Tribe welcomes Damon into the fold in Chicago
Outfielder joins club prior to three-game set with White Sox
CHICAGO -- Johnny Damon found it strange this past offseason when his friends asked if he was planning to retire. As the winter months dragged on, however, no big league teams were coming to him with the type of contract or situation that convinced him to sign.
That did not mean Damon had lost his desire for playing.
"In no way was I thinking about retiring," said Damon, wearing his new Indians gear as he sat inside the visiting dugout at U.S. Cellular Field. "I do want to keep on playing. I feel like I have a lot to give, whether it's on the field or my experience. I know I can play and I want to play."
Cleveland has given Damon the kind of opportunity he wanted.
"I'm glad the process brought me here to be a Cleveland Indian," he said, "and brought me here to the Windy City of Chicago."
Two weeks after signing a Minor League contract with the Tribe, the 38-year-old Damon was in uniform -- he will wear No. 33 -- but on the bench for Tuesday's game against the White Sox. The veteran outfielder has been training at the Indians' complex in Goodyear, Ariz., but he will now be thrown into the mix mainly as a left fielder for the big league club.
Damon is expected to make his Indians debut on Wednesday.
In order to add Damon to the active and 40-man rosters, Cleveland designated utility infielder Jose Lopez for assignment.
Damon's deal, which was struck on April 17, includes a base salary of $1.25 million and another $1.4 million in performance bonuses. Since signing, Damon has participated in workouts and extended spring games in Arizona. He played mostly outfield, served as a DH for a few games, and garnered nearly 30 at-bats.
The Indians indicated that their original plan was to have Damon advance to Minor League games -- likely with Triple-A Columbus -- prior to heading to Cleveland. Of course, plans have a way of changing.
"He felt good over there," said Indians manager Manny Acta, referring to the setting in Arizona. "We had a training staff that was taking care of hm, and enough coaches. He just felt comfortable and he knows his body more than anybody else. The coaching staff over there felt good about how quick he got his timing down.
"Granted, it's different pitching up here, but this guy has been doing it for a while."
Over a 17-year big league career, Damon has hit .286 with a .353 on-base percentage and 2,723 hits in tours with the Royals, A's, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Rays. Last season, Damon hit .261 with a .326 on-base percentage, 11 stolen bases, 16 home runs, 29 doubles, 73 RBIs and 81 runs scored in 150 games for Tampa Bay.
Acta noted that Damon, who will need to be eased into regular playing time, would initially serve as the Tribe's leadoff man in the games he starts. Asked for his reasoning behind that decision, Acta cracked a smile.
"Other than the .350-plus on-base percentage that he has lifetime?" Acta said. "Other than that? And the close to 3,000 hits he's got? And the fact that over the last three years he's hit lefties even better than righties? What, the beard? The hair? What else do you want me to give you?"
Damon has spent most of the past two seasons working as a designated hitter, but he projects to garner most of his playing time in left field. Cleveland has expressed confidence in the veteran's ability to move back into an outfield role on a more regular basis, and Damon said he was excited about that chance.
"I see it as an opportunity," Damon said. "The fact that I didn't play outfield the last couple of years kept teams away some [over the offseason]. They didn't know what they were getting. I know I can still chase some balls down."
Adding Damon helps bridge the gap to the expected return of sidelined center fielder Grady Sizemore, who remains on the 60-day disabled list while rehabbing from lower back surgery. Sizemore has initiated baseball activities and a light walk-jog program, but he is not eligible to be activated until June 3.
Cleveland already has a full-time DH in veteran Travis Hafner.
Shelley Duncan earned the Opening Day left-field job during Spring Training after spending the past few seasons primarily as a backup first baseman, left fielder and DH off the bench. The left-handed Damon and right-handed Duncan would presumably split the playing time in left, with Duncan offering added insurance at his other positions.
Duncan enjoyed a strong start to the season, hitting .333 (9-for-27) with two homers and 10 walks compared to six strikeouts. With his 0-for-3 performance against the Angels on Sunday, Duncan slipped to a .147 (5-for-34) average with no homers, 16 strikeouts and three walks in his last 10 games, dating back to April 18.
"I understand that Shelley Duncan and I need to work well together," Damon said.
Being in a shared role for the time being is just fine for Damon.
For now, he is just thrilled to continue on with his career.
"I have nothing to go out there and prove," Damon said, "except to help the Indians stay atop of the standings, get to the playoffs and help some young players mature and become professionals. I've been playing this game for a long time and I've loved it. I've been able to play it with passion and play it with a smile.
"I still enjoy it. I know once that day comes where the enjoyment factor is not there, that's what's going to tell me when it's time to leave."