Johnny Damon was supposed to be the next big Royals superstar. While he never achieved that status in Kansas City, he went on to more fame and fortune elsewhere, and ended up with a near-Hall of Fame career. His tenure in Kansas City exemplifies the era of Royals baseball in the late 90s where a cash-strapped losing franchise was trying in vain to retain what little talent it had.
Johnny David Damon was born on Fort Riley, a military base two hours west of Kansas City. His father was a staff sergeant who met Johnny's mother while stationed in Thailand. He was shy as a kid, teased at times for his resemblance to Bruce Lee, and had trouble speaking at times. The family eventually settled in the Orlando, Florida area where Johnny excelled as a baseball prospect. Before his senior season, Damon was named the top high school player in the country. All the pressure caused him to slump to hit .306 his senior year, not eye-popping numbers for a prep star. He fell out of the first round and was selected in the supplemental round of the 1992 draft, 35th overall, by the Kansas City Royals.
Damon immediately began showing himself to be a first-round talent, hitting .347 with 23 steals in 51 games in his first professional season at the age of 18. He hit .290 with 59 steals the next year in low A ball, and by 1995 he was in AA, ranked the #9 best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America. He began to show some power that year, hitting 16 home runs in 111 games for AA Wichita, while hitting .343, second in the league. In mid-August, with the Royals in the hunt for a Wild Card spot, General Manager Herk Robinson decided to shake up the roster, releasing veteran outfielder Vince Coleman and promoting young Johnny Damon to the big leagues. Johnny collected three hits in his debut, including a triple in a 7-2 win over Seattle. Johnny hit .282/.324/.441 down the stretch, with hits in 34 of his 44 starts, primarily from the leadoff spot.
"To be honest, I really didn't expect to be here before September. 'But now that I'm here, I don't want to disappoint anyone."
In the fall of 1995, the Royals were navigating their first season without the Kauffman family owning the franchise, following the death of Muriel that spring. With a charitable trust operating the club, and with a stale Major League roster that had not been a playoff team for a decade, it was clear the team needed to rebuild with young players. The young player that seemed most fitting for the spotlight was Johnny Damon.
Damon was not only a Kansas City sensation, he was a Major League sensation. Many fans found his ability to hit for average and run like a gazelle a breath of fresh air in an age of muscle-bound sluggers. Writers suggested his warm disposition could make him the ambassador to the game once Cal Ripken retired. The Royals marketing department was ostentatious enough to produce an ad featuring Johnny and Royals legend George Brett fighting over a remote control, a signal that the franchise was Johnny's now.
"If Damon's unlimited potential turns him into the player that scouts say he can be, then the Brett-Damon commercial will stand forever as a symbolic passing of the torch - Brett handing the franchise's image over to Damon."
Damon delighted fans with his speed and hustle and when his bat got hot in the summer, fans envisioned the next franchise player. But a bad slump to end the year brought his numbers down to .271/.313/.368, underwhelming for the lofty expectations set upon him.
In 1997, the Royals had a crowded outfield situation with Bip Roberts, Tom Goodwin, and Jermaine Dye all battling Damon for playing time in the outfield. Damon played all three outfield positions, and when he was hitting well over .300 into the summer months, it became impossible to keep him out of the lineup.
"When they had me billed as the second coming of George, I was up for the challenge, I just don't think they were ready for it. I didn't see myself in the lineup every day; I didn't know when I went home at night if I was going to be out there the next day."
However another late slump would hurt his numbers again, and he ended the year at .275/.338/.386 and just 16 steals in 26 attempts. Fans began to nitpick his game, from his poor throwing arm, to his unorthodox one-handed swing. Manager Tony Muser worked with Damon on a two-handed swing, but Damon struggled to adapt.
"All of a sudden, it was a big thing that I was swinging with one hand. When you're hitting .320, you never think you have a problem. But eventually it was probably going to catch up to me. ''
Damon put up similar numbers in 1998 causing doubts he would ever become the All-Star caliber player some thought he could be. That winter, Johnny became arbitration-eligible, leading to rumors the cash-strapped Royals might use him as trade bait. When Damon put up career numbers in 1999, hitting .307/.379/.477 with his first 100-run season, Royals fans began to wonder if their days with Johnny were numbered.
