A Stuttering Kid
JOHNNY GREW FROM SHY, STUTTERING KID TO BASEBALL STAR
By Brian CostelloJanuary 1, 2006 |
Johnny Damon learned the art of making money at an early age. When he was five years old, his parents remember Damon buying packs of baseball cards and then selling them to neighborhood kids – marked up for a profit, of course.
“We never did have much because I was in the Army,” said his father, Jimmy. “We never went hungry or anything, but it was hard. I think he just figured out a way to make some spending money.”
Damon would soon be featured on baseball cards, his skills strong enough to earn him tens of millions of dollars, including his new four-year, $52-million deal with the Yankees.
The 32-year-old center fielder is one of baseball’s biggest stars today. His trip to the salon after joining the Yankees was the most covered haircut since Elvis joined the Army.
The ultra-confident Damon was not always comfortable in the spotlight, though. He grew up as a shy kid, the son of Jimmy and Yome Damon, who met in Yome’s native Thailand while Jimmy was stationed there during the Vietnam War. He was born on Nov. 5, 1973 in Fort Riley, Kan., the Damons’ second son.
“He was a very shy kid,” said James Damon, Johnny’s older brother. “He had a stuttering problem, so he didn’t like to talk. It’s weird to see him speaking a lot now. He never liked to be in the spotlight because he was embarrassed.”
Damon was four months old when his father was transferred to Okinawa. Yome soon brought Johnny to Thailand to meet her parents. The trip nearly turned tragic when Johnny broke free from his mother on a train. Yome spotted him at the open end of the train, where she grabbed him before he fell off.
“He had a lot of energy from the time he was a baby,” Yome said. “He would always be running.”
Damon’s energy would get him into mischief from Okinawa to Orlando, where the family settled after returning to the United States. At 14, he took his mother’s car and drove it more than an hour away to Daytona. When a police officer stopped him, Damon told him that he’d forgotten his license. When asked for his name, he gave the name of his big brother.
As a child, Damon idolized James, who was a standout athlete. Damon got into sports to emulate his brother.
“He was always James’ little brother,” James said. “That made him work harder and harder. Now, of course, I’m always Johnny’s older brother.”
Soon, Damon would star for his high school’s baseball and football teams. A linebacker, he stopped playing football after his sophomore year to concentrate on baseball. He became one of the top prospects in the country during his junior season and scouts flocked to his games.
“He was a fierce competitor,” said Royals general manager Allard Baird, who signed Damon out of high school. “I don’t think that’s ever changed. People forget this guy had high expectations on him at 17 years old. Beneath the surface of whatever Johnny is into is a fierce competitor and a will to win.”
Damon became a local celebrity, signing autographs and being featured in newspapers and on television. Before his first at-bat of his senior season, the public-address announcer introduced him as the “No. 1 player in America.” His statistics slumped that year, some say because of the pressure.
After being projected to go No. 1 in the 1992 amateur draft, Damon slid to 35th, where the Royals made him a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds.
He tore up the minor leagues, winning the player of the year at each level he played. On Aug. 12, 1995, he made his major-league debut against the Mariners at Kauffman Stadium. He went 3-for-5 with an RBI, run scored and a triple – the birth of a star.
The Royals made him the centerpiece of their youth movement, and he was soon dubbed the next George Brett. Damon liked Kansas City but never got used to playing for a franchise where losing is a way of life.
“He wanted to win,” said Danny Allie, his high school coach. “The biggest thing he used to say was, ‘I just want to get somewhere where they’re showing me we can win.’ It gets frustrating when you leave spring training knowing you can’t win.”
Damon was due to become a free agent after the 2001 season. He made it clear he had no interest in signing a long-term deal with the Royals, and they traded him to Oakland in January 2001.
With the A’s, he was seen as the missing piece to get them past the Yankees. He teamed with Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada on a team that won 102 games but lost in the playoffs to the Yankees again.
It was in Oakland where Damon began to change from the shy, stuttering kid to the outgoing celebrity he would become in Boston.
“In Oakland, I saw him transform into a confident, assured person,” James Damon said. “He had always been so shy. He was never cocky. I think Giambi helped him out a lot.”
He would leave the A’s after one season, signing as a free agent with the Red Sox, where he would finally get past the Yankees in 2004. The long-haired, bearded Damon became an icon in Beantown. All of those close to him say he was conflicted about leaving the Red Sox, but their offer of $12 million less than the Yankees was just not enough.
“I think he feels sorry for the fans,” his dad Jimmy said. “It wasn’t his choosing. It was the management of the Red Sox.”
One day this winter, Johnny’s cell phone rang while James was visiting him. Joe Torre was on the other end, delivering a recruiting pitch as Giambi and Alex Rodriguez had. Soon, he would be fitted for pinstripes.
“He was impressed by the way the Yankees came after him,” James said.
Now, the kid who’s been at various stops the nation’s top prep player, the next George Brett, the A’s missing ingredient and Boston’s biggest star gets a new form of pressure – patrolling center field at Yankee Stadium. Those who know him best say don’t worry, he can handle it.
“The big things when you looked at Johnny lately were the hair and beard and all that,” Baird said. “I think, to some degree, that’s taken away some people’s appreciation of how much of a competitor he is. Every time he goes to work, he gives you 100 percent. That’s one hell of a quality.”
Whether it’s selling baseball cards or putting numbers on the back of them.