Damon thinks 3,000 is possible
Designated hitter is comfortable in current spot with Rays
One of Johnny Damon's more disheartening moments this season turned out to be a blessing for him and a few other Rays. It also may have made his long journey toward 3,000 career hits just a bit easier.
When the season began, Damon was Tampa Bay's everyday left fielder and Manny Ramirez was the designated hitter. But one week into the schedule, Ramirez retired rather than accept -- or fight -- a 100-game suspension after failing a performance-enhancing drug test. Suddenly, Damon was the everyday DH.
"[The departure] was disappointing to me just because of the fact that Manny's career is ending that way," Damon said of Ramirez, whose 555 career home runs, 1,831 runs batted in and .312 batting average would have made him a legitimate candidate for the Hall of Fame.
"But I knew once that happened it would actually mean a switch for our team, and it's actually been a very positive one," Damon said.
Sam Fuld took over in left field and with routinely spectacular catches became a plays-of-the-day regular. First baseman Casey Kotchman, called up from Triple-A Durham, was batting a team-high .336 at the All-Star break. And outfielder Justin Ruggiano, also called up from Durham and spelling Fuld in lefty-righty matchups, was batting .266 at the break.
Now, at age 37, here's how Damon's pursuit of 3,000 hits shapes up:
Through the first half of the season, Damon had batted in 76 of the Rays' 81 games, getting 83 hits for a career total 2,654. That was 346 shy of 3,000. If he matches his first-half stats for all of 2011 (152 games and 166 hits), he'll need 263 hits going into 2012.
So far this year he has jumped, among others, Hall of Famers Richie Ashburn, Ernie Banks, Reggie Jackson, Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams on the list of career hits.
"I think anyone that I pass right now, it's pretty good company," Damon said. "There have been a lot of great ballplayers in this game, and it's amazing the names you start passing."
Damon has averaged 183 hits a year in 17 seasons. Even during 2000-2005 -- his most successful run (one year apiece with Kansas City and Oakland and four with Boston) in the middle of his career -- he averaged 152 games and 185 hits a season.
Going into 2011 (excluding this year and his 47-game rookie season) Damon has averaged 149 games and 168 hits a year, very close to his potential 2011 numbers. In April, he had a franchise-record 16-game hit streak, 23-for-67 (.343).
"Me getting 160-180 hits a year probably is going to be a little tougher," he said. "But if I'm healthy and get a hot streak once in a while? Three thousand? Absolutely."
And even if Damon's hit totals were to nosedive to, say, 135 each of the next two seasons, he'd reach 3,000 in September 2013. And age should not be a factor, according to Rays manager Joe Maddon.
"He's really a wonderful physical specimen," Maddon said. "He really takes care of himself well. He's strong. Watch him running to first base; that's really the key to me. His legs are still in good order.
"And the fact that he's able to DH for us helps, too, not having to play the field every day. I think he's got a legitimate shot at [3,000 hits]."
Damon said he has no idea at this point how long he wants to play. "Obviously, everyone's pushing me to keep going until I get three [thousand]," he said. "But something also tells me -- if I'm still capable of hitting and still capable of being a nice clubhouse presence -- to keep going."
That clubhouse presence makes him special, and he acknowledges it.
"I've been through everything in this game," Damon said. "I've been on hard-luck teams, been on some championship teams. I know what to say when things aren't going well, and know what not to say, and I know how to communicate with everybody. ... My role is almost like a father figure."
Maddon thought about that last comment and chuckled. "Father John," he said. "Yes. Put that little collar on him. He fits that very well."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.