the Yanks. Of course, had Johnny re-signed with Boston and slumped out of the gate, the fans would have booed him and complained all summer about his gaudy contract. It’s a double-edged sword, one that we notice only when it’s plunging into us.
Anyway, if you’re a Red Sox fan, I hope you learned two things this week. First, the Sox-Yankees feud matters infinitely more to us than it does to the players. That’s why these guys have no problem switching sides. They just don’t give a crap. Sadly, we do. And second, to paraphrase Ordway, it’s almost always about the money. Bonds left Pittsburgh. Clemens left Boston. Shaq left Orlando. Kareem left Milwaukee. Giambi left Oakland. Walton left Portland. Mussina left Baltimore. Kemp left Seattle. A-Rod and Griffey left Seattle. Within the next three years, LeBron will leave Cleveland. With only a few exceptions, it’s ALLLLLLLLL-ways about the money.
Johnny Damon? He’s just the latest reminder. And sure, I’m rooting against him next season and plan on booing him in person when I have the chance. But Damon’s departure didn’t taint 2004 for me … if anything, he reminded me that most of these guys come and go, that it’s impossible to keep even the most beloved teams intact for long. Since Oct. 27, 2004, the same night Schilling raised a champagne bottle and gave his famous “To the greatest Red Sox team ever!” toast in St. Louis, could anyone have imagined that two-thirds of his teammates would belong to other teams within 14 months?
But hey, that’s sports in the 21st century — you win a championship, the moment passes, and that’s that. In some cases, like with Pedro, Mueller, Lowe and Damon, employees leverage their situations into lucrative contracts with other franchises. In other cases, like with Millar, Bellhorn and Embree, companies cut the cord and try to find someone more productive. And once in awhile, you have someone like Varitek agreeing to stick around at a slightly reduced rate, and only because he’s happy where he is. But everyone makes the decision based on what’s best for him. That’s how the real world works.
The question remains: If you were Johnny Damon, would you have passed up $12 million to return to a team that didn’t really seem to want you back? Didn’t think so. He’s not Anakin, he’s not Judas, he’s not the Reverse Earl Hickey. He’s just another businessman who followed the money and never looked back.
In other words, he’s a professional athlete.
Five leftover thoughts while we’re here:
1. Compare how the Sox handled the Damon situation to how they handled the Varitek situation last year: When Varitek became a free agent, they made it clear from the beginning that he was the most important position player on their team and that they needed to bring him back. There were some stopgap replacements mentioned in the papers, but only in the spirit of “we have to have a few emergency plans in place just in case a catastrophe happens and he leaves.” Nobody really thought he was going anywhere. And he didn’t.
What happened when Damon ended up in the same situation? They made him one offer (four years, $40 million) and refused to budge. The newspapers ran a steady stream of rumors about the Sox trying to find Damon replacements in the outfield — Carlos Beltran, Joey Gathright, Jeremy Reed, Coco Crisp and others — as they were proactively looking for alternate options. They made two other high-profile moves (the Beckett trade and Loretta-for-Mirabelli). Nobody ever came out and said, “All right, we HAVE to bring Johnny Damon back.” Even when he was negotiating with the Yankees over the past few days, and Boras was warning him that he might flee Boston, they didn’t seem that concerned. So can you really blame Damon for leaving?
2. Have you seen a free agent contract in any sport that someone wasn’t paid 25-30 percent more than what they were worth? Damon was worth $40 million and ended up getting $52 million. Maybe that wasn’t his perceived value on the open market, but the fact remains, it takes only one franchise to decide someone’s value.
(Note: I always enjoy the concept of “market value” in sports. For example, let’s say that a group of college friends were all getting engaged around the same time. If the first one spends 25K on a ring, the girlfriends of the other guys wouldn’t say, “Hey, you better spend 25K on my ring! That’s my market value, it’s been established by your moron friend who bought that $25K ring!” They would just be happy to get a ring that looked legitimate. But in sports, it takes only one dumb team to pay Rafael Furcal $39 million, or even Jarrod Washburn $37 million, and then someone like Damon can glance around and tell himself, “You know what, I’m worth $50 million-plus!”)
