Gaetti Project: Deconstructing Damon

Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of The Gary Gaetti Project, a nine-part series to ring in the beginning of the Royals’ 2010 baseball season. Why Gaetti? Well, let’s just say that anytime we can honor a guy that was nicknamed The Rat, wore a mullet… AND went to Northwest Missouri State, you gotta do it. Adding to the legend, Gaetti hit 35 homers for The Kansas City Royals in 1995… at age 36. And miraculously, he did it all while wearing a batting helmet with no ear flaps. Yep, we could all use a little more Gaetti in our lives.

*****

It’s been nearly 10 years since Johnny Damon wore a Kansas City Royals uniform.

10 years.

Damon played his last game for the Royals on Oct. 1, 2000.

In case you’re curious, he went one for four with a walk in a 6-2 victory against the Chicago White Sox.

So, yes, it’s been nearly a decade. Almost 10 years since Damon was roping doubles down the line and chasing down liners in the gap. It’s been more than 3,000 days since Damon was teamed with Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye – one of the most talented young outfields in baseball history.

10 years.

Do you know what can happen in 10 years?

John F. Kennedy once told the nation that we would reach the moon in 10 years – and it happened. A young man named Barack Obama went from a second-term state senator in Illinois to the leader of the free world. The Beatles went from unknown lads to bigger than Jesus… to broken up.

So, of course, a lot can happen in 10 years.

And for Johnny Damon, a lot did happen.

The kid who was tabbed to be the savior of the Royals – the next George Brett – has lived a lifetime in the last 10 years.

He’s played on four teams, won two World Series, and had 11 different haircuts.

He dethroned the mighty Yankees with a back-breaking grand slam in Game Seven of the 2004 ALCS.

And he saved the mighty Yankees with one of the most heads-up baserunning plays in history during the 2009 World Series.

Yes, Johnny Damon has lived it all.

But let’s start at the beginning. Before Boston. Before New York. Before he was a Caveman. Before “What would Johnny Damon do?” Before The Idiots. Before he broke the curse of the Bambino. Before he helped end the curse of A-Rod.

Stay with us. We’re moving fast. And we’re ending up in flyover country. In a land where people grill out in the backyard on sunny days. In a land of minimal traffic and sleepy suburbs – and horrific baseball.

Kansas City. The town in which Johnny Damon became a star.

*****

Ok. We have to start with the commercial. It was only 30 seconds long. But they still talk about it here.

The premise was simple. Damon was the Royals’ young hope, a speedy outfielder drafted in the first round in 1992, the best prospect in a Royals organization that was undergoing its first true youth movement in more than a generation.

George Brett was the face of the franchise, the symbol of the Royals’ glory years, a sure-fire Hall of Famer who had hung up his cleats just a few years earlier.

So, yes, the narrative was too easy to spot. And, of course, the Royals’ marketing people saw it as well.

The Royals’ marketing department did what any franchise would do.

They used images from the Royals’ glorious past to sell the hope of the future.

If it happened once, why couldn’t it happen again?

The commercial was simple*.

Damon and Brett sit next to each other and watch television.

*Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated once wrote a nice piece on the Royals’ young outfield of Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye, and there’s a complete retelling of the Damon and Brett commercial in the story…

First, the television shows highlights from the Royals’ playoff conquest of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Then, Damon snags the remote and flips the channel to highlights of the modern-day Royals — with Damon leading the way.

Of course, you know what happens next. Brett takes control of the remote and changes the channel back to the glory days. Then Damon flips it back. And so on.

Finally, Brett grabs the remote, flashes his World Series ring, and says something like, “Wait ‘til you have one these, kid.”

*****

So, where do we begin?

The commercial is prescient for a number of reasons. First, the last line is a little ironic because, obviously, Damon now has two World Series titles.

But there’s more than that.

Because really, this commercial has come to symbolize so much more in Kansas City.

In the mid-1990s, Damon was the face of Royals Youth Movement No. 1.

More than a decade later, the Royals are somewhere between Youth Movement No. 3 and No. 4, depending on your perspective.

Damon would never win more than 77 games in a Royals uniform. And his stay in Kansas City would more or less be considered a disappointment.

Need proof? Last week, Damon returned to Kansas City on opening day as a member of the Detroit Tigers. He was booed every time he went to the plate.

So, yes, Damon did not save the franchise. He would not become George Brett. He would not lead the Royals back to the playoffs.

