CLEVELAND — Fresh from the shower, Johnny Damon strolls through the Indians’ clubhouse wearing a terry cloth bathrobe with his No. 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.
Although he looks a bit like Hugh Hefner – minus any playmates – as he walks to his locker, Damon exudes an aura 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 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.
On Wednesday night, Damon’s two-run homer in the fourth inning set the tone as the Indians beat the Cincinnati Reds 8-1 to complete a three-game sweep. It’s the most recent example of Damon delivering for the Indians, who were off Thursday and open a 10-game trip in Houston tonight.
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 past six games.
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 career that began in 1995 with Kansas City.
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
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.”