By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
Johnny Damon is best known for his time with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. He was a part of the Red Sox team that “broke the curse of the Bambino” in 2004. This May, he was inducted into the Asian Hall of Fame at a ceremony in Seattle. Damon, who flew here all the way from Orlando, Fla., sat down with the Northwest Asian Weekly.
“It’s one of my favorite places,” Damon said of Seattle, as he spent 18 seasons in the majors with a visit to play the Mariners each year. He recalled as a younger player that he would rent bikes and take them out to the University of Washington during his free time while in town to play games.
Damon’s mother, Yome, immigrated to the United States from Thailand. His father was in the U.S. Army and therefore Damon moved around as a child. He was born on an army base in Fort Riley, Kan. He also moved to Army bases in Okinawa, Japan and Fort Campbell, Ky., and Clarksville, Tenn. Once his father retired from the service, the family — his mother and older brother James — had a choice to settle down.
“My mom wanted to be around Mickey Mouse,” Damon reflected on the family’s choices. So, it came down to Anaheim, Calif. or Orlando. The family decided to settle in Orlando. It remains where he resides.
“It feels tremendous,” Damon said of the induction. “She (Damon’s mother) instilled being a good kid, the hard work you had to put into something and the work ethic.” He added, “To represent her country is a tremendous feeling.” Damon’s mother had a lot of traditions from Thailand. As a youth, he recalled going to the Buddhist temple and sometimes the monks would come to the house. He also recalls the great Thai food.
Damon said that while his mom enjoyed everywhere he played, she was especially proud that he was representing Thailand as part of the team that attempted to qualify for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2012. Damon was the only player on the team that played in the Major Leagues. “It was such a great experience,” said Damon. The young players looked up to him and recalled all of his famous Major League Baseball accomplishments. Damon is not ruling out a return to the Thailand team to help them qualify for the WBC. Despite being retired from professional baseball, he would be willing to pitch for the club. Of course, Damon gave the disclaimer that his body would have to be in shape to play.
As a child, Damon played a variety of sports including soccer and baseball. He started playing t-ball at the age of 6. Almost instantly, he was hitting the ball better and running faster than other kids. But, Damon realized a strange thing when he first began to play. He knew he was left-handed, but he did not know that he had to use a mitt to put on his right hand. So, he found himself in the awkward position of catching a ball with a mitt on his left-hand, needing to take off the glove, and then throw with it. He borrowed left-handed gloves until he earned enough money from cutting grass to buy his own glove. He began playing with older kids when he was 8 years old.
Damon was also an outstanding track athlete in high school in the 100, 200 and 400 meters. But, he had to balance baseball and track at the same time. He also played football, but it wasn’t his passion. Damon recalled being hit hard his sophomore year by Warren Sapp, who went on to become an NFL Hall of Fame defensive lineman.
Damon started playing professional baseball for the Kansas City Royals, but he played the bulk of his career with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. When he first came to the Red Sox, many fans “believed in the curse,” referring to the fact that the Red Sox had not won a World Series since 1918.
“When I got there, I was really shocked by how subdued everyone was.” Damon noted that there was an expectation to lose. He helped turn the attitude around to a winning culture.
There were a lot of different personalities on the Red Sox roster during the season they won the World Series, but Damon thought “it was a piece of cake.” He said that the players were able to settle their differences and come together to bring in a winning mentality.
When he left the Red Sox, he realized that the Boston fans that had cheered for him so passionately would likely turn on him since he was joining the Yankees, the prime rival for Red Sox fans. For Damon, the career move was warranted as the Red Sox had held firm on a new contract with Damon and the Yankees offered him a better deal. He helped create a new salary level for center fielders — making $13 million per year as the Yankees leadoff hitter. “It was a tough move,” Damon said. “But I felt like I was at the right spot at the right time.” Damon noted that the Red Sox did not believe he was in the future plans of the organization, as a younger player, Jacoby Ellsbury, was close to joining the Major League roster. He was 31 at the time of the move, and Damon felt like he had a lot of baseball left to play.
Although the Yankees have a strict dress code of no beards or long hair, Damon had no problem with it.
He stated that when he signed with Boston, he had short hair. He grew a beard and longer hair with the Red Sox. But the change was no problem.
Damon spends his time with his wife and eight kids in Orlando. He also works with the Johnny Damon Foundation. The not-for-profit 501(c)(3) assists local and national programs that provide leadership and growth opportunities for disadvantaged children at risk. In its 10th year, Damon’s Foundation puts on a golf tournament. This past year, it helped raise money for The Boys & Girls Club of (Winter Garden) Central Florida.
For more information on Damon’s Foundation, visit johnnydamon.com.
Jason can be reached at email@example.com.