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Johnny Damon's career could be riding on this year with Tampa Bay Rays

If he can hammer out another productive season, the Rays’ Johnny Damon, 37, believes he can secure a few more years in the game and continue toward some career milestones, among them 3,000 hits.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

If he can hammer out another productive season, the Rays’ Johnny Damon, 37, believes he can secure a few more years in the game and continue toward some career milestones, among them 3,000 hits.

PORT CHARLOTTE — This year, he will be good.

Or next year, he will be gone.

Say this much for Johnny Damon. He knows the stakes. His career is now at a point where his age, 37, has become his most discussed statistic. If there is a next year for Damon, perhaps even a year or two after that, it will be because of this year.

Succeed, and someone will give him a new contract.

Fail, and they will take away his glove.

Simple as that.

"I have a lot riding on this," Damon said Wednesday morning. "If I don't prove I can still play, this is it for me. If I don't have a good year, I'm hanging out at home for the rest of my life.

"There is a lot on the line for me this year, and I'm okay with that. I really am. But I'm not ready to go home yet."

He is still a ballplayer, okay? These days, a lot of conversations about Damon seem to begin with what his experience might mean to the Rays clubhouse or how he might mentor younger players. When the discussion turns to how much Damon may have left, however, eyebrows seem to raise.

There are doubts. There are questions. In the twilight of a great career, there always are. On the far side of 35, there are no such things as off years. Either a player has it, or he has had it.

"In this game, you're always proving yourself," Damon said. "Every day, every at-bat, every game, every season. But I can still go out there and do some big things, some of the things I was doing 4-5 years ago. Everyone seems to talk about an aging player, but I've taken good care of my body. I can still run.

"I still feel like I can still get the big hit, chase down the big fly, steal the big base. I can still help a team win. I have a lot left in the tank."

Watch Damon cavort across the infield in the morning sun, and the temptation is to believe him. His hair is combed into a young man's spike in the middle, and he is grinning the way he has through 16 seasons worth of baseball. Off the field, Damon is thoughtful and, when it comes to his resume, prideful. On the field, however, he looks as comfortable as a player has ever looked in a uniform.

"Out there, he doesn't look like a player who is 35-plus," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You'd get an early 30s vibe from him. Maybe 31, 32. That's how he carries himself.

"We think he's going to be a productive player for us, a guy who can still hit 15-20 balls out of the park, who can hit .275 plus. He can steal some bases. If we can limit his time and keep his legs fresh, you're going to see a complete player."

For a long time, the description has fit Damon. He is among his generation's most accomplished players with 2,571 hits, 487 doubles, 1,564 runs. He has earned more than $105 million playing baseball, and he has won two World Series rings. As Damon says, there are a lot of fans who love him and a lot of fans who do not.

Still, he says, he enjoys playing. He enjoys winning. He enjoys adding up his numbers.

"I probably like it more than I used to," he said, laughing. "Especially with everyone trying to run me out of the game."

Even now, there are things that Damon wants to accomplish. He still has a shot at 3,000 hits — three more seasons as good as last year's would get him there. He is 51st on the all-time list in runs scored — three more years like last year would get him to 16th. Yes, the numbers are important to him. Yes, he can name every one of them by heart.

"I have some milestones I want to reach," he said. "When you're done playing, those are the numbers that say what you have done."

Are they good enough for the Hall of Fame? Not yet. You get the feeling that Damon is on the front porch. Another healthy three years could make the difference. Getting to 3,000 hits could make the difference.

Along the way, perhaps Damon can make a difference for the Rays, too.

The thing is, Damon is a good teammate. And, yes, he could be the mentor that, say, Cliff Floyd was for this team in 2008. Damon is one of those veterans who works every corner of the clubhouse to unify a team.

In a way, it seems that it was destined for Damon to spend some time in a Rays uniform. The team talked to him before last year, when Damon went to Detroit. Then, in August, Boston claimed Damon to keep him from going to another team. Yes, Damon said, it was the Rays.

"It might have changed the way the playoffs went," Damon said. "It was disappointing to watch."

He is here now. He has a chance to help make a difference this season. Yes, he can help in the clubhouse. Yes, he can help on the field. When the Rays play the Red Sox today — with Damon playing for Tampa Bay and Carl Crawford for Boston — it might help to remind yourself of that.

"I'm here to win," Damon said. "I know these guys won the AL East last year, and I know they lost a lot of guys. What better guy to replace your all-time leader? I'm excited. I know no one is going to forget about Carl here. He's a lot of the reason why this team got to where it is. But nothing stays forever, and this team had to replace him. Hopefully, I'll be the perfect guy."

We'll see. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see the reception Damon gets when he returns to Boston and New York.

On the other hand, he played well in both places, and both teams won championships. This is the ultimate truth about Damon. Everywhere he has played, fans seem grateful for his time in uniform.

Will that be true in Tampa Bay, too? Will fans thank him as he leaves?

"I hope," Damon said, grinning again. "First, I have to write a script to make them appreciate what I bring."

Johnny Damon's career could be riding on this year with Tampa Bay Rays 03/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 10, 2011 2:03am]

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