Bodley: Damon thrilled to be a Tiger
But former Yankee was surprised by free-agent market
LAKELAND, Fla. -- Johnny Damon stopped short Monday of saying he and agent Scott Boras misread the free-agent market this winter.
In Damon's perfect world, he would have re-signed with the New York Yankees, but their offer of a two-year deal worth $14 million was quickly rejected before Christmas.
Instead, after weeks of rhetoric and waiting, the 36-year-old Damon agreed to a one-year contract Sunday with the Detroit Tigers worth $8 million -- a far cry from his original asking price. And just for one year.
"Any time you have offers from the richest team [the Yankees] and they say that's the best they can do, it's definitely going to be a tough market," Damon said during Monday afternoon's session with the media after joining the Tigers at their Spring Training facility.
He added the Yankees had until Sunday to bring him back. "They had their chances, but went a different way. Teams do that. There's no hard feelings there. We left on good terms. It just didn't work out."
Damon talked about how excited he is with his new team, insisting repeatedly how much he and wife Michelle love Detroit. He went so far as to say the Tigers were his first choice even before he signed with the Yankees as a free agent in December 2005.
"I think Harold Reynolds [of MLB Network] said it best. I'm still a great player. I think it's a shock when you win the World Series, have a great year and go through the offseason and the market is this tough," Damon said. "I'm happy how things turned out."
Damon, now with his fifth team, batted .282 last season and hit a career-high 24 home runs. As the Yankees defeated the Phillies to win their 27th World Series, he hit .364.
But at 36, Johnny found it impossible to find a team that wasn't willing to cut his 2009 salary of $13 million.
"I wasn't sure this was the point of my career when I was going to start going year-to-year," he said. "But if that's the case so I can keep playing baseball and keep enjoying what I do, so be it. Scott Boras and I are at peace.
"But it's tough for a lot of guys right now. I happened to be in that category after I knew it wasn't going to work out with my former team. I looked around and tried to decide what team I could go to and make an impact. This isn't the same market we lived in years ago. I told Scott that Detroit was No. 1."
It was almost as if Damon, because of his desire to play in Detroit, reduced his demand of a two-year deal and forced the issue after general manager Dave Dombrowski said about six weeks ago that he wasn't interested because of payroll constraints.
Had it not been for owner Mike Ilitch agreeing to kick in the extra $8 million, Damon would not have been putting on the bright white uniform shirt emblazoned with the Old English "D" on the front Monday.
"My comment, 'No,' was not based on the ability of what the player would bring to the club," said Dombrowski. "I was at my budget limits. I didn't have any more finances at that point."
Dombrowski had "adjusted" the Tigers' payroll by trading center fielder Curtis Granderson and pitcher Edwin Jackson, and watching Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney leave via free agency.
"We have a unique owner, not in the sense he wants to win. Most do, but he's driven to win. Once, he gave the OK [with Damon], we were thrilled to see if we could make it happen and had a lot of conversations.
That alone speaks volumes for the 2009-10 offseason.
Damon said he talked with Ilitch and the fact the owner agreed to raise the payroll just for him "means a great deal to me -- the fact the owner and the GM were on the same page, the fact they wanted me, the fact we talked and they respected the type of player I am -- all that good stuff. As a baseball player, you love to hear those things. This is a tough game when you have people who support you, it definitely makes it a lot easier."
The cold hard facts of this offseason: Many teams are shying away from giving players lucrative contracts based on what they have done. For players such as Damon who are past their prime, they're being paid for what GMs believe they can contribute in the future.
"I want the Tiger organization to look great," he said. "They've invested time and money in me. I plan to go out there and give them all I have."
Somebody asked Damon after playing under the bright lights of New York and Boston, if he can adjust to the not-so-bright atmosphere of Detroit.
"The basic reason I'm here is a chance to win," he said. "They have a great team with a lot of young players. The lights don't have to be bright for me. I'm a baseball player and will try to go out and do what I can to help the team. That's always been No. 1 for me since I started playing in Kansas City and now Detroit. I want to hustle and do what I can. I was born to be a ballplayer."
Damon's home in Orlando is just 45 minutes from Tigertown in Lakeland.
"During Spring Training I can stay at home, take the kids to school and then drive to the ballpark," he said. "My dad lives in the area and will be able to see the games here. It's perfect for me."
Then, he added: "I feel like I belong here. It took a little while, but I probably felt like I was a Tiger a month and a half ago. I really feel good about this."
Sitting next to Damon, Dombrowski blurted, "I wish you would have called me and told me that!"
Now, Damon says he has a chance to more than prove his worth to the Tigers.
And to other teams which will be watching, especially the Yankees.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.