Johnny Damon will step to the plate tonight wearing a uniform that has nothing to do with this rivalry for the first time since he was an Oakland Athletic. Will he be booed? Cheered? I don't know, and I can't say I care all that much — certainly not as much as the Boston sports media, which hyperventilate about these things. All I know is I would cheer him if I were there. I don't boo players who helped the Red Sox win the World Series, no matter what.
Damon was a great player who was instrumental in helping the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series. He posted an impressive 4.4-WAR season in 2004, the second-best of his four seasons in Boston, and the 4.8 WAR he posted on offense were the second-best in his entire career, second only to his breakout 2000 season in Kansas City. He actually posted the highest WAR of any Sox hitter that year, and his bat produced more runs than anyone but Manny Ramirez.
Damon also had a great World Series, knocking six hits in the four games and posting a .905 OPS. He obviously had a terrific Game 7 when the Red Sox made history against the Yankees in the ALCS.
So let it be said I appreciate Johnny Damon and what he means to Boston.
But let's get some perspective: There's a reason why Red Sox fans boo Johnny Damon, and it's not simply because he signed with the Yankees. It's because he did so after explicitly promising there was "no way" he could play for the Yankees, even for "top dollar," then tried to justify his change of heart by blaming the Boston front office for months afterward.
Damon has never shown that he recognizes this, and it's clear he still doesn't:
“I guess whenever you put on the Yankees uniform they get upset about it,’’ Damon told reporters in Chicago yesterday. “I get booed. They absolutely despise me. I just have to say, ‘You’re welcome for ’04. You’re welcome for making it fun again over there.’ ’’
In response to this comment, Peter Abraham says: "That's a good response."
Well, no. It's not.
It's a response in the same vein as most other Damon comments in the years since he left Boston: a combination of self-glorifying and self-pitying, as if he can't fathom why he was so mistreated by the Red Sox and their fans. To the extent Damon feels mistreated is the extent to which he has misjudged the depth of the rivalry. His is the opposite of a professional response; he makes it clear that he continues to be deeply, personally wounded by the fact the Red Sox chose not to meet the Yankees' asking price in 2005, and that fans haven't forgiven him for breaking his word.
Further, he inflates his own role in 2004. Yes, he was arguably one of the three most valuable hitters on the team, but it was a team that finished seven games ahead of Oakland for a playoff spot. No one player, except perhaps Curt Schilling, was indispensable to the success of the club during the regular season that year. His World Series performance, while stellar, was just fifth-best on the team, and in none of the four games was his contribution the difference between winning and losing.
As Abraham makes clear, Damon's biggest role in the 2004 story was his back-breaking grand slam in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS — a series in which he was abysmal for the first six games:
There is no bigger swing of the bat in the history of the Red Sox than that grand slam he had off Javy Vazquez in Game 7 at Yankee Stadium. None.
Really? I could go into statistics, but it is brutally obvious to anyone with a passing memory of that series (never mind those of us with all seven games on DVD) that Damon's home run was certainly not as important as David Ortiz's walkoff hits in Games 4 and 5, Mark Bellhorn's three-run blast in a much closer Game 6, or Ortiz's own Game 7 home run, which gave the Red Sox a first-inning lead after Manny Ramirez had been thrown out at the plate. Indeed, a quick glance at Baseball-Reference shows all those hits increased the Sox' in-game win probabilities more than Damon's grand slam did, according to WPA.
Even with his two-homer Game 7, Damon finished with a negative WPA for the series; his overall performance hurt, not helped, Boston.
I liked Damon when he was on the Red Sox. I'd cheer him tonight, and I think everyone else should, too. I agree wholeheartedly with the thrust of Abraham's post:
So boo if you want, that's certainly your right. But enough time has passed to give Johnny Damon his props.
But that point can be made without ignoring or revising the history that has led to such a conflicted relationship between Damon and his former fans.