Maybe even the freewheeling Johnny Damon realizes that. Out in Anaheim for the World Baseball Classic, Damon momentarily lost his sense of humor and his hitting stroke, batting just .167. More worrisome, Damon’s left shoulder flared up. Although he said it was merely a case of spring-training tendinitis, the Yankee brass was left with the possibility that their $53 million man could begin the season as the most expensive non-home-run-hitting designated hitter in baseball history.
Damon uncharacteristically dodged the media before a game against South Korea. The next day, at a team workout at Cal State, Fullerton, he didn’t even join some of his teammates in ogling the Texas Longhorns women’s softball team (they watched with a laserlike focus absent in last night’s 7-3 loss). Damon shagged some flies, but tossed them back toward the infield underhanded. During batting practice, Ken Griffey Jr. grabbed an aluminum bat and started launching 500-foot tower shots that had even the living legends oohing and aahing. Damon just gloomily joked, “I better not use the aluminum. The way I’m going, I’d just break it.”
Two days later, Damon seemed in better spirits. An MRI on the shoulder showed no major damage, and with a win over Mexico, the United States would make it into the semifinals, despite some embarrassing losses. In batting practice, Damon seemed to rediscover his swing, sending three balls into the right-field stands at Angel Stadium. There had been talk that Damon might be left off the semifinals roster, but when asked whether he would rather go to San Diego for the semis with his teammates or back to Steinbrennerville in Tampa, he flashed one of his incandescent smiles and laughed. “Dude, what do you think?” Then he giggled, and was off to sign some more autographs.
A few hours later, as a predominantly Mexican-American crowd shouted for the American team’s demise, the U.S. squad—in more ways than one, the Yankees of international competition—entered the bottom of the ninth down a run. With one on, A-Rod walked, and Damon was summoned from the dugout to pinch-run for him. On a double, Damon could score the winning run, jump into his teammates’ arms, and, as his brother said, his life would just keep getting better and better.
But it didn’t happen. On the next pitch, Vernon Wells grounded to the shortstop. Alfredo Amezaga, who flipped the ball to Jorge Cantu at second, nimbly avoided Damon’s hard slide and threw to first to complete a double play. The crowd screamed as the Americanos stood in shock. Damon rose slowly, gave Cantu a hug, looked into the crowd, and trudged off slowly. Ever considerate, Damon paused on the American dugout steps and tossed his batting gloves to a young fan. He can only hope for his sake the scene is not repeated in October.