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Johnny is on the spot

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / August 24, 2010

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In the end, we want to be entertained, don’t we?

Who knows whether the Red Sox will catch the Rays for the wild-card spot? But for a few hours yesterday there was some excitement among the players, the media, and the fans. The Tigers put outfielder Johnny Damon on waivers, the Red Sox claimed him, and the first impression of many was, “Hey, this could be fun.’’

The magic of the Sox’ world champion Idiots of 2004 never will be recreated, but Damon was fun and he still is. He’s also had some excellent seasons after the Sox decided they’d rather have Coco Crisp. Damon spent four very good years with the Yankees, winning another title last season, and these days he’s trying to reach 3,000 hits (he has 2,538) and possibly earn enshrinement in Cooperstown.

The 36-year-old was deciding yesterday whether to return to the Sox; the teams have 48 hours to work out a deal. And after he went 2 for 4 with an RBI in a 12-2 victory over Kansas City, he said he was leaning toward staying with the Tigers. “My gut and everything else tells me Detroit’s the place for me,’’ he told reporters. He said he’d talk to team president Dave Dombrowski before making his decision.

“He’s a special player,’’ said Sox catcher Jason Varitek, an ex-Damon teammate. “He’s pushing Hall of Fame-type numbers. And you add that Johnny’s great in the clubhouse, he’s a gamer on the field, and one hell of a teammate.’’

“It would be a nice opportunity,’’ Varitek added. “But we’ll let him do what he needs to do. Johnny, aside from being a great player, he makes athletic adjustments offensively. He plays hurt, he doesn’t always play at 100 percent. So much of it is how he plays the game. He plays the game right. It pushes the energy.

“He’s definitely an exciting player.’’

Varitek wanted to make sure his praise of Damon wasn’t seen as a slap at the current outfielders.

“That’s no discredit to anybody, from Darnell [McDonald] to Billy [Hall] out there, to everybody,’’ he said. “Those guys have done one heck of a job, all of them. All sorts of different roles and different guys. Obviously it would add to our depth.

“Johnny knows we love him and always have. It’s wishful thinking right now.’’

Maybe so, but with injuries having decimated the team, Damon could help. The Sox entered last night’s game with four starters — Mike Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, and Dustin Pedroia — likely to miss the rest of the season.

The Sox haven’t made any huge trade to improve their chances in the wild-card race, content to use call-ups from Pawtucket.

So while the decision seems a no-brainer to Red Sox Nation, it’s not so easy for Damon.

“It’s probably as tough of a decision for me to make right now as it was for me to leave Boston for New York,’’ he said before the Tigers’ game last night. “It’s something that, fortunately, we have some time to think about. At this moment, I’m not sure I want to leave Detroit for that. I enjoy playing here. I enjoy the kids I’m playing for, the coaching staff.

“But obviously, Terry Francona is amazing. But it’s something that I’m going to have think long and hard over.’’

“I had a great time playing there,’’ Damon said. “But I think once it was apparent that I wasn’t a necessity to re-sign there, it started to get ugly. And that’s why I’ve got to think long and hard. I have to think if they do have a strong chance to make the playoffs with the guys so beat-up there. I have to think long and hard if I’m going to once again be probably one of the nicest guys in baseball, but be once again the most hated guy in baseball. That’s what it boils down to. You guys see how I get booed in every ballpark already.’’

The booing Sox fans gave him when he left for the Yankees took its toll. Damon always has been hurt by the reception he received when he first returned to play in Boston, after all the good he did here. He was the engine that drove the ’04 squad, a team leader. When he returned with the Tigers in late July he didn’t play all weekend because of a bad back and missed the chance to receive an ovation now that he was a Tiger and not in pinstripes.

It’s too bad he has to think twice about this because he likely would be embraced again by the Red Sox faithful, who could use another attraction to watch the rest of the way.

Damon could play left field, especially at Fenway Park, where he’d only have a short throw to the plate. At this point it’s his offense, his ability to get the big hit, that would most benefit the Sox. How many times in the past few weeks when the team has needed someone to step up with that hit to turn a game, has a player delivered? Damon would help.

“The only reason why I would be considering it is to help out this team [Tigers] in the future,’’ said Damon. “I love the Tigers organization, and I love the fact that they’re up-front and honest. If somehow they can get a good prospect back, a player that can help this team in the future, it would be beneficial for them. I would like to remain a Tiger, so I think that’s why these next hours are pretty important.’’

Damon is hitting .272 with seven homers, 30 doubles, and 41 RBIs.

One certainly can question the Red Sox’ motives here. They obviously were trying to keep Damon from getting to the Rays; they’ve blocked other players from reaching Tampa Bay as well.

When Rays manager Joe Maddon heard the Sox had claimed Damon, he joked, “Johnny is a very good baseball player. He still has a no-trade clause in his contract. I think he needs to really, really understand what a great community Detroit is. It would be a great place to raise a family, even if he explores some of the suburbs, for instance, Birmingham — it’s a beautiful little enclave over there.

“If you really sat down, Jim Leyland, a great manager — not that Tito [Francona]’s not, Tito’s wonderful — but there’s a lot of good things going on in Detroit. I’m sure he does not want to miss it.

“If he can’t be a Ray, I’d rather he be a Tiger, actually. Or a Red. Cincinnati’s fine. Or a Dodger is fine. But not a Red Sox.’’

The Sox may be hoping the Tigers pull him back or that Damon invokes his no-trade clause.

Whatever the Sox’ intentions, at least they’ve created some buzz for the first time in a while.

If they ever got him, Johnny Damon Part 2 would at least make us smile.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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