By Pat Jordan
He was physically a man at 13 -- big -- 6-foot-2, 185 pounds. In all other ways, he was a child. He has lived a child's fantasy life for 38 years. His older brother, James, said he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, like Zelig. "He had such a charmed life," said James. "When he played at Oakland, I said, This is as good as it gets. Then he signs with the Red Sox, and they win a World Series, and I knew, That's as good as it gets. [Then] he signs with the best franchise in sports, and I keep waiting for the good times to stop. But they never do."
Johnny Damon was a major league baseball player for 18 years. He won a World Series with the Red Sox in 2004 and another one with the Yankees in 2009, which is why he once said, "Being a baseball player is so great." He said the game "was fun," and winning championships was even more "fun." He learned how to have "fun" with the A's and then taught his teammates with the Red Sox and Yankees how to have "fun." His concept of "fun" was mostly that of a young boy. "I could buy different toys," he said. "Jet Skis, boats, motorcycles, all the stuff that baseball affords you the privilege to buy." His first wife, Angie Vannice, explained that her husband "plays better when he's buying things. He likes to shop more than anybody."
He also liked to play childish pranks. He dropped water balloons from the upper floor of hotels on passing pedestrians below. He and his teammates held down other teammates and poured ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard all over their clean uniforms, which he thought was hilarious. In the clubhouse he performed pull-ups naked, his penis dangling in his teammates' faces. He liked to "party" after games with his teammates, drink booze, smoke pot. He collected women as if they too were toys. Some might say that his sense of "adult fun" was a lot like his sense of childlike fun.
* * *
In early March, I met Johnny Damon for breakfast at an IHOP near Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., where Johnny has lived most of his life. The restaurant was packed, yet no one seemed to recognize Damon. He said that was because people in Orlando respect his privacy, but no one even glanced his way. Maybe it was because his black hair was cut short, and his face was clean-shaven. For years, Damon's trademark was his wildly flowing hair and scruffy beard, along with his broad, vaguely Eurasian, slanting cheekbones and eyes. (His mother was Thai, his father an American serviceman.) He resembles Drogo, the Kahl of Dothraki on Game Of Thrones. He always had Drogo's muscular body, too, which he liked to flash in tight T-shirts and shorts, just like he was dressed this morning. Damon calls his biceps "my guns" -- without irony -- and says that fans loved his "long, flowing hair, chicks digging it. Hey, what can I say? I'm blessed with good hair … [my] Samson thing. My hair is my strength."
Damon, at 40 years old, had nary a white hair in his coal black mane on this morning. His broad, handsome face was as unlined as it had been in his 20s. His body looked as buff as it had been in his 20s, too, when he played the game with a youthful, reckless abandon, certain that nothing bad could ever happen to him. His fans loved the way he crashed into the centerfield wall to rob hitters of doubles, the way he stole second base with his hair flying behind him. "I did stuff I shouldn't have," he said. Damon speaks softly, hesitantly, searching for his words. "I crashed into walls. I never worried about getting hurt."
He still looks like the same man who "partied" with his teammates all night long after each glorious victory. When Damon signed with the Yankees and learned that Alex Rodriguez worked out every morning at six, Damon told the press that there were a lot of mornings "when I might not have been in at six in the morning." Damon thought that "partying" would never end, but it did. He hasn't partied with teammates in two years. He hasn't played a game in two years, since the Cleveland Indians released him after three months of the 2012 season. Damon's agent, Scott Boras, who once demanded an $85 million contract for Damon, now offered him around both leagues. "One team offered me $50,000 to teach their minor league players how to run bases," said Damon. "Come on! $50,000 for eight months! I won't beg for a job." Which is not quite true. He begged the Yankees for a job last year, when Curtis Granderson got hurt. He told the Yankees, who once paid him $13 million a year, that he would play for the league minimum until Granderson returned. The Yankees didn't want him at any price. "I wasted two years waiting for a call," Damon said. "Now I don't expect one."
It confused Damon, embittering him. The Yankees signed Nick Johnson, who had a reputation for always being hurt, and not Damon, who always played hurt. "And then of course, Johnson got hurt," Damon said. "I woulda been perfect for Tampa, too. I played for the Rays in 2011, and it was fun. Guys kicked a soccer ball in the clubhouse and did cartwheels. On road trips, I cut the sleeves of my shirt to show my guns. But then the Rays messed up and signed Luke Scott instead of me." I asked him who Luke Scott was. "Exactly! Baltimore released him. He's a guy who hits a few home runs when they don't count. I could still play 120 games. Maybe not nine innings, but I could gas it up for six innings and be as good as anybody." If he had only played the last two years, he said, "I woulda got my numbers up, maybe 30 doubles a year, 100 runs scored. Then I woulda' been on the fence for the Hall of Fame. But, hey, a lot of brilliant players aren't in the Hall. Gibson, Mattingly."
