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Johnny Damon: Tampa Bay Rays' first rock star

The mob scene around first base is one that Johnny Damon, center, is getting used to after the Rays DH picks up his second walkoff hit of the season.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

The mob scene around first base is one that Johnny Damon, center, is getting used to after the Rays DH picks up his second walkoff hit of the season.

ST. PETERSBURG

The Rays have had some stars. Young stars, old stars, All-Stars. They've had humble stars, obnoxious stars and faux stars.

Through 10 years of futility and three years of prosperity, they have had stars who shined, stars who faded and stars of every illumination in between.

But until Johnny Damon came along, the Rays have never had a rock star.

Or is that Rock Star?

It's the hair, yes. And the beard. It's the round of golf with Donald Trump and the banter in the garage with Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's the episode of MTV's Cribs and the appearance on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

At the moment, however, it is the sight of two dozen men racing out of a dugout to jump up and down in unison around their lead singer.

For the fifth consecutive game — which neatly matches Tampa Bay's five-game winning streak — Damon was credited with a game-winning RBI in Saturday's 4-3 victory against the Twins. And for the second time in three days, it arrived on the final pitch of a seat-of-your-pants victory at Tropicana Field.

"Around the fourth inning, I said, 'It's going to be one of those games again. Somebody is going to have to get the big hit,' " bench coach Dave Martinez said. "Johnny said, 'Ah, I'll just do it.' And boom! After the game, we just looked at each other and laughed."

Damon has brought a star quality never before seen in this clubhouse. It's an aura, a swagger, a red carpet attitude that is impossible to fake.

Wade Boggs was on his way to the Hall of Fame, but his was more of a chip-on-the-shoulder sense of pride. Greg Vaughn had a presence, but it was lost on a team going nowhere. Troy Percival had a professional's impact, but not on this scale.

Damon is the guy with World Series rings from Boston and New York, a best-selling biography and AC/DC front man Brian Johnson singing at his wedding reception.

The guy who dropped water balloons from the 34th floor terrace of the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and who popularized the name Idiots for the 2004 world champion Red Sox.

He's the guy who, after a charter flight home from a seven-day road trip, turns up the volume on the bus ride from the airport and sings his signature wail from the so-bad-it's-good 2001 movie Rock Star. At 12:30 in the morning.

"Awesome," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "It's this high-pitched, 'Eeeeeeee!' We've been doing it ever since. We haven't stopped singing it. It's pretty funny."

"Hilarious," leftfielder Sam Fuld said.

"It's like this high-pitched squeal, but it's awesome," shortstop Reid Brignac said. "It started at the (spring training) talent show when he was counting out, 'Eight, nine, teeeeeeeeEEEEEEEN!' Now he does it just about daily."

He's the guy who made a point of going from locker to locker during spring training to get to know his new teammates, some of whom were in elementary school when Damon broke in with the Royals in 1995. The guy who brought his boat down to Port Charlotte and had, well, boatloads of guys join him for afternoon excursions.

"He's the perfect fit for our clubhouse right now with all the youth out there," manager Joe Maddon said. "He really is the perfect kind of Mixmaster blender to get this thing working properly. He just has a good way out there.

"I've heard about him, now I'm seeing it. He's backing it up with five game-winning RBIs. That's ridiculous … it's exactly what we needed."

He's the guy who has the Captain Morgan rum neon sign next to his locker that is powered up every time the Rays win a game at Tropicana Field.

He's the guy who called a team meeting in Chicago even though he had been a Tampa Bay Ray for exactly six regular-season games and was sporting a .053 average.

He's the guy, along with catcher Kelly Shoppach, who arranged a hitters-only meeting at Abe and Louie's steakhouse in Boston's back bay last week. The next day, the winning streak began with a 16-5 victory.

"I know the guys look up to me. They look at me as a champion; they look at me as a veteran ballplayer who really cares about the game," Damon said. "That's why I approach the game as I do. And the day I don't, I'll walk away."

Who knows how long it will last. The Rays still are a team with serious flaws on offense, and the bullpen is still largely untested. And Damon is still a 37-year-old whose on-base percentage has decreased each of the past two seasons.

But, for now, Damon has ignited a lineup that was left for dead. And he has livened up a clubhouse that had been stripped of much of its character.

"He has time for everybody, he's got a good word for everybody, he's got a smile for everybody and he's definitely got a very succinct message for everybody," Maddon said. "He's got 'em. He's got 'em. He's got 'em all.

"They're all in with him right now, and it's a beautiful thing."

Almost makes you want to sing.

Johnny Damon: Tampa Bay Rays' first rock star 04/17/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 17, 2011 12:50am]

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