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Never One to Call it Quits, Johnny Damon Returns to Cheers


Ten years later, some of the Red Sox who were immortalized in October of 2004 look as though a decade has really passed. Their hair has grayed. They've gained some weight. They've aged -- some gracefully, some not so much.

Then there's Johnny Damon, who looks like he's still in game shape, thanks to soccer. And who in fact says he could still play.

"If I played tonight," he said Wednesday, "I'd hit a homer."

If a team called, the former Royal, Red Sox, Yankee, Tiger, Ray, and Indian says he could "be ready in a short while," and, though that's not a call he's expecting to receive after 18 big-league seasons, he's also not ready to do anything formal that would dismiss the possibility.

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His plans are subject to change – as he reminded reporters, "I’ve told you guys things before, and things have changed ... it was I’m not going to sign with the Yankees, and I did" -- but nearly two years since his last pro game Damon still has not officially stepped away from the game of baseball. And even as he talks about how much he’s enjoying living a life that includes his business interests and raising a family of six kids, he has no intentions of doing so.

“I’m not planning on announcing my retirement any time soon, even though a couple years ago my agent wanted me to. I just don’t feel like there’s a need," he said. "I’m not really sure what the protocol is. I just go about my life and live it. I don’t know if it’s a prerequisite, saying you’re going to retire, but I never really needed that pat on the back or to go visit places to say I’m retiring.”

It’s unlikely that Damon would be given a back-patting tour like Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, and now Derek Jeter have received over the past three years. He’s not in the class of those three sure-fire hall of famers, and if he was ever going to compile the 231 hits he needs to reach 3,000 for his career, he would’ve had to make more of his last opportunity, in Cleveland, in 2012.

His legacy will be that of a very good player, a legitimate gamer, and a great teammate. And Wednesday further affirmed that for all that boos that met his return while he was with the Yankees, that legacy is admired and appreciated in Boston, too.

When Damon was returned with the Indians a couple of years ago he was met with a standing ovation, and the reaction was much the same when he was introduced during the ceremony honoring the ’04 champs, the crowd loudly cheered the center fielder whose two Game 7 home runs helped cap the ALCS comeback in New York, even laughing along when things got a little weird … as they seemingly have a tendency to with this particular group.

It’s the way things should be, because of all the eclectic stars that have come through this town with this team over the past decade, few have played harder or more fervently than Damon. And that deserves to be remembered more than his decision to follow the money down I-95.

“I loved playing here in Boston. I left my heart on the field every single time I played,” Damon said. “I played this game with a passion, and I’m glad that I was able to help bring that passion here to Boston, and help win it in 2004.”

Damon didn’t win another playoff game with the Sox after winning that title, leaving for the Yankees after the 2005 season – but saying Wednesday he left only after giving his incumbent team time to retain him. “I waited for Boston for six weeks after the season,” he said, but with the Sox front office was in flux after Theo Epstein stepped down as general manager a deal never materialized. And by then Damon’s options with other clubs were limited.

That led him to New York, for four years and $52 million. That decision brought on the perceived scorn from Sox fans – “They were booing the uniform,” he says – and although the choice ultimately made Damon a champion again, as a member of the 2009 Yanks, he figures he might’ve had even more success had he stayed at Fenway.

“I felt like if Boston would’ve re-signed me after 2005, we would’ve had a couple of more championships,” he said. “That’s how strong the team was.”

Damon had a chance to return to Boston in late August of 2010, but he vetoed a trade from Detroit because the Sox weren’t realistically in the race, he didn’t see an opportunity to play every day, and he felt as though the club had claimed him just to block him from getting to Tampa Bay. With five weeks left in the season, it wasn’t worth him relocating his family.

But Wednesday night Damon was back in town, seemingly beloved again, bygones well on the way to being bygones – and deservedly so, with the contributions he made 10 years ago far worthier of attention than the decision he made one year later.

“It was an effort that came from within,” Damon said. “The players were very special, and from top to bottom – from the front office, to the ownership, to the fans – that’s what made this special. Everyone should take credit for what the 2004 Red Sox team did.”