"It's not like I need another job," he said. "But you want to keep playing, not just keep taking money out all the time." Damon's pleasures were never cerebral. He joked that the only magazine he ever read was Playboy, and he really just looked at the pictures. His satisfactions were always physical, both at the ballpark and away from it. Baseball, volleyball, jet skiing, women. He missed that regular physical activity of baseball. But even more than that, he missed the simplistic order of the baseball life, the routine that never changes. The pleasures of batting practice, when you could "show your balls, to try to show how much of a man you are" by hitting the ball into the seats. The endless, repetitive card games at the long table in the clubhouse. He had new friends now, who never played in the majors. "I tell them, 'Come on, guys, let's go play cards,'" he said. "But they don't want to." His new friends' lives were, like his, filled with mundane activities. "There's no set schedule in my life anymore," he said. "There's always these little things to do. Pay the insurance. Close on a house. Have a business meeting. Take the kids to school."
When he was a player, Damon said, he couldn't wait to go on the road after an argument with his first wife. They were such trivial arguments, like the time she asked him to go with her to pick out furniture. "I bust my butt playing baseball," he said, and he wanted to "go surfing, fishing, boating. I wanted to live, have fun, not pick out furniture." That's why, he said, most players never wanted the season to end. "They didn't want to start to carpool." They wanted to play baseball and have "fun," like the time they were scheduled to visit the Playboy Mansion, but it got cancelled because of the 9/11 attacks. He admitted that "complaining about not getting to go to the Playboy Mansion sounds ridiculous."
The game has always been an escape from real life for ballplayers, which is why so many dread leaving the game. The game offers a kind of constant certitude; wins and losses are fathomable in a way that real life's problems aren't. Real life's problems aren't clearly defined and don't ever seem to get resolved. They linger, frustratingly. After baseball, nothing in real life will ever be as completely, simply and viscerally gratifying.
When Damon was still playing, he once said, "When I retire, what I want most out of the game is for teammates to call me up, wanting to get together and do things." But now that he was away from the game, his teammates didn't call. He brushed it off, saying, "If it was a big thing, I'd hang out at the park with the guys. The players love to see me. They miss me. They can't believe I'm still not playing. But I'm OK with it. I thought about going to spring training games, but there's really no reason. It would be a shit storm, people coming up to me, Why aren't you still playing? I find it tough to watch games now, not because I don't like it, but because I don't have ties to it." Damon had nothing in common with former teammates who were still playing. They were still living in that childhood fantasy, and Damon would remind them of the real world awaiting them after it's over. Maybe that's why he still held out hope that some team might call him mid-season to pick up a bat again. That's why, after two years, he still had not officially retired from the game. He just floated around in limbo, waiting …
It ate at Damon. He formulated conspiracy theories in his mind, grasping at straws. He'd been blackballed. "Why?" he asked. "My managers, coaches, players always loved playing with me. Even the press liked me, 'cause I always respected the job they had to do. I gave them my time while other players avoided them. They didn't want to be held … what's the word?" I told him. "Yeah, that's it. Accountable."
Back when he was playing, Damon had once said, "Reporters' questions are mostly negative. The press tends to have bad things to say." That's why it was harder for him to play in New York than in Boston: "The Yankees have a lot more newspapers not to read than [the Red Sox] do."
Finally, Damon broached a possible reason why he might be getting blackballed, though it wasn't easy for me to wrap my mind around his logic. He explained, "I mean, guys who were busted for performance-enhancing drugs are still playing with big contracts. Guys like me who have always been clean are sitting at home. For me to get a job again, I'd have to cheat, get my testosterone up so I can have a chance." Damon said that he refused to cheat, because he wanted to be remembered for playing the game "clean." Damon's first wife, Angie, whom he trashed as a nag in his autobiography Idiot, hinted to reporters that maybe her husband wasn't as "clean" as he claimed. She said that his body and personality began to change in 2002, when he became obsessed with putting on muscle fast. She said, "It's all about him, his haircut, his facial hair, [his body]."
