Published May 11, 2010
DETROIT – Do the Yankees miss Johnny Damon? Absolutely, they do.
Last season, he batted second for the World Series champions. This year's No. 2 hitter, Nick Johnson, is currently on the disabled list. So is Curtis Granderson, who effectively replaced Damon in the Yankees' outfield.
But the defending champs aren't at a crisis point. This is New York. Stars come. Stars go. The show continues. And while it's true that a select few luminaries stay, Damon was never a Yankee lifer in the way that Jeter, Rivera and Posada are.
Sure, the Yankees would have a better lineup right now if Damon were in it. But let's not get carried away. When play began Monday, no team in the American League had scored more runs than the New York Yankees.
They are going to be just fine without Johnny Damon.
I'm not sure the same would be true of the Tigers.
Of the two teams at Comerica Park on Monday, Damon was playing for the one that needed him most. And that's not just because his fifth-inning solo home run helped Detroit win a 5-4 cliffhanger on Ernie Harwell Night.
Damon has been as advertised, since his tardy-yet-charmed spring arrival in Lakeland, Fla. Good on the field. Good in the clubhouse. (And that was the description of his former manager, Joe Girardi, on Monday afternoon.)
Critics pointed out that Damon's power numbers were destined to drop once he took up residence somewhere other than Yankee Stadium. They were right. But doesn't it count for something that both his home runs this season have had memorable contributions to Detroit wins?
The first was a walk-off shot to vanquish the Angels on May 1.
The second helped his new team beat his old team.
"Feels good," the hero said, "especially when the run can help you win a game."
Damon's home run, off Sergio Mitre, traveled 382 feet. It goes without saying that it also would have cleared the fence at his last home ballpark. On the Yankees radio broadcast, John Sterling called it a "Johnny Rocket." Old habits die hard.
Damon downplayed the significance of Monday's game, saying he wasn't interested in proving that his former employer erred by letting him sign elsewhere. ("I never look at it that way," he said.) But he surely understood that a certain amount of hype was inevitable. And he delivered.
It's the sort of thing that plays well in a clubhouse that fumbled a three-game lead with four games to play last October.
Damon specializes in suave, worry-free production. After last year's collapse, the Tigers needed to see that such a thing was possible.
"A clutch player," Tigers veteran Brandon Inge said. "When it's on the line, he's going to be there. That's for sure. There's not a lot of guys you can say that about.
"A lot of guys crumple under pressure. He actually thrives on it. That's big."
Especially big, when considering how many impressionable youths are hanging around the Detroit clubhouse. On Sunday, for example, Jim Leyland's lineup included four rookies: catcher Alex Avila, second baseman Scott Sizemore, center fielder Austin Jackson and designated hitter Brennan Boesch.
Kids are kids, which would explain why the Tigers have committed the most errors in the AL. But Damon has helped them adjust. Hence the relative lack of anxiety and an 18-14 record, three games back of the AL Central lead.
Earlier this season, Damon ordered customized bathrobes for every player on the team: Olde English D on the front, name and number on the back. High-end stuff. But Boesch was still in the minors at the time.
"I showed up, and everyone had robes," Boesch recalled. "He said, 'I'm going to get you one.' I said, 'Sure, sure.'"
On Monday, one was waiting for him.
"Sure enough," Boesch said. "Shows you what kind of guy he is. He's helped us rookies a lot. He doesn't have to do that. He goes out of his way."
The Yankees miss Damon's bat more than his largesse. But they still look like a playoff team.
Girardi has used Nick Swisher as his No. 2 hitter in each of the last two games. Good move. He's 3-for-7 with a home run since taking on the new assignment.
While Swisher strikes out more than the ideal second-place hitter, he gets on base a lot. And it helps that he's off to a terrific start, with a .306 batting average.
Even if Johnson's wrist injury keeps him out for an extended period, the Yankees will be OK. They have the money to upgrade via trade in June or July, and left-handed hitters (like Johnson) are always available on the midsummer market.
Could Damon himself be that left-handed hitter? If the Tigers plummet in the standings, it's certainly possible. When asked if he has considered that possibility, Damon said, "Not yet. Right now, we are in the thick of things. ... We haven't played that great, and we're still looking pretty good - better than most teams out there."
With Granderson on the DL and Jackson hitting .360, it's fashionable to say that the Tigers got the better of the December blockbuster. That doesn't change the fact that the Yankees, right now, are the better team.
In fact, the Yankees' 21-9 record entering Monday was their best 30-game mark since 2003. And that's without Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez enjoying a sustained hot stretch - although Teixeira seems to be starting his now.
Sure, the Yankees need Damon. But the Tigers need him more.