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DOWN THE LINE

Johnny Damon is making his mark in Tampa Bay

The Rays designated hitter, who signed a one-year, $5.25-million deal, is hitting .279 and leading the majors with six game-winning hits and leading all designated hitters with 20 runs batted in.

April 30, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Rays outfielder Johnny Damon is congratulated by teammates after scoring the first run against the Minnesota Twins on Thursday.
Rays outfielder Johnny Damon is congratulated by teammates after scoring… (Genevieve Ross / Associated…)

Not the retiring type

When Johnny Damon became a free agent last winter, there were few suitors for his services.

"The Yankees were trying to get me back," he said Saturday. "I heard the Angels were talking. I don't think I got an offer from them, but I knew they were interested."

But it was the Tampa Bay Rays who showed the most love, offering a one-year, $5.25-million deal and the prospect of ample playing time. So far that decision has proven to be one of the best acquisitions of the season, with Damon hitting .266 and leading the majors with six game-winning hits and leading all designated hitters with 20 runs batted in.

Passing up two contenders for a team that looked to be rebuilding was a curious move for a 37-year-old in the twilight of his career. But then Damon didn't think the defending American League East champs were rebuilding.

"I knew they were losing some guys but I also knew they still had their starting rotation," he said. "I knew some of the guys they signed — as far as their bullpen — that I liked. This team is built on pitching and defense."

And though it's still early, Damon's quick start has him on pace to match a career high in homers while driving in more than 100 runs for the first time. And he's already set a franchise record with a 16-game April hitting streak.

"The RBI stuff is just a product of what's going on with the team," he said.

Damon's contributions don't stop there though. He's also been a factor in the clubhouse, where infielder Sean Rodriguez has started to grow his own Damon-like beard.

"I'm with a crew I really enjoy," Damon said. "As long as I can go out and be this competitive, I'm happy.

"These guys look up to me. They look up to the way that I played the game. I actually love playing with a bunch of young guys who are hungry. They want to win. They all want to get better."

The New York Mess

The Dodgers aren't the only team whose dysfunctional ownership is costing Commissioner Bud Selig some sleepless nights. According to Fortune magazine, the New York Mets have a debt of close to $625 million, about $200 million higher than previously reported. And the team, which needed a $25-million loan from the commissioner to stay afloat last November, could lose as much as $70 million this season.

Selig has been supportive of troubled owner Fred Wilpon, a marked difference from how he's dealt with Frank McCourt. But with the Wilpon family facing a $1-billion lawsuit stemming from its involvement with convicted felon Bernie Madoff, ownership is trying to sell up to 49% of the team — and may eventually have to divest entirely.

Among the Mets' liabilities is $1.2 million owed annually over the next quarter-century to 48-year-old Bobby Bonilla, who retired in 2001. Those payments are scheduled to begin in July.

What fluke?

The Toronto Blue Jays raised some eyebrows over the winter when they gave former journeyman outfielder Jose Bautista, a career .244 hitter, a five-year, $64-million contract after one good season. But Bautista is proving last year was no fluke, starting Saturday atop the American League in hitting (.372) and homers (nine) and leading the majors in on-base percentage (.542), slugging (.795), on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.337), walks (28) and runs (25).

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