By Jason Keidel
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Admit it, you called him “Matt” Damon more than once. In fact, you did it so often that you often omitted his first name. It’s easy to confuse two handsome dudes who made their bones in Boston. We’ve been equally guilty of such an inversion for decades with Jack Nicklaus (“Remember when Jack Nicholson won the Masters in ’86? At like 50 years old? Awesome!”).
But when Cooperstown comes calling it comes time to get the name right.
Johnny Damon just joined a most exclusive club last week. Upon swatting his 500th double, he became the 11th player in MLB history to hit that many doubles, 100 triples, 200 homers, and 2,500 hits.
The prior ten are a roll call for Cooperstown, somewhere huddled in a hole carved in an Iowa cornfield, including Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays. (Sans CC Sabathia and a Pepsi Max machine.)
Hall of Fame criteria, particularly from the PED period, is most malleable, since we don’t know the legal from the illusion from the illicit. There have been no whispers about Johnny and Juice, and we want to applaud any player who brought a clean vein to the game. But, sadly, Damon just doesn’t add up.
Some stats are portals into induction: 3,000 hits and 300 wins, for instance. But with baseball’s myriad calculations and statistical combinations, Damon’s fast feet and growing feats don’t feel dominant. In this case, it feels like one of the sport’s eternal quirks in a game that trades on numerical eminence.
You can throw a number of notable careers into a blender and pour a cocktail of original combinations. They make for nice water cooler cackle or nice trivia stumping with your buddies, but not for Hall of Fame careers.
Was Damon fun, clever, and clutch? Yes. Yes. Yes.
Aside from his werewolf days in Boston, groomed Lon Cheney chic and the “Cowboy Up” crap that left New York nauseated, Damon was a character in a sport that promotes them. He wasn’t a dumb jock, per se, but a jock of jocular abandon. The joke always seemed to be on us. As we mashed our noses into the grindstone, he was doing naked pull-ups in the locker room, insisting once that Detroit is where he always wanted to play when we all knew it was gibberish.
(Damon, like all athletes, says the deity or destiny directs him to a team when it always coincides with the one paying the most. Pedro Martinez when he signed with the Mets and Reggie White with the Packers are perfect examples.)
But Johnny Damon never finished in the top ten of MVP voting. Wouldn’t a Hall-of-Famer at least finish once or twice in the top three, if not perennially in the top five? We’re talking about a lifetime .287 hitter who, in 17 seasons, never had season with 100 R.B.I. And he never led the AL in anything except runs scored in 2000 (136), stolen bases in the same season (46), and triples in 2002 (11) – hardly the stuff of legends.
Damon tugs the heartstrings, the rare friend and foe from Boston to New York, each rival with reasons to love and loathe him. He hit the grand slam off our beloved (yes, I’m kidding) Kevin Brown, and duped the Phillies on the bases to bring the ring back to the Bronx. Nary a Bostonian booed Damon when he switched to the pinstripes. Some of that was because the Red Sox weren’t going to pony up the cash or the years Damon desired and, well, Johnny Damon is damn near impossible to hate.
But one bona fide for a bust in Cooperstown is non-negotiable: dominance. Was he atmospheric or stratospheric? And was his time at the top consistent or prolonged? We can’t measure his moment on the mountaintop because he was never there.
He’s one of baseball’s goofballs, an authentic character with character and charisma and a clutch bat, with many of his best deeds done under brown leaves. He’s immutable but not an immortal. Says here, most regrettably, that Johnny Damon doesn’t get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.
Call is when you get 3,000 hits, Mr. Damon, if you ever get there. We love you, Johnny; we’re just not in love with you. Goofball that you are, you either don’t know the difference or you don’t care. Laugh in your Lamborghini while we choke on your dust and gag with laughter at your memory. We’ve always needed you more than you needed us. Not a bad epitaph, even if his laugh and autograph never make it to Cooperstown.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com
Is Damon a Hall-of-Famer? Do character and charisma count? Leave a comment below.