Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 25, 2010

Go Johnny Go Go

As position players began reporting to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona, former Yankees (and Red Sox, and Royals, and A’s) leftfielder Johnny Damon finally found a new home. The free agent signed a one-year contract with the Detroit Tigers, thus ending an unexpectedly protracted search for a 2010 team. That search was the source of enormous angst for Yankees fans, for Damon had become a definite fan favorite during his four years in the Bronx. That fact, coupled with a solid year offensively in 2009 and some sparkling heads-up base running in the ninth inning of game four of the World Series, led most of the teams’ faithful to hope that the Steinbrenner’s and Johnny would come to terms on a new contract.

Alas, it was not to be. Damon’s agent Scott Boras badly misjudged the market for aging, defensively challenged leftfielders. He initially told Yankee management not to bother making an offer if it was for less than the $13 million annual salary that Damon earned under his old contract. So they didn’t. By the time Boras relaxed his initial demand, Yankee management was already close to signing Nick Johnson as a full-time designated hitter for $5 million. That signing would leave only $2 million in the suddenly-frugal Yankees’ budget. When Damon and Boras didn’t respond to a two year offer at $7 million per year, the Johnson deal was consummated and Damon’s days in pinstripes were done.

Remarkably, even after that, lots of fans held out hope that either Damon would accept an $11 million dollar pay cut, or that the idea of the New York Yankees actually having a budget would prove to be just a bad dream. But thinking that a player who at every venture into free agency had moved on to another team for more dollars would take an 85% pay cut was delusional. On the other hand, historically the idea of the Yankees throwing their budget out the window was not only not delusional, it was to be expected. But it is starting to appear that in the still-young Hal Steinbrenner era fiscal discipline may be a reality. Of course, the good news for those of us who bleed in pinstripes is that the discipline sets in at a level that is soaring into the stratosphere while most teams are earthbound and even the most aggressive pursuers are cruising along at 2,500 feet in Cessna 182’s.

In any event, Johnny has left The Stadium. As did World Series MVP Hideki Matsui before him. There was plenty of angst about that as well, but less drama as Matsui signed with the Angels fairly quickly once the free agent signing period opened. All of which I understand. And all of which saddens me.

I not only understand that baseball is a business; as someone who has crunched numbers for all of his professional life, I both understand and believe that the business side of baseball will control owners’ and general managers’ decision-making process about which players to retain and which to let go. There is no room for sentimentality when those hard decisions are being made (e.g. Boston Red Sox and Lowell, Mike). And I definitely agree with the old adage that it is far better to let a player go one year too soon rather than one year too late.

But I am not just a gimlet-eyed accountant; I am also, indeed I am first and foremost a fan. And the fan in me is like the fan in everyone. At the heart of every fan of the Great Game is a forever young child. That fan grows strongly attached to every one of his idols. He cheers with thousands of compatriots as his heroes play a surpassingly difficult game with skill and grace, batting, pitching, running and fielding across a blindingly brilliant emerald and bronze expanse. He follows his team through the slow unwinding of the long, long season. He rejoices with his team at every victory, and shares their disgusted taste of bitterness at each defeat. And should such good fortune come to pass that the fan’s squad captures the ultimate prize, then his personal joy, and the adulation which he showers upon his heroes, is utterly without limits. And at that most special of moments, there is a part of every fan that holds out the childlike hope that this team can remain so forever. And win, and win, and win again.

Just before the Yankees paraded down New York’s Canyon of Heroes to celebrate their 27th championship last November, GM Brian Cashman was asked what he had told the players. Paraphrasing his response, he said that he had told them to savor both the moment, and each other. His comment reflects the obvious fact that even for the Yankees, whose twenty-seven championships and forty World Series appearances dwarf all other teams, far more seasons end short of the ultimate goal than seizing it. But it also reveals that even in the moment of triumph, he understood that the childlike wish of the fan must and will always remain just a wish.

Thus even for the victorious, the fan’s offseason is inevitably tinged with sadness, as heroes depart. But in time that sadness mellows into a deep and abiding appreciation for the special contributions made by those who have moved on to other teams. In time the first workouts begin, and while bitter cold still rules the north at least the days grow longer, and a new hope begins to warm the spirit of the fan. Soon enough, one will be focused utterly on the coming campaign.

So I will stand and cheer for Hideki on Opening Day at The Stadium, extremely happy that the circumstance of the schedule will allow the World Series MVP to be there as an Angel and receive his ring with his former teammates. And I will stand and cheer again on a Monday night in August when Johnny comes out of the dugout to lead off for the Tigers. And in both cases, I will then take my seat, and hope they both go 0 for 4.


  1. Hi, Nice post. I’m not a Yankee fan, but I don’t think they get enough credit for making wise baseball personnel decisions. Glad to hear you are a fan, first and foremost. But you also obviously understand the business aspect of the game, and that you can’t separate the two very easily. Damon and Matsui will be missed, but Yanks were wise in allowing them both to leave, as you said, too soon rather than too late. As I said, nice post, Bill

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