Newest Rays asked to lead -- and have fun
Pals in Boston, Damon and Ramirez reunite in a new clubhouse
ST. PETERSBURG -- James Shields got his first look at Johnny Damon on July 30, 2006, when the Rays right-hander pitched at Yankee Stadium for the first time in the 12th start of his rookie season.
Through 4 1/2 innings, the game stood tied at 2, and Shields was showing a great deal of moxie while facing the fierce lineup wearing pinstripes in front of a Sunday afternoon crowd of more than 54,000.
The Yankees had scratched two runs together in the third inning, but otherwise, Shields remained flawless. Damon then stepped to the plate with one out in the fifth. Shields came inside, and Damon re-routed the offering into the upper deck in right field.
Damon batted again with two outs in the seventh. Once again, he turned on a pitch by Shields, hitting yet another upper-deck shot and setting up a 4-2 Rays loss -- the fifth of Shields' career.
With memories like elephants, pitchers never forget. So Shields managed a chuckle when asked about the news that Damon would be his teammate in 2011.
"I'm definitely glad he's on my team now," Shields said. "He tends to get the head out on me a little bit, so I'd rather him hit upper-deck homers for us than against us."
Damon, along with Manny Ramirez, will be joining Tampa Bay for the 2011 season, each having agreed to a one-year deal on Friday night. According to a Major League source, Damon will be paid $5.25 million with a $750,000 attendance bonus, while Ramirez will make $2 million.
The Rays have not confirmed the deal, nor have they commented on either player. However, a baseball source confirmed to MLB.com that the deals are done, pending physicals.
Damon and Ramirez were teammates in Boston from 2002-05 and were key members of the club's World Series championship in '04. The years Damon and Ramirez spent together in Boston were magical ones for the Red Sox; the Rays are hoping to buy a sliver of that magic and put it to good use in '11.
"I had an inclination [executive vice president of baseball operations] Andrew [Friedman] might sign one of the two," Shields said. "And now, we have both of them. I'm really excited to have both Johnny and Manny on the team, just for the pure aspect of experience. Both of them played in the American League East, so they know what it's all about. They're both veteran players, so it's nice to have that veteran status in the clubhouse."
Friday night's news should adequately insure Tampa Bay will not lack for any firepower in 2011.
Damon, 37, played left field and served as the designated hitter for the Tigers last year, hitting .271 with eight home runs and 51 RBIs, scoring 81 runs in 145 games. He has played for two World Series winners -- the Red Sox in 2004 and the Yankees in '09. He has 2,571 career hits -- just 429 from the 3,000 mark. With the Rays, Damon will likely spend time in left field and at DH, occasionally coming off the bench and adding a quality veteran presence to the clubhouse.
Ramirez, 38, hit .311 with eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 66 games for the Dodgers in 2010 before finishing the season with the White Sox, with whom he hit .261 with one home run and two RBIs across 24 games. Ramirez has 555 career home runs -- 14th on the all-time list -- and is a 12-time All-Star.
Ramirez was suspended 50 games during in 2009 for violating Major League Baseball's Drug Policy, having taking human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), a women's fertility drug typically used by users of performance-enhancing drugs to restart their body's natural testosterone production as they come off a cycle.
Ramirez will likely be used as the Rays' DH and will give Evan Longoria protection in the lineup.
Each player is long in the tooth, so it's conceivable that one or both will spend time on the disabled list at some point this summer. What happens when they are available for duty will ultimately determine whether signing both players was a good move for Tampa Bay. The success of each could come down to how well manager Joe Maddon mixes and matches his lineups throughout the season, giving Ramirez and Damon rest when needed.
While Damon is no Carl Crawford at this point of his career -- and he lacks throwing strength -- he can still track down a fly ball. In addition, he'll likely become the Rays' leadoff man, a distinction that fell to disciplined hitting catcher John Jaso in 2010. Meanwhile, on the surface, Ramirez is a vast upgrade over Pat Burrell, the DH Tampa Bay counted on heading into '09 and '10.
And you can't say enough about the veteran leadership the pair brings the Rays in the advent of this offseason's exodus of veterans such as Crawford, Carlos Pena, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour and Chad Qualls.
"You can always add some more leadership," Shields said. "The more veterans you have, the better -- especially with a young team like we have now. Just so guys can look up to them and see how they work, see how they go about their business a little bit."
If nothing else, the pair's arrival should add an element of fun for trips to Tropicana Field this summer.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.