CHICAGO: Johnny Damon is on the Indians’ roster, but he was not in the lineup Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox.
His absence seemed to bear out what manager Manny Acta told Damon and what Damon repeated to reporters before the game: “There are no promises for me to play. I have to produce. He’s going to play other guys. I understand if another guy is hot, he deserves the playing time. If I’m the guy who’s hot, then I deserve to be in there.”
Damon’s omission from the lineup was dictated not by general policy but by the fact that left-hander Chris Sale was starting for the Sox. Damon, who bats from the left side, probably will play against most right-handers but not all. Acta has said he wants Shelley Duncan’s power bat to be a factor not only against lefties but some righties.
In addition, Acta said it will take awhile before Damon builds his endurance to the point where he will play five or six times a week.
Although Damon has started fewer than 40 games in the outfield the past two years, Acta said, “He will have to get the majority of his at-bats in the outfield, because we have a DH [Travis Hafner].”
On the few days Hafner doesn’t play, “We will use the DH spot to give Carlos [Santana] a break from catching,” Acta said.
Damon will play tonight and replace Michael Brantley in the leadoff position.
“Other than Johnny’s .350 on-base percentage, the fact he’s close to 3,000 hits and for the past few years he has hit lefties better than righties, there’s no reason to make him the leadoff hitter,” Acta said facetiously.
Damon spent the winter looking for a job. At 38, he was coming off a decent season with the Tampa Bay Rays, batting .261 with 16 home runs and 73 RBI. But the Rays did not invite him back, so his hunt for a new employer began.
“I didn’t know what to think, and I didn’t know what was going on,” Damon said, referring to the absence of suitors all the way through spring training.
“I bumped into some friends and they asked if I was retiring,” Damon said. “I thought that was odd. Maybe there was a story out there that said that. But there was no way I was thinking about retirement. I know I can play, and I want to play.”
Nevertheless, being unemployed preyed on Damon’s mind.
“When you’re in that [kind of situation], you think about it a lot more,” he said. “Players switch teams a lot, and there are guys out there who don’t have jobs who should have jobs. But when it’s you, you think about it a lot. So it was weird. I’m glad the process brought me to the Cleveland Indians.”
Without having a spring training, Damon spent two weeks at the Tribe’s extended spring training program in Goodyear, Ariz. He figures he played five or six games in the outfield and got 20-30 at-bats.
Instead of moving up to Triple-A Columbus to see better pitching, he was activated on Tuesday.
“It may or may not have been necessary,” he said of further work at Triple-A. “But I got a lot of good work in at Goodyear. I kind of felt the weather there was perfect. If I’d gone up [to Triple-A], maybe there would be snow or rain, and it would set me back one day or maybe longer.”
According to Acta: “Johnny just felt comfortable, and he knows his body better than anybody else. The coaches down there also were impressed on how fast he got his timing down at the plate. Of course, it was not against major-league pitching.”
Damon needs 277 hits to reach 3,000, but that’s a secondary goal to his way of thinking.
“I think anybody you ask would want to get 3,000 hits,” he said. “But has that ever been my top priority? No, I want to win games and win championships. I’m never going to put myself above another player to attain that.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.