(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.)By TOM WITHERSAP Sports Writer
Fresh from the shower, Johnny Damon strolls through the Indians’ clubhouse wearing a terry cloth bathrobe with his number 33 and last name on the back.
The garment, a replica of Cleveland’s home uniforms, is identical to the ones he gave as gifts to his new teammates, some of whom have been watching the veteran play since they were kids.
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Although he looks a bit like Hugh Hefner – minus any playmates – as he walks to his locker, Damon exudes an unmistakable aura, one that demands respect and attention.
”He’s just a leader,” Indians outfielder Michael Brantley said.
In less than two months, Damon, who signed with Cleveland in April, has established himself as one of the team’s point men. The 38-year-old outfielder is providing needed guidance and advice to a young Indians team leading the AL Central and hoping to play deep into October.
And lately, after a horrendous start at the plate, Damon has been coming through with clutch hits.
Johnny on the spot.
On Wednesday night, Damon’s two-run homer in the fourth inning set the tone for Cleveland’s offense as the Indians beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-1 to complete a three-game sweep of the interleague series. It’s the most recent example of Damon delivering for the Indians, who were off Thursday and open a 10-game trip in Houston on Friday.
After being under .200 for most of the past month, Damon has bumped his average to .203 by hitting .400 (6 for 15) in his last six games. But he’s been slowly building with a .295 average over his past 16 games with eight RBIs and 10 runs.
To this point, he’s given the Indians more quality than quantity.
”He’s gotten so many big hits that go unnoticed just because of the batting average,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. ”Johnny got that two-run double the other day to beat Detroit. Johnny got the big homer to give us a cushion against the St. Louis Cardinals when everybody just remembers the three-run homer that Jason Kipnis hit. Everybody forgot that it was Johnny who started the rally with a single off their closer.
”His concentration level when the game is on the line has been a tremendous teaching tool to these young guys.”
Damon missed all of spring training, which may account for his early struggles. He wasn’t ready for major league pitching, although Damon didn’t want to use the lack of swings in Arizona as an excuse.
”It’s not that I got too far behind,” he said. ”It’s just a matter of scuffling a little bit at first. I came here ready to go, but the hits didn’t come and I started changing my stance a little to overcompensate when I actually didn’t have to worry about anything. The hits just weren’t coming. Sometimes as players that’s what you do first, but I feel like I’m in a good spot now.
”But obviously good at-bats don’t always translate into hits.”
Damon, who played for Tampa Bay last season, was without a job and contemplating life after baseball before the Indians signed him to minor league deal worth $1.25 million. He can earn another $1.4 million in incentives. When Damon signed, the sides agreed that if he wasn’t content with his playing time or didn’t fit in with the club, he could ask for his release.
Damon’s not going anywhere. He’s settled in with Cleveland, his seventh club in a major league career that began in 1995 with Kansas City.
Shortly after joining the Indians, he handed out the bathrobes.
”It’s something I started doing a few years ago in Detroit and Tampa Bay,” he said. ”The guys always thought it was cool and I thought why don’t I take care of the players.”
Since arriving, Damon has been taking care of Cleveland’s youngsters. He’s offered them tips on hitting, baserunning and just being a professional. And because he does it in such a genuine, humble manner, the Indians have listened and learned.
”He came in and was talking to the young guys right away,” Brantley said. ”He’s given us a little perspective on what it takes to stay here, the mental grind. He’s just always real positive. We always admired him and looked up to him, watching him on TV and how hard he played.
”He plays the game the right way and to have him in the same locker room, just being able to ask him firsthand questions is phenomenal.”
Acta said Damon’s leadership by example has been instrumental to the Indians’ success. He hasn’t griped about playing time or being taken out of left field in the late innings for defensive purposes. He kept working during his slump, taking extra batting practice to find his lost stroke.
”The way he carries himself and the way he hasn’t allowed the struggles to show or change the way he goes about his business, that’s something that is priceless to teaching these guys,” Acta said. ”He’s been a pro, man. It’s very easy to be a nice guy and a good leader when things are going good. But when things are going the wrong way, it takes a high-character guy to show up every day with the same face and treat his teammates the way he does.”
Damon knows he doesn’t have many summers left.
He’s approaching 3,000 hits, but may not get there before he has to call it quits.
Damon can’t think of that now. He isn’t ready to slip on any retirement robe.
”If the body feels good, I’m just going to keep going,” he said. ”I would love to say I want to play until the jersey gets ripped off my back, but I also know that being 38 now, things could change in a moment. I have six kids who I think they all really love me.
”I’d like to keep playing. I’d like to keep winning and having an opportunity to win.”