During his playing days, Damon was not critical of teammates like Jason Giambi who took PEDs. In Idiot, Damon wrote that, "the character assassination [Giambi was] undergoing … hurts me, because he's the kind of guy who'd never do anything to hurt anyone." Damon claimed that he was not the kind of guy "who looks at guys who take steroids as cheaters" -- especially Giambi, because "I love him like a brother." Giambi had taken the younger Damon under his wing when Damon arrived with the A's in 2001, teaching him to "party" like a major leaguer should. Damon had almost worshipped Giambi, "his long hair" and his "rock star status." In his first spring training with Oakland in Phoenix, Damon, still married, couldn't believe all the girls flocking around him because of his long hair, and he "decided there no longer was any reason not to go out and have some fun."
Under Giambi's leadership, the A's clubhouse "was like a frat house," wrote Damon. "We played hard on the field and harder off it," he continued, adding that the A's were "cra-zee." Giambi ruled the clubhouse "and took us to dinner … and made sure we had a drink in front of us. He was a tough guy who loved life." Damon "was in awe" of Giambi's lifestyle, his tattoos, his old Porsche, his Lamborghini, his motorcycle, his boat, his full-length mink coat. Other teammates impressed him, too. Eric Chavez was "Mr. Smooth … the way he wore his pants," and Barry Zito had his Zen mysticism and cool hipster lingo. Even the manager, Art Howe, impressed Damon with the way he handled criticism of his players' nighttime peccadilloes. Howe told the press that he'd discipline his players only if they both "messed around at night" and "don't get the job done" on the field.
When Damon signed a $38 million, four-year contract with the Red Sox, after only one year with the A's, he was shocked at the sour attitude of his new teammates, a miserable bunch of guys. One player told him he should have stayed in Oakland. Damon wrote, "No one was having fun. No one wanted to grab dinner. I couldn't believe it." The players went back to their hotel rooms after a game and ordered room service. In Oakland, he wrote, "15 or 20 of us had gone out together … to have a good time. We weren't trying to hide from anyone." So Damon stepped into the role Giambi had served with the A's. He talked a few players into going out to dinner with him, then to clubs. When they hesitated, he told them, "You're major league ballplayers. They expect us to show everyone a good time."
By the time the Red Sox had clinched a wild-card spot in 2003 at Fenway Park, Damon was leading his teammates out onto the street in their uniforms and into bars, where they celebrated with worshipping fans who "were going nuts. It was pretty wild." Within a few short years, the Red Sox' team persona had made a 180-degree pivot, from sullen hermits sitting alone in their hotel rooms to wild men: cowboys and idiots. Damon was proud of his accomplishments with the Red Sox, and not only because he had helped win the team's first World Series in 86 years in 2004. He was also proud to have taught them to party like major league players were supposed to, "to go out and have fun."
* * *
After breakfast, Damon and I got into his big SUV and drove out to his house in Windemere, a wealthy suburb of Orlando. He had stopped talking now, as if his attention span had just reached its limit. I tried to nudge him out of his silence with a funny story about Buck Showalter. Damon did not laugh. He was too busy texting on his iPhone. Then, belatedly, he looked up and gave me a weak grin. Damon was not an easy person to talk to, except when he had something he wanted to say. I asked him to talk about his childhood while we drove. That seemed less stressful, so while he drove and texted, he told me how he'd grown up.
His parents had gotten married in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His older brother James was born in Thailand, and then Johnny was born in the U.S. Eventually, the family settled in the Orlando area, after his father left the service. His father was a big man, 6-foot-2, 285 pounds. "He was a hard man until he stopped drinking and smoking," Damon said, "and then he softened and just watched his TV shows. He didn't work much, was never an athlete." His father let his son grow up without much supervision. If Damon fell and hurt himself, his father didn't comfort him. When he smoked pot as a 12-year-old, his father told him that he'd smoked pot, too, so who was he to tell his son not to do it? His father's only admonition about schoolwork was, "Just don't get D's and F's, and you'll be fine."
By the time Damon was in eighth grade, he was a big, handsome kid whose only ambition was to smoke pot and chase girls. The following year, as a freshman in high school, he met Angie Vannice, a sophomore who "wowed" him, he wrote in his book. "We hung out and did a lot of things together." One of the things Damon and Vannice apparently did not do was talk a lot. Damon distrusted talk, having had a debilitating stutter as a child. Even now, at age 40, he made a point of talking slowly, pausing for a long moment before he answered each question, putting all his ducks in a row before he spoke. "I thought too much as a kid," he said. "I'd talk without knowing what I was saying. I had to learn to slow my words down." Years later, when Damon and Angie argued a lot, she wanted to talk things out. He didn't.