But perhaps this isn’t really Damon’s fault. Maybe — just maybe — we can blame it on the economics of baseball.

The Royals, of course, traded Damon to the Oakland A’s after the 2000 season. They had no choice. Damon was not going to sign in Kansas City*.

*Unfortunately, the Royals weren’t able to grab much in return. The haul for Damon? A young shortstop named Angel Berroa, an aging closer named Roberto Hernandez, and a throw-in catcher named A.J. Hinch.

And if you need more proof of the greatness of Billy Beane, check this out. In the Damon trade, which also included Tampa Bay, the A’s acquired Damon, second baseman Mark Ellis and pitcher Cory Lidle.

So, yes, the Royals should have capitalized on their asset (Damon).

But there was not much hope in signing that asset. At the time, it just wasn’t economically feasible.

And this is where the story of Damon and the commercial and Kansas City gets interesting.

In the past 10 years, Damon has quietly pieced together a stunningly good career.

How stunning? Well, Damon has a shot — and some might conclude that he has a good shot — at ending up in Cooperstown.

Yep. The Hall of Fame.

The numbers are complete and shocking and beautiful all at the same time.

At age 36, Damon’s career numbers look like this:

BA: .288
OBP: .355
OPS: .793
OPS+ : 105
207 homers
452 doubles (84th all-time)
95 triples
2,428 hits (108th all-time)
1,485 runs (71st all-time)
998 RBIs
374 stolen bases (86th all-time)

And now, there’s an outside chance that Damon’s infamous commercial with George Brett may become more prophetic than anyone could have ever imagined.

Johnny David Damon might just become the second Hall of Famer to ever come out of the Royals’ system.

Sports Illustrated’s Joe Posnanski has bandied about this statistic more than once, but I still thought I’d share it.

Damon has a realistic shot to reach 3,000 hits, 500 doubles, 100 triples, 250 homers and 400 stolen bases.

How many players in baseball history have done that? Zero.

Of course, just because Damon could do it doesn’t mean he will.

And 3,000 hits may be tough. He needs rap out about 150 hits for the next four seasons to reach the big 3K.

But he might.

And if he does, here’s the question:

What baseball hat would be on his Hall-of-Fame plaque?

Before you instinctively say “Red Sox”, consider the following.

Here Damon’s career statistics with each of the first four* teams he’s played with:

*We’re not counting the Tigers for obvious reasons.

****

With the Royals:
Five full seasons

Homers: 65
RBI: 329
Stolen Bases: 149
BA: .291
OBP: .350
OPS: .783
OPS-plus: 99

Best season: In 2000, Damon .327 with a .382 OBP. He finished with a career-high 214 hits, and added 42 doubles, a league-best 46 stolen bases and a league-best 136 runs.

With the Red Sox
Four full seasons (2002-2005)

Homers: 56
RBI: 299
Stolen Bases: 98
BA: .294
OBP: .361
OPS: .803
OPS-plus: 107

Best season: In 2004, Damon hit .304 with a .380 OBP. He finished with 20 homers, 35 doubles and 123 runs.

With the Yankees:
Four full seasons (2006-2009)

Homers: 77
RBI: 296
Stolen Bases: 93
BA: .285
OBP: .362
OPS: .819
OPS-plus: 114

Best season: In 2009, Damon hit .282 with a .365 OBP. He tied a career high with 24 homers, and finished with 36 doubles and a 107 runs.

With the A’s:
One full season (2001)

Homers: 9
RBI: 49
Stolen Bases: 27
BA: .256
OBP: .324
OPS: .687
OPS-plus: 82

*****

Damon doesn’t have much reason to pick the Royals. After all, he won his titles in Boston and New York. But it also might be a difficult choice for him to choose between the Sox and Yanks.

At one time, Damon was Boston. He was the face of the Idiots. But then he left for New York, cut his hair, and became a company man. Of course, the Yanks discarded him last offseason — and most people don’t exactly picture Damon as a true Yankee.

But even if Damon snubs the Royals, even if he picks Boston or New York, even if he doesn’t mention a single member of the Royals organization in his Hall-of-Fame speech, the people of Kansas City could still claim another minor victory.

They could tell their grandkids that they saw Johnny Damon, “Hall-of-Famer Johnny Damon”, play baseball at Kauffman Stadium.

They could say that they saw him slap four doubles in a game and make running catches at the warning track… and they could say they saw the commercial that started it all.

Yes. They could say they saw Johnny Damon become a star.

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