Johnny Damon and Historical Revisionism

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.

9 comments… add one

  • I would cheer him. For exactly the reasons you say, Paul: he was damn important in helping the Sox win it all, and he made it damn fun to watch, too.
    He was booed because he made the common mistake of talking too much, of promising way too much. That may have been somewhat of an innocent (or just dim-witted) mistake, but he said what he said, then did what he did, and that pretty much defined him with Boston fans after his exodus.
    I think he will get cheered tonight, and of course booed too. And if you are listening to the audio track it will probably sound like the boos have it, but my guess is that is just because boos ring louder on television than cheers do. I say it’s 75-25 cheers. The sad thing is that with a little more brains (from both fans and player alike) it would be nothing but cheers.

    SF April 11, 2011, 6:06 pm
  • Actually, I was playing with a new stat, kind of like the FanGraph’s win probability added, but extended for a series (and the entire playoff as a whole, as fractional contribution to winning the world series) using relatively simple math and assumptions. (if you guys want, I can do a writeup)
    Maybe I should run it for 2004.
    But ya, I’m fairly certain that, at least for 2004 ALCS (I really tuned out on the world series, and they swept, so I have no idea), that if you measure weight of a single AB, the grand slam would probably be the highest of the series.
    You can think of it as this: Ortiz winning game 4 for the Red Sox, but probabilistically, it doesn’t change add that much, because most of the time the Yanks or whomever they face would close it out.
    But a game 7, meaning the series win probability is at 50-50 at the beginning, and that early grand slam say (I did not look this up, so it’s a fudge number) increased the Sox’s win probability from 50% to 90%, then Damon is literally responsible for 40% of the series win.
    I might be ranting on, but ya. Is there really that much added weight of just stating he wouldn’t come, rather than the fact itself? I mean, it can’t help, but I would imagine moving to the Yanks is the dagger..

    Lar April 11, 2011, 6:30 pm
  • This is why I try to never listen to what an athlete says to the media and really only focus on what they did for the team in terms of wins and losses. The only other thing I look at is what they do off the field in terms of character and what they do for charities. If they are knuckleheads off the field and they don’t give back to those less fortunate what they do on the field is lessened in my eyes. Damon doesn’t fall into that category for me so I’ll lift my glass to him when he steps up to the plate tonight, them promptly root for Dice-K to whiff him.

    BillsBurgSF April 11, 2011, 6:30 pm
  • Okay, I just realized I missed a paragraph, and the in-game increase was bigger with Ortiz, so that is probably the biggest at bat of the series.. ;)
    But it was quite the dagger. I really should do more math to see the impact though. It might be linear in win expectations (raising 50% to 60% is the same as raising from 60% to 70%) but going from 50% to 70% is not quite as much as a knockout as it is from 70% to 90% for one game (probably can play with the volatility/variance, assuming binomial distribution)..

    Lar April 11, 2011, 6:34 pm
  • Don’t forget that Damon also rejected a deal last year to come to the Sox, in order to help the Tigers rebuild or some other nonsense.

    SF April 11, 2011, 7:15 pm
  • you guys sound like some chick who got dumped…

    dc April 11, 2011, 9:23 pm
  • Huh, dc? I would cheer Damon regardless of what transpired, but it’s pretty clear he had a big part in determining his relationship with Sox fans in general.
    Not sure why you see the need to make such a dig, since both Paul and I can see past the BS for the most part.

    SF April 11, 2011, 9:43 pm
  • Lar, I will say from the perspective of this Sox fan, and this is highly subjective, that Ortiz’s game-winning hit in Game 5 — scoring Damon, ironically enough — felt much more like a back-breaker to me. When the series went back to New York, it felt like the Sox would find a way to win.
    I will say that Damon’s slam allowed me to sit back and relax a little. It was the nail in the coffin, but I thought at the time — and still do — that Ortiz’s homer in the first effectively sealed that game for the Sox. Somehow, with all his heroics in that series, Ortiz’s big hit in that game gets consistently overlooked.

    Paul SF April 11, 2011, 11:52 pm
  • sorry for the dig sf…it was meant more for those red sox fans who most vehemently feel violated by damon’s now you see me, know you don’t departure…like damon, i should have given it a second thought before i hit “post”…it’s nice that some of you wouldn’t boo damon, but some of the comments here represent virtual boos…what gets me every time this topic comes up is the indignation that he would dare sign with another team, for a lot more money by the way, after promising he’d never leave the sox…especially not for the damned yankees…if he was guilty of anything, it was tipping his hand to theo, and taking away any leverage he had…it’s naive to think of these athletes as anything but mercenaries…how many times do we hear that “this is the team i dreamed of playing for as a little kid”, or “[insert city] is my favorite city in the world”, or “this team gives me the best chance to win”…it’s a rare exception when one of these guys turns down more money…the same ignoramuses who boo because of damon’s treasonous comments are the same ones who adored him for his clever charm and unique way with words, and probably the ones that chant “yankees suck” as a warmup to “sweet caroline”…frankly, i’m not as indignant about booing as some of you guys…as long as it’s not profanity-laced…booing is an individual thing…perhaps not everybody does it out of hatred or ignorance, sometimes it could be read as a sign of respect…i understand why some sox fans boo arod and tex…but why boo jeter?…he never took peds, he never said he was coming to boston, then didn’t, he seems to have proper respect for the game, and he’s rumored to be well-liked and respected by players and coaches around the majors [except buck of course]…do they boo him as a sign of respect?…

    dc April 12, 2011, 8:17 am

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