Outfielder Johnny Damon was the heart and soul of the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the team that broke “the Curse” and finally brought a World Series title to Beantown after 86 infamous, frustrating years. But Red Sox brass didn’t want to give him a four year guaranteed contract when he became a free agent in 2005, and the New York Yankees were willing, so Johnny Damon shaved his beard and cut his shaggy hair to play with the team Bostonians love to despise. Every time since then, when he came to bat in Fenway Park wearing pinstripes, a chorus of boos and jeers showered down on him from the same fans who once cheered his every move.
It all became too much, it seems, for Dan Shaughnessy, a dean of Red Sox beat writers who is hated by many Red Sox fans for his outspoken criticism of the team. Shaughnessy writes on the Sports Illustrated website that booing Damon, who is once again a free agent, is unfair and wrong. He hustles, says Dan; he plays the game right. He deserves respect and gratitude from Boston fans, not derision. After all, baseball is a business, and Damon took the best contract offer when his services came up for bid, just like most good businessmen would. “When he signed with the Yankees, Red Sox Nation went ballistic,” Shaughnessy writes. “He became Traitor Johnny…Fenway fans have booed him ever since. Just because he signed with the Yankees.”
Not for the first time, the sportswriter is engaging in a common trick of the trade–omitting key information that undermines his argument. For as Shaughnessy well knows (he is as much of a student of Red Sox history as anyone living), it isn’t just because he signed with the Yankees that Damon is booed in Boston. It is because he made this statement before he signed with the Yankees:
“There’s no way I can play for the Yankees, but I know they’re going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.”
There have been other Red Sox stars who left Boston for New York. A former “heart and soul of the team,” Seventies pitching great Luis Tiant, once switched sides in anger because he felt under-appreciated. Fans never booed “Looooie,” however, because he never lied to them, and never claimed that he would eschew greater riches out of loyalty to the “Olde Towne Team.” Johnny Damon proclaimed a devotion that he didn’t have; he said that money couldn’t make him leave Boston for New York, because it was “not the most important thing.” Then he took the cash, and left.
Boston fans know baseball is a business. They also know a phony when they see one. It wasn’t Damon’s lack of loyalty that rankled; it was his lack of honesty, and the disrespect he showed by trying to endear himself to Boston fans by pretending to have priorities and values that they would approve of.
Maybe he thought enhanced popularity would help his negotiations with the team. Maybe he didn’t think about what he was saying: Damon is not reputed to be a likely candidate for Mensa membership. It doesn’t matter why he said what he did, really. Red Sox fans believed him. They didn’t boo Johnny Damon because he signed with the Yankees. They booed him because he lied to them, and pretended to be something he was not. I think they will always boo him.
It isn’t his business choice they object to, and it certainly isn’t his playing skills.
It’s his ethics. And I’ll admit it: I boo him too.