After the 2005 season, the Yankees were in dire need of a center fielder. Now entering his age-37 season, Bernie Williams was no longer capable of manning the position on an everyday basis, as his 85 OPS+ and 12 home runs both represented career lows. Over the course of the season, the Yankees had used Bubba Crosby (career 47 OPS+ in 173 plate appearances over three seasons), left fielder Hideki Matsui (who had manned the position in 2003 when Williams was out with a knee injury), and utility man Tony Womack (who began the season as the second baseman) in center when Williams wasn’t out there.
Despite Brian Cashman and Joe Torre’s insistence that they were comfortable with Crosby as the starting center fielder as Mike Cameron, Juan Pierre, and the majority of the outfield market went to other teams, the Yankees knew they needed an upgrade. Fortunately, one still remained on the market: former Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon.
Signing Details: Signed to a 4-year, $52 million contract
Transaction Date: January 3, 2006
NYY stats during contract (2006-09): .285/.363/.458, 77 HR, 125 2B, 15 3B, 93 SB, 344 K, 268 BB, 112 OPS+, 14.4 bWAR
Freshly shaven and with a new haircut, Damon immediately slid into the leadoff spot, in front of Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, and Alex Rodriguez. Although his batting average dropped from .315 to .289, he put up one of his best seasons offensively in his first year with the Yankees, hitting a career-high 24 home runs and stealing 25 bases en route to receiving down-ballot MVP votes for the third consecutive season.
Although signed to be the center fielder, the veteran outfielder actually only spent one year full-time at the position while in pinstripes. After starting in center field for the first two months of 2007, Damon took over DH duties while Melky Cabrera manned center when Giambi went down with an injury. Over the next two months, Cabrera seized control of the job, and when Giambi returned, Damon primarily split the left field and DH jobs with Giambi (when he was healthy, that is) and Matsui. Perhaps coincidentally, that happened to be his worst season offensively with the Yankees, as he posted a 96 OPS+ and hit only 12 home runs.
Damon opened the 2008 season as the starting left fielder, playing 75 games at the position while covering center field 33 times and serving as the designated hitter 25 times. Despite missing time with a bruised AC joint in his shoulder — the first time he hit the injured list in his 14-year-career! — he had a resurgence at the plate, slashing .303/.375/.461 with 17 home runs and 27 doubles, and 5 triples (good for a 118 OPS+) while stealing 29 bases.
One of Damon’s best performances of his career came on June 7, 2008, as he went 6-for-6 with four runs batted in, including an eighth-inning single to tie the game at 10 and a walk-off ground-rule double to give the Yankees a 12-11 victory against the Kansas City Royals. He became the first Yankee to record six or more hits in a nine-inning game since Myril Hoag all the way back in 1934.
Over the course of the first three years of the deal, Damon was more than worth the contract for the Yankees. It was the fourth year, however, that truly cemented his Yankees legacy. Now batting second in the order, ceding the leadoff spot to Jeter — an attempt to eliminate double plays and mix up the righties and lefties in the order — the left fielder had what was arguably his best season at the plate. He slashed .282/.365/.489, belted 24 home runs (tying a career high, set in his first pinstriped season), and walked 71 times (second-most in career, behind 2004’s 76). Sure, his stolen bases (12) and triples (three) were down, but for a 35-year-old, that’s to be expected. In many ways, he committed to the quasi-power hitter he had become over the previous three seasons, a change that we would later see Damon’s successor in left field, Brett Gardner, also make.
In a season filled with memorable moments, Damon was at the center of many of them. Capping off a weekend where the Yankees won three straight games on walk-off hits, Damon drilled a walk-off home run off Twins reliever Jesse Crain to give the Yankees a 3-2 win on Sunday, May 19, a game that yours truly was in attendance for.
The postseason saw more heroics from Damon. He had nine hits in the ALCS, including home runs in Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS, to help power the Yankees past the Los Angeles Angels in six. His hot October continued against the Phillies in the World Series, where he slashed .364/.440/.455 with eight hits and four runs batted in and four runs scored.
One of those four runs came turned out to be the deciding run of Game 4, courtesy of one of the most high-IQ bits of baserunning you will ever see. With two outs in the top of the ninth in a 4-4 game, Damon ripped a single to left field off Phillies closer Brad Lidge. On the first pitch to Mark Teixeira, Damon stole second, and then, recognizing that third base was uncovered due to the shift, immediately took off for third. Credited with two stolen bases on one pitch, he eventually scored on A-Rod’s double after Teixeira got plunked.
Damon would have a strong outings to conclude his Yankees career, going 3-for-4 in Game 5’s 8-6 loss. He would walk in the third inning of the decisive Game 6, scoring on a Matsui single. He strained his right calf in the process, however, and was replaced in the game by Jerry Hairston Jr. None of us knew it at the time, but that is where Damon’s Yankees career would end.
At the end of the day, Johnny Damon won’t go down on a list of Yankees greats. He probably won’t get a plaque in Monument Park, and even if he were to have made the Hall of Fame (he didn’t), he probably would have gone in with a blank cap, owing to the fact that he spent significant time with three teams (New York, Boston, Kansas City) and played for four others (Oakland, Detroit, Tampa Bay, Cleveland). Nonetheless, while he was here, he was an important piece, and he will be always remembered as a critical component of the 2009 World Series championship team.