Damon digs Detroit, but still loves Yanks

DETROIT -- Johnny Damon loves the New York Yankees.

That's not in the past tense -- today, this very moment.

It's not often that a player who was low-balled and not re-signed -- despite being a big part of a team that won a world championship -- still has admiration and respect for that club. But that's how Damon feels as he is preparing to face his former team on Monday for the first of four games at Comerica Park.

Don't get Damon, the Detroit Tigers' left-fielder/DH, wrong. He doesn't want the Yankees to win a single game in Detroit this week, but he welcomes seeing old friends.

"It's going to be great," Damon said. "There's a lot of former teammates who I'll probably hang out with when they do come here, go grab a bite to eat.

"But it's part of the game, constant movement. You just have to be used to it."

Damon said he keeps in touch with CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez on a regular basis. He also has kept up with how the Yankees are doing in the American League East standings.

"They're a great team," he said. "Normally, they are a slow-starting team. But it seems as if their pitching was ready to go from the shoot."

It was that pitching that led the Yankees to a World Series win in 2009. In reflecting on his time in Da Bronx, Damon had glowing words about how the Yankees handle their business.

"They know how to run the organization," said Damon, who spent four seasons in New York. "They take great care of you -- from the buses, to the hotel, to the security. They do a great job."

When asked what's the worst part about being a Yankee, Damon didn't say anything about the media scrutiny in the Big Apple. Even more surprisingly, Damon didn't point to overly high expectations.

"I didn't think there was pressure," he said. "I think as a player you want that, you want there to be something to play for every single at-bat, every single night.

"I can't think of what was the worst thing. I have so much respect for the way they handled themselves."

Lately Damon, who returned to the Tigers' starting lineup on Friday after having a calf problem, has struggled. Going into Monday's, Damon has just one hit in his previous 19 at-bats. But on the season, Damon is hitting .299, with one home run and 14 RBIs.

"He's pretty much what I expected," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "He loves to play, he loves the game. He's had a pretty good career."

Earlier this season, Damon scored his 1,500th career run. By doing so, Damon joined some elite company. Only nine other players have 450 doubles, 375 stolen bases and 1,500 runs scored in their careers. Some of the others on the list include Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds.

The one thing Damon is disappointed in, though, is his home run swing thus far. Last season, he belted 24 homers. The one home run he has hit this season was a walk-off to beat the Angels. "I want to be more productive, hitting the homers," he said. "I haven't found that swing yet."

For sure, Damon's one-year, $8 million deal was a lot more than most teams were willing to pay the 36-year-old. But, Damon said, it wasn't just the loot that got him to come to Motown. Ironically, it was the emergence of Curtis Granderson (the former Tiger, now with the Yankees) who stopped him from coming here earlier in his career.

"I wanted to be here five years ago," Damon said in an earlier interview. "But Curtis Granderson was the one who stopped my progress about signing with Detroit.

"The Tigers were my top team going into free agency then. It's funny how we've switched teams."

Tigers fans who were upset when Granderson was traded to the Yankees to make way for rookie Austin Jackson aren't upset anymore. Jackson's fast start is the reason why. In Damon's case, the fans were elated when he was signed. Damon represented hope, and signing him put aside the idea that the Tigers weren't willing to spend cash in order to win.

"It's been great," said Damon, who has split his starts almost evenly between left field and DH. "I heard from Leyland before I signed that the fans are great.

"It's a baseball town. I will always have on my résumé that I played in front of the greatest fans in the world from Boston, New York and Detroit. I'm a happy camper."

And happy not just because of how the fans have treated him. After all, the Tigers -- who missed out on the playoffs by only one game last season -- are in the mix in the AL Central. Damon honestly believes that, despite not having won a division since 1987, his new club is good enough to finally get the job done. "The sky is the limit," he said. "I'm thrilled."

Hence, Damon has love in his heart for both the past and the present.

Rob Parker is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com.

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