3. Hidden factor in the Damon saga: Scott Boras (Damon’s agent) and Larry Lucchino (the con artist who’s currently running the Red Sox into the ground) have been battling for over a decade — I’m not even sure they’re allowed to be in the same room without special clearance from the federal courts. Did you really think that Boras wouldn’t relish the chance to stick it to the Red Sox and Lucchino, especially after what happened with the A-Rod Saga two years ago? These two are like the Summer Roberts and Taylor Townsend of major league baseball, only they’re not even remotely fun to look at.
4. Honestly? I didn’t want the Red Sox to re-sign Damon for $40 million over four years, much less $52 million. All the classic “Guy signing a big contract and going into the tank” signs were there. For one thing, he has a ton of miles on him — over 1,500 games in the past 10 years in one of the most grueling roles in the league (leadoff hitter, centerfielder) — and by the end of last season, he was breaking down like Denzel Washington at the end of “Man on Fire.” Physically, he’s had ongoing problems with his right shoulder and post-concussion syndrome (the latter stemming from his ugly collision with Damian Jackson in the 2003 playoffs). His offensive numbers have dipped after the All-Star break for every season in the last four, including a dramatic drop last season (hitting .343 with an .859 OPS before the break and .282 with a .740 OPS after the break). And he’s hitting his mid-30’s next November.
Looking at it logically …
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A. Was there a genuine danger for a sudden, inexplicable Renteria-like slide here? Absolutely.
B. Could they use one of their excess starters (Arroyo, Wells, Clement) to acquire a replacement (Crisp, Gathright, Reed) who could give them 75-80 percent of Damon’s offensive numbers at a significantly cheaper price? Absolutely.
The Sonny Corleone move would have been to offer Damon $50 million. The Michael Corleone move would have been to let the Yankees overpay him. Fortunately, they ended up going the Michael route. Although I’m probably giving Boston’s front office too much credit — yet again, owner John Henry seemed taken by surprise by a dramatic development with his own team (he was reportedly “stunned” that Damon was leaving this week). Isn’t this guy supposed to be the owner? Does he act like this in all walks of life?
“Wait, our son is going to the University of Arizona over Harvard because he decided to go to a school with hot chicks? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Is it too late to stop him? Hold on, he’s already taking classes there? You’re kidding! How long has this been going on?!?!?!”
“Hold on, honey, did you just say that you sold my Ferrari for a Prius? Why didn’t you give me a heads up? I wish I had known! And the Prius doesn’t come for two more weeks? Wait, I don’t have a car? I have to take cabs to work? This is shocking! I’m blown away right now!”
“You’re telling me that Larry Lucchino just decided to take my office and move me into a cubicle? And all my stuff’s in storage? When was this decided? I’ve only been gone for 10 days! I’m in complete disbelief! Shouldn’t the owner of a major league baseball team have a nice office? I’m shocked! Just shocked right now!”
5. Three predictions for Damon in 2006 …
• He’s going to have a monster year leading off for the Yanks, much like Pedro thrived with the Mets last season. This reminds me of the Pedro deal (and many of these other crazy baseball deals nowadays) in that Damon will probably be luggage by the final year of the deal, so you’re overpaying him just for the production of those first 2-3 seasons. In the case of the Yankees, Damon’s offensive impact will outweigh the ugly sight of him chucking the occasional wounded duck from the deep recesses of Yankee Stadium as one of the Molina Brothers unexpectedly cranks out his first career triple.
• He’s going to be the white Tiki Barber. In other words, you’ll see him on every TV show or appearing at every movie premiere or chic party, to the point that you’ll think to yourself, “How does this guy have time to prepare for games?” In fact, I think Tiki might feel challenged by the whole thing and push to host his own daytime talk show or something.
• If he struggles coming out of the gate, Yankees fans will turn on him fast and furiously, leading to the rare scenario of BOTH Yankees and Red Sox fans being furious that Johnny Damon has signed with the Yankees. We can only hope.
(And on that note: Merry Christmas, everybody!)
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.