EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 16, 2011

Johnny not-so-rotten any more

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

BOSTON — Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Johnny Damon was wearing a T-shirt underneath his uniform yesterday that makes a pretty brash statement:

"There's no safety on these guns" with arrows pointing at each of his biceps.

At 37 years old, Damon's body could easily be mistaken for one a dozen years younger.

The former Red Sox center fielder entered yesterday's doubleheader versus Boston just 314 hits shy of 3,000 hits for his career, and he should be able to play long enough to reach the 3,000-hit milestone because of his superior physical shape.

That brings up an interesting question: Is Damon a Hall of Famer if he reaches 3,000 hits?

"It's going to be widely debated," Damon said. "I've got some numbers that are going to definitely qualify for it. But I think with everyone, it's about how you finished on an MVP vote and all that stuff. But a bunch of those guys who won the MVP vote used (performance enhancing drugs). And it definitely takes away from how high I possibly could have been being a clean player in our generation."

Damon told The Eagle-Tribune he prides himself on being a clean player during this generation.

"It's probably the most important thing," Damon said. "I've always been like, 'You know what? Never needed it.' Never knew it was in baseball or belonged in baseball. So I'm happy that I never went down that road."

Only 28 players in Major League Baseball history have reached 3,000 hits during their careers.

"When he reaches 3,000 hits, to me, that automatically makes him a Hall of Famer," said Don Zimmer, a Tampa Bay Rays senior advisor who managed the Red Sox from 1976 through 1980.

Damon, who likely will join the elite 3,000 hit club someday, entered yesterday with a .286 career average, .353 on-base percentage, .434 slugging percentage, .788 OPS, 225 home runs, 1,098 RBIs, 506 doubles, 105 triples, 396 stolen bases, 1,623 runs and 2,686 hits.

Damon said whether he eventually becomes a Hall of Famer is not his decision and there are more important things.

"The most important thing I think about playing is what your teammates think about you and if you left the game in a better place than when you came in," Damon said.

Zimmer loves having Damon in the Rays organization.

"He plays the game the way it should be played," Zimmer said. "He plays hard all the time. DH'ing is his role right now. He's strong. Physically he's strong. That's why I think he has a chance to hit 3,000 hits."

So how does Damon stay in such great shape?

"I definitely work harder in the offseason," Damon said. "I think the biggest thing is having four kids. I'm constantly trying to keep up with them now, whether my son's playing basketball or my daughter's playing volleyball or the younger kids are riding bikes. I'm constantly going and knowing that I have to stay in shape."

Damon gives Sox edge over Yankees

Damon's Tampa Bay team entered yesterday nine games over .500 but nine games out of first place in the AL East to both the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.

Damon said he thinks Boston is better than New York.

"Right now, I'm thinking it's Boston," said Damon, who won World Series titles with both Boston and the Yankees. "I just think their offense is going on all cylinders right now. And their pitching staff, they have had some injuries this year. But also that can make a pitching staff fresher down the stretch. So I think right now, they're looking pretty strong. You never know in this division. Things change quickly." Damon, therefore, isn't counting out the Rays just yet.

"We feel very good about our team and our chances," Damon said. "We know it's an uphill battle. ... We look at the big picture. We've got to think about (picking up) one game a week. We do play a bunch of the same teams that we need to climb down the stretch. So we're not going to give up yet. We're nine games over .500. Hopefully, we can push it to 15 in the next two weeks. And we've just kind of got to see where it takes us."

Damon does enjoy returning to Boston.

"I just think coming back under different circumstances — not with the pinstripes — it's just a different feel," Damon said. "A bunch of fans remember how great this team became in the short time I was here. People are pumped about their team this year also. So these fans are always going to want the championships."

Good reason to pass on Sox last year

Damon, who played for the Detroit Tigers last year, had a chance to return to Boston in Aug. 2010.

The Red Sox claimed him on waivers. But Damon declined a trade to Boston.

"It felt right (to stay in Detroit) with the situation that they (the Red Sox) were in," Damon said. "They were seven games back at the time. I felt like it would have been more about me than more about the team."

3,000 hit club

Only 28 players in Major League Baseball history have reached 3,000 hits during their careers.

Twenty-four of the 28 are in the Hall of Fame.

Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader with 4,256 hits, isn't a Hall of Famer, because of his ban for betting on baseball.

Derek Jeter has more than 3,000 hits but he still is playing.

Craig Biggio, who retired in 2007, has 3,060 career hits, is not Hall of Fame eligible until 2013.

Rafael Palmeiro, who has 3,020 career hits, received just 11.0 percent of the vote in 2011. Palmeiro was suspended for violating baseball's anti-drug policy during his career. The Washington Post reported that he used "a serious steroid" according to "a well-placed industry source."