Damon deals with demons
TORONTO -- There's an antiseptic quality to the word "concussion" that tends to make it sound less ominous than it really is. Call it a bruised brain, and maybe you can appreciate a little more why Johnny Damon, 10 months after his skull-shaking collision with former Red Sox utilityman Damian Jackson during the American League playoffs, said what he did yesterday.
"Finally, I'm starting to feel comfortable," he said. "But for the first four months of the season . . . I got this scary feeling, `Is this going to be my last game? What's going to happen in this game to put the fear back into me?' "
The Sox center fielder spoke at length about the feeling he has had to fight to overcome. Why had he worried that every game was his last?
"Having all those close plays out there," he said. "Banging against those walls. Just the uncertainty about my ability to be able to go out there and play top notch at my position. You come close to another play like that, you do your double takes."
He is dealing, he said, with some physical aftereffects from that Jackson collision, most notably its impact on his vision. He is sufficiently concerned, he said, that he has an eye exam scheduled and plans to have doctors check out a few other things, too, though he refused to be more specific ("I'd rather not talk about it," he said).
"I definitely can't see like I used to," he said. "When I cover up an eye and try to get a clear vision, it's not there. At night, at dusk, I definitely have a tough time. It's something I have to battle with. I'm getting a little bit older, maybe that has something to do with it, but my defense definitely hasn't been as crisp as it has been in the past. I let fall a few balls that normally I would go in and get without relying a lot on guys around me to help me out.
"I am starting to get a little more comfortable, so I expect my defense to pick up as we play through September and the playoffs."
Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein confirmed yesterday that Damon plans to have his eyes checked ("From time to time, there are certain ballparks, certain backgrounds that he has problems with," Epstein said), but said he was unaware of other health issues for Damon. "Not that I know of," he said. "I think he's fine."
While Damon has made as many errors (five) as he did in the previous three seasons combined, vision problems were not responsible for Frank Menechino's line drive sailing over his head for a triple Tuesday night. "No, that ball just took off," he said. "That ball had a lot of backspin. It started low and went high."
And it's hard to look at what Damon has accomplished at the plate this season and believe that his vision has declined precipitously. Overlooked in the giant crashing of cymbals that have become a staple of Sox games this season -- the sound of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz hitting baseballs out of the park -- has been the persistent sound of the timpani at the top of the Sox order. Before Ramirez and Ortiz went back-to-back and were later joined by Orlando Cabrera in the Sox' three-homer fourth, Damon had commenced the inning with a double, his 29th of the season.
In eight of the Sox' last 17 games, according to the calculations of the Maniacal One, Chuck Waseleski, Damon has led off the game with a hit. The Sox have won all eight of those games, and are 20-10 when Damon starts the game with a hit, including 14 of 15 such occasions.
"When I do get on in the first inning, it definitely makes things a lot easier for the guys coming up," he said. "When I'm on first base, I'm in scoring position with David and Manny at the plate."
Across the board, Damon is putting up the best numbers he's had in three seasons with the Sox, and numbers that could favorably compare with his best season, 2000, when he was one of the game's biggest impact players with the Kansas City Royals. He started the night with leadoff on-base percentage of .388, the highest of his career and one that ranked him seventh in the league (Ichiro Suzuki was first at .413). Damon hasn't finished in the top 10 in leadoff OBP since coming to the Sox.
With another run scored last night, he has 97, one fewer than league leader Gary Sheffield of the Yankees, and is on pace to score 125. When he scores No. 100, it will be his seventh straight season of 100 or more runs. A couple of more doubles, and he will have 30 for the seventh straight season. Sox manager Terry Francona said Damon's energy level has been markedly higher in the last couple of months. Could it be that Damon, at age 30, felt a challenge to reassert himself as one of the game's premier leadoff men?
"I think, surprisingly, I have been probably the best for the last six or seven years," he said, "but you know what? My name always gets left out of that category, maybe because I don't try to fight it that much. It really doesn't mean that much to me.
"Over the years, I've been all right. When my career is over, people are going to look back and say, `Wow, he really did put up some pretty good numbers.' "
It has helped, he said, to share the lineup with some big-time talent. "I've been blessed to be around some pretty good players to drive me in," he said. "I help them out. They help me out. I look forward to finishing up strong. Get a couple of MVP votes, but help out Ortiz and Manny to get to that ultimate goal."
He's picking the Sox to make the playoffs, along with the Athletics, Twins, and Yankees. He'd like to see the Sox finish with a sweep, but if the World Series should go to a Game 7 on Oct. 31 at Fenway Park, he'll be there.
"We can have Halloween at my house any day of the week," he said.
How's that for a vision?
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.