10/01/11 7:24 PM ET
Damon: Rays' comeback tops '04 Red Sox
Veteran DH feels young group ready to challenge for a title
By Gregor Chisholm / MLB.com
The 17-year veteran has been re-energized by a close-knit ballclub that has one of the youngest cores in the Major Leagues. It's an experience that brings him all the way back to when he first broke into the league in the mid-1990s.
"It feels like when I first started playing back with the Royals," Damon said prior to Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Rangers. "Guys you came up through the farm system together grew up together, and you're still friends to this day.
"This is what I see what's going on with this group. These guys were drafted together, got developed together, and now they're playing in the playoffs together. It is definitely a very special thing."
Damon has been a part of six organizations and has experienced a lot of highs during his illustrious career. One of his greatest achievements came as a member of the 2004 Red Sox team that came back from a 3-0 deficit in the AL Championship Series to defeat the Yankees.
That 2004 club went on to win the World Series after making arguably the greatest comeback in the history of baseball. It's a moment that Damon will obviously never forget, but he recently said the improbable run that got Tampa Bay into the playoffs might be an even greater accomplishment.
The Rays rallied from nine games back in September to overtake Boston and capture the AL Wild Card. The postseason berth didn't officially happen until the final day of the regular season, when Tampa Bay rallied from a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit to eventually defeat the Yankees, 8-7.
That dramatic moment was enough to jump to the forefront of Damon's career highlights.
"That comeback we had in September was just amazing," Damon said. "Obviously that comeback in '04 may be considered the greatest comeback ever, and we finished it off by winning a championship.
"[But] this comeback is very special -- just because we were so many games behind, especially in that last day. The turn of events, and being able to go to the playoffs with my hometown team, it's a very special moment ... I think this comeback rates No. 1 for me."
Coming through in big October games is nothing new for the native of Orlando. Damon entered Saturday a career .279 (68-for-244) hitter in the postseason with nine home runs, 30 RBIs and 12 doubles.
Damon is the most senior player in the Rays' starting lineup by more than six years, and his veteran savvy proved invaluable during Game 1 of the ALDS on Friday afternoon. He sparked an offensive outburst for the Rays with a two-run homer in the second inning en route to a lopsided 9-0 victory and an early 1-0 series lead over Texas.
That's what Tampa Bay was hoping for when it signed Damon to a one-year contract worth $5.25 million just prior to the start of Spring Training. He went on to hit .261 with 16 home runs, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases while becoming everything the Rays could have hoped for.
"He has a joy for playing every day," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "He comes and he's always in a great mood. He is always smiling. He is always the same cat that walks in the door. I know I appreciate that -- I think his teammates do.
"He's the kind of guy that can pick somebody up that may have had a poor day the day before just by sitting next to them for two or three minutes and just going over it."
Damon appeared in 150 games this year to surpass 140 games for the 16th consecutive season, accomplishing a number of career milestones along the way.
Damon's 152 hits allowed him to move past the likes of Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks and Lou Gehrig on baseball's all-time hits list. Damon is now just 277 hits shy of 3,000 for his career and is currently ranked 57th overall.
Damon also became the 11th player in Major League history to record 2,500 hits, 500 doubles, 100 triples and 200 home runs during their career. The other 10 players can be found in the Hall of Fame, and Maddon said on Friday that's where Damon belongs whenever he decides to eventually hang up his cleats.
Cooperstown is a topic of conversation for another day, but Damon does appreciate the praise and feels he has been able to make an impact every place he has gone.
"I feel like every team that I've been on, I have helped them out from my production, from my leadership," Damon said.
"I am going to keep going out there and trying to put together some numbers, but the most important thing was in 2004 I accomplished a championship, [and] in '09 -- and that's what we're hoping for in 2011."