Damon was the starting centerfielder as a freshman on his high school baseball team. By his senior year, he was considered one of the best amateur players in the country. The Kansas City Royals drafted him in the first round and gave him a $250,000 bonus. He played half a season of rookie ball and then came home and got engaged to Angie. They were married when he was 19. A mistake, he says now, because he didn't realize what he was giving up in his baseball life at the time. All those women who were attracted to the exotic good looks of a young man who "loved women."
I asked Damon if he'd ever visited Thailand, his mother's birthplace. He said he had, with his mother, seven years before. "A lot of Thais knew about me," he said. "I did some clinics. The people were very laid back, hard workers, respectful. Maybe that's where I got it from." When Damon was out of baseball in 2013, he returned to Thailand to play on its national baseball team in the World Baseball Classic. "I just wanted to leave baseball on a positive note," he said, "if this was the end." When Damon went to his first practice with the Thai team, he said, he looked around and thought, "What have I got myself into? The infield grass was two feet high. There were big snakes. The Thais were tiny and not very strong. But it was a great experience. I was like a baseball ambassador."
When we reached Windemere, we drove down a narrow street bordered on either side by old growth, Florida trees and Spanish Moss that blocked out the sun. Damon turned right into his driveway. Looming ahead was his huge, Gothic stone mansion, with a circular turret like the castle of Westeros. We drove under an archway and parked close to the kitchen door. There were about eight bikes in a rack by the door. "For the kids who come to play with my kids," Damon said. He has high-school-age twins with Vannice -- a boy and a girl. He has four younger girls, including another set of twins, with his second wife, Michelle Mangan, who is something of a beauty queen. Damon called Mangan a "wild woman, very passionate, very much in love with me, a great cook and a great mother." Vannice called Mangan "a home wrecker." Damon said that, for all intents and purposes, his marriage to Angie was already over when he met Mangan.
Damon's older brother said that Mangan "seemed to like to party a lot." She was Damon's co-conspirator when they dropped water balloons on pedestrians from a high floor of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. When confronted by the hotel staff, Mangan said, "It couldn't be us. I was having sex with my fiancé." Once Damon was divorced and engaged to marry Mangan, she got into a verbal catfight with Shonda Schilling, wife of Damon's teammate Curt Schilling. It seemed that Mangan had taunted Shonda by flashing an eight-carat diamond engagement ring in her face. Asked about the incident, Damon said that "Shonda was not a very nice lady," and if you were married to Curt, "you wouldn't be, either."
Damon and Mangan were married in 2004. "She was awesome, like a five-tool player," Damon said. He wanted to have more kids, but she was terrified of the pain of childbirth. Finally, around 2006, Damon began telling everyone that he planned to "knock up" Mangan soon. In 2007, they had their first daughter. By that point, Mangan had begun a metrosexual makeover of her husband, who up until then had dressed like a surfer dude. She got him to start wearing designer suits and convinced him to appear on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. When I asked Damon about his experience on that show, fluttered over by a host of gay fashionistas, he said, "It was a fun show, but I wasn't at my best. I'd gotten bitten by a black widow." I said, "A woman?" He did not laugh. "No, a black widow spider," he said. "I'd gotten bitten in spring training with the Red Sox, when I was chasing an alligator barefoot. My lymph nodes got huge. I spent two days in a hospital, so I couldn't partake of the show as much as I would have liked." How did he get along with the guys on the show? "Obviously, they wanted me as their boyfriend," he said. "Gay guys like my look, my hair and muscles, but I made sure they kept their distance."
We went inside the mansion into a huge kitchen, which led to a living room the size of a banquet hall in Westeros. There were big flat-screen TVs, a massive bar and barbecue, an arcade room, a wrestling mat, a ping-pong table and a painting that mimicked Leonardo da Vinci's "Last Supper" -- Damon takes the part of Christ, and his Red Sox teammates are the 12 disciples. (In Boston, Damon's teammates and fans used to chant, "WWJDD. What Would Johnny Damon Do?") We went through sliding glass doors outside. His five-acre backyard spread out before us like a fantasy playground or amusement park. Tennis court, volleyball net, basketball court, tree house, rock pool, golf-putting course, jungle gym, tiki hut.
Damon's amusement-park house and backyard is not only for his kids. It's mostly for him. When he charitably let a young teammate and his family live with him until they found their own digs, he said he did it because "now I had someone to play ping-pong with." Just a few days before I arrived, he said, he and a friend had "played volleyball for hours while we drank 60 beers." Not 59 or 61. Sixty. I said that it must be hard to teach his kids about life in the real world, when they have such a fantasy amusement park to play in. He said, "Oh, I make them help me out here. When Michelle and I are out on the deck at night, I make my kids go get our margaritas."