"`I don't know,'' he says sadly when asked whether he wants to come back to Kansas City. ``I would love to come back if we brought all these players back. I would love that. I would love to be a part of this team. These guys are like my family. ... But I don't want to come back just to watch us dump salary. That would hurt too much, you know? I'm really the only guy still around from the 1997 team. I don't want to watch that happen again.''...
``I'm not looking to break the bank,'' Damon says. ``But at the same time, I have to ask for a fair salary. ... To be honest with you, the most important thing for me is not the money. It's bringing back Jermaine [Dye] and Mike Sweeney and Rosie [Jose Rosado] and Jeff Suppan and all these guys. I want to be part of something here. But if they're not serious, maybe I should go somewhere else.''
By 2000, the Royals had assembled a stable full of terrific hitters. Damon set the table for guys like Mike Sweeney, Carlos Beltran, Jermaine Dye, Mark Quinn, and Joe Randa. Damon led the league in runs scored with 136, setting a franchise record. He also led the league in steals with 46, setting career highs in that department and virtually ever other offensive category, hitting .327/.382/.495 with 16 HR 88 RBI. He also set the franchise record for most consecutive games played, a tribute to his durability. The team won 77 games, their most in seven seasons, but were plagued by a terrible bullpen.
Damon had just one year left under club control before he could hit free agency, so the Royals looked to lock him up long-term. General Manager Allard Baird, now working for new owner David Glass, offered Damon a five-year, $32 million deal. But Damon turned it down, saying he was concerned about the ability of the team to compete. His agent, Scott Boras, indicated Damon would not sign any extension before testing free agency, hurting his trade value as the Royals began to field offers for Damon.
Rumors from Los Angeles had the Dodgers offering up a package of pitchers - Mike Judd, Antonio Osuna, and Al Reyes for the outfielder, while the Royals insisted on Eric Gagne. There was talk of pitcher Kevin Millwood being dealt from Atlanta for Damon. The Yankees and Red Sox were rumored to have interest, but did not appear to be good fits. The Mariners showed great interest in having Damon as a replacement for Ken Griffey Jr., who they had dealt the previous season. Pitchers like Brett Tomko, John Halama, and Jose Paniagua were mentioned, but no deal was made.
In January of 2001, the Royals dealt Johnny Damon to Oakland in a three-team, seven player trade that sent former Rookie of the Year outfielder Ben Grieve to Tampa Bay, pitcher Cory Lidle from Tampa Bay to Oakland, and brought All-Star closer Roberto Hernandez, catcher A.J. Hinch, and A's shortstop prospect Angel Berroa to Kansas City. The Royals also threw in minor league infielder Mark Ellis to Oakland to even out the deal.
"The timetable was running out, and that's what dictated this. If we had felt for one minute that we could sign Johnny to a long-term deal, then obviously we would not have made this deal."
-General Manager Allard Baird
Damon had one of his worst seasons in Oakland, but that not deter the Boston Red Sox from signing him to a four-year, $31 million contract the next winter. Damon would end up winning a championship in Boston, as one of the self-proclaimed "idiots" before moving on to the Yankees in 2006. Damon retired in 2012 with 2,769 career hits, 1,668 career runs, a two-time All-Star, with a career line of .284/.352/.433. He spent more time in Kansas City that anywhere else in his career, hitting .293/.351/.438 with 894 hits and 504 runs in six seasons.
Roberto Hernandez proved to be a flop in Kansas City with an ERA over 4.00 in his of his two seasons in Kansas City, as the team lost over 95 games each season. Angel Berroa won 2003 Rookie of the Year, but his career went south quickly after that. The player that ended up being the most valuable from that trade ended up being the throw-in from the Royals - Mark Ellis, who came one of the best defenders in the league at second base and a regular for over a decade.
Johnny Damon was heavily criticized for not wanting to be in Kansas City, but in many ways it is hard to blame him. The Royals were a turbulent franchise with ownership questions and little financial stability who had several years of losing baseball. The Royals of that era stand in stark contrast to the Royals of today where a strong General Manager has set the tone for the entire organization, creating an environment where players want to stay. Johnny Damon may not be one of the more well-liked players in franchise history, but it is hard to deny he was one of the best.