He led me to a wooden walkway, past sea grass and tall cedar trees, out to the deck overlooking one of the Butler Chain of Lakes. It was a beautiful setting to sip a drink at night with his wife, while the moon shimmered off the waters. Mostly, Damon loved it because he could go kayaking, jet-skiing, water skiing and fishing on the lake. I looked at the water and said to Damon, "Are there alligators?" He said yes, but his yard was fenced off, so it was alligator-proof. We stood out on the deck for a few minutes, admiring the view, while Damon texted on his iPhone. When he was finished, we walked back across the wooden walkway, past the sea grass and cedar trees, and emerged into the sunshine of his amusement-park backyard.
Damon said, "This is my lifestyle. I certainly never had anything like this when I was a child. But this is what I always wanted to be. A kid. I always wanted to stay young at heart." He looked at me, with my white hair and white beard, and said, "Nobody wants to grow old." I remembered the movie Big, starring Tom Hanks as a 12-year-old boy who longed to be a grownup. When his wish was granted, and he became a 30-year-old, his life was not so wonderful as he thought it would be. All those adult "real world" problems that never really seem to get resolved. Damon was a grownup who always wanted to be a boy and still does. His wish was granted for 38 years, until two years ago.
Late in the afternoon, Damon drove me back to my hotel. While he texted, I asked him what he was doing to make money now that he was (unofficially) retired. "I always wanted to run a company," he said. "Or be on a reality TV show. I'm going up to New York City tomorrow to audition for Donald Trump's Apprentice." He said that he and his wife would stay in a Trump Hotel with the other actors, Vivica Fox, Geraldo Rivera and Kate Gosselin. Then he added proudly, "I've matured enough to know how to dress in New York now." Damon said that appearing on Apprentice would be free advertizing for his other companies. He's involved in the kind of businesses that attract many retired athletes, propositions that require little from them other than a name and a face -- no talent, no business acumen, no hard work, no creative ideas. Nothing but their fame and ability to be amiable in front of an audience. He has a small stake in an energy-drink company ("so kids won't die of heat exhaustion during summer football practice in Orlando") and a small piece of a muscle-tape company. Kinesio muscle tape was invented in the '70s by a Japanese chiropractor and is quite the rage among some athletes. Michelle Wie wore it on her calf when she won the U.S. Women's Open recently. It's supposed to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation and relax muscles, enhancing an athlete's performance or rehabilitation. Some medical journals say that it's not clear yet if the tape is anything more than a placebo. Still, its slashing, multi-colored stripes look smashing on an athlete's bare arms and legs, like a colorful tattoo.
Damon pulled up in front of the hotel entrance and left the motor running. It was obvious he'd had enough of talking. Damon seems curiously absent from his own conversations, but it's hard not to like him. He is so purely what he is, like an affectionate puppy, an innocent child. We got out and sat on a bench across from the hotel entrance, in the late afternoon sun. I lit a cigar; Damon texted on his iPhone. I asked him again why he thought no team would sign him. He said again that he couldn't understand it. "My teammates loved me," he said. "I did cool things for them. I was unselfish. I never worried about my stats. I always helped guys who hit behind me. I took a lot of pitches, fouled off balls to tire the pitcher out for them. I always played hard to help the team win."
When he played for the Royals from 1995-2000, Damon said, he did whatever the team asked of him. When the Royals brought up Carlos Beltran and wanted him to play centerfield, Damon's position, he selflessly moved over to leftfield. The next year, at contract time, the Royals told him they could no longer pay him the higher rate of a centerfielder, now that he was a leftfielder. "Naturally, that year Beltran got hurt," said Damon, "and I moved back to center. When it was time to sign a new contract in 2000, I told them I wanted centerfield money, and they traded me to Oakland."
In Oakland, he learned how to be a great teammate off the field as well as on the field. He learned to foster team camaraderie after the game at night in restaurants, bars and clubs. "I knew how to get the best out of people," Damon said. "But times have changed today." Many teams now frown on their high-priced players hanging together after a game. "When I was playing," he said, "I always took the young guys out after a game to have a good time. I felt the kids had a good time hanging out with me, shooting pool, having dinner, whatever. I saw nothing wrong with that. I was just teaching them to have a good time. I taught young kids how to drink like a major leaguer. If they got pounded on a few beers, I told them they needed to practice more in the offseason. But some organizations don't want their players out partying for hours after a game. They worry they might get in trouble. But hey, I'm not a robot, I'm gonna enjoy being a player."
He went silent for a moment, as if a new thought had crossed his brow. Finally, he said, "I guess teams worried that my partying was a bad influence with young players."
* * *
Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others.