WINDERMERE, Fla. — Growing up in central Florida, Johnny Damon was a target of bullies.
He looked and sounded different. His mother is from Thailand and he had a bad stuttering problem. Kids hurled racial slurs at him.
“I never let it bother me,” he says. “I mean, I was big enough of a kid to take care of myself.”
He would find a way to turn the tables on his tormentors.
“I would be called Bruce Lee,” he says. “And I was like, that’s kind of a great compliment.”
Damon, 49, played 18 seasons in the big leagues with seven teams. Red Sox Nation has a love/hate relationship with him. He was the charismatic, long-haired Caveman, the leadoff hitter of the self-proclaimed “Idiots” who ended an 86-year-old drought by winning the 2004 World Series.
But then in December of 2005, the two-time Red Sox All-Star bolted to the Evil Empire Yankees for more money.
Now, 17 years later, Damon is returning to Boston to receive the Baseball Legacy Award at “The Tradition,” the Sports Museum’s annual gala Dec. 7 at TD Garden. The event also honors Bill Rodgers, Lawyer Milloy, Chanté Bonds, Jillian Dempsey, M.L. Carr, and Mark Recchi, and helps raise money for The Sports Museum’s anti-bullying programs.
“Hopefully this can help a lot of people,” says Damon. “Mostly to educate them to stand strong.”
In a poolside interview at his sprawling lakefront mansion, just miles from the Magic Kingdom, Damon still looks like Jesus with his over-the-shoulder mane, except for a gray hair or two.
Unannounced, Dash Damon, 6, the youngest of Damon’s eight children, leaps into his dad’s lap. He’s as swift as his father once was when he stole two bases on a single pitch during the 2009 World Series.
“This is my little baby Tarzan,” says Damon, hugging Dash as they both giggle.
“My 6-year-old son has long hair, and I grew [mine] back because of him getting all the attention. And he sleeps with a Red Sox blanket every night.”
After he famously cut his long hair and shaved his beard to conform with the Yankee dress code, Damon won a world championship with the ‘09 Yankees. Today he looks more like an original Idiot.
“I love the Red Sox look a lot better,” he says. “Yeah, I feel like I can chill a lot more.”
The long hair actually never went away. Literally.
“I still have it,” says Damon. “It’s, like, just sitting underneath my bathroom sink. It’s just a glob of mess.”
Nearby, work crews are still cleaning up damage from Hurricane Ian. Damon’s boat is partially submerged, and its shed is destroyed.
The nine-bedroom estate includes a swimming pool with a hot tub and a swim-up bar, a tennis court, a beach volleyball court, and a two-lane bowling alley.
Damon used to do naked pullups in the Red Sox clubhouse before games. Now he has a two-story workout area with framed autographed jerseys and memorabilia. He still does 100 pushups a day, plays soccer on Sundays, and loves to fish, golf, and play with the kids.
“I’m a beast,” he says with a laugh. “I was in the running for sexiest man of 2004, and I still am.”
Damon walks around the grounds barefoot. There’s also a citrus grove and beautiful lakeside views, but he’s careful where he goes.
“Before the hurricane, there weren’t alligators around here,” he says. “Now there are.”
Making history and enemies
Damon remembers the 2004 season as “a roller coaster ride.”
Everybody was loose, he says.
“It was fun. That’s what our team was about.”
The Red Sox made baseball history when they lost the first three games of the AL Championship Series, then won four straight to get to the World Series.
“We had a fun bunch of guys, and we always talked about how we weren’t ready to take our kids to school, so let’s win a couple of games at least,” says Damon. “The thing about that series is everybody pitched in. Everybody did their part.”
Until Game 7, Damon struggled in the ALCS. But then he smashed two homers and drove in six runs in a 10-4 rout that turned Yankee Stadium into a giant mausoleum.
On both homers, he acted as if it were a spring exhibition game in Tampa, not even smiling as he rounded the bases.
“For my triumph, I know it was someone’s failure,” he says. “I always was taught to pretend like you’ve been there before.”
In Game 4 of the World Series sweep of the Cardinals, Damon led off with a home run, and it proved to be the winning run.
The following year, with free agency looming, Damon was recruited by Red Sox teammate and former Yankee David Wells.
“He said, ‘If you ever have the opportunity to put on the pinstripes, do it. They will take care of you forever,’ ” Damon recalls. “And they’ve been taking great care of me. It’s insane.
“It’s just unfortunate the [Red Sox] team didn’t sign me and I chose their evil enemy.”
Damon doesn’t expect all Red Sox fans to forgive him. But he says his May 2005 quote — ”There’s no way I can play for the Yankees” — was taken out of context.
“What I said was, I will not go to the Yankees unless there’s disrespect coming from the Red Sox,” he says. “And I felt the disrespect was when I told the Red Sox I had an offer from someone. I didn’t tell them I had it from the Yankees.
“They said I was bluffing.”
The Yankees offered $12 million more than the Sox. Damon signed a four-year, $52 million contract on Dec. 20, 2005.
But there was one important thing Damon didn’t consider before he joined the Bronx Bombers and manager Joe Torre.
“The only thing I didn’t like was that your kids couldn’t go on the field with you,” he says, recalling how much fun he and eldest son Jackson had at Fenway Park. “And that alone would have made me possibly change my decision.”
Red Sox fans booed him mercilessly and threw dollar bills at him from the bleachers.
Nowadays when the Yankees play the Red Sox, whom does he root for?
“I actually don’t root for anyone,” says Damon. “I root for the back of the jersey, so I’m rooting for Aaron Judge to hit a home run. I’m rooting for [Xander] Bogaerts. I don’t know too many players out there now.”
A Hall of Fame case?
Damon has given back to the community. He received the Thurman Munson Award for his work with the Wounded Warrior Project and the Brooks Robinson Community Service Award for bettering the lives of youth in his community. He has done a lot for disadvantaged children and worked with a local sheriff in an anti-bullying campaign.
Named by former president Donald Trump to the President’s Council for Sports, Nutrition and Fitness in 2016, he has preached getting kids off their iPads and onto the playing fields.
He has appeared on several TV shows, including “Family Feud,” “Dancing With The Stars,” “Below Deck Mediterranean,” and “Tanked.” In 2020, Damon was appointed chairman of the board of A-Game, a sports energy drink company.
He was arrested in February 2021 for a DUI near his home. Windermere police reported his blood alcohol level was .30, nearly four times the Florida legal limit. Damon insists he had only three beers in three hours and was crushed by the incident.
Charges were eventually dropped when Damon completed 50 hours of community service with Habitat for Humanity, made a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, attended a DUI class and a victim awareness program, and had an ignition interlock device installed in his vehicle.
“I do make mistakes, and granted I guess that was a huge one for driving home that night,” he says.
Damon also believes he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a career .284 hitter with 2,769 hits and 408 stolen bases.
He had more hits than Ted Williams and more stolen bases than Willie Mays. According to the New York Times, only four players in baseball history have more career hits, runs, home runs, and stolen bases than Damon: Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor, and Craig Biggio.
But he got only 1.9 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 2018, less than the 5 percent necessary to remain on the writers’ ballot. He hopes to get a second chance with the Era Committees.
“I may not get in,” he says, “but you know what? My life is still good. My teammates all know every time they see me, they’re like, ‘That’s a bad mother [expletive] right there.’ ”
He looks forward to returning to Boston.
“Red Sox fans, when I played for them, I gave them everything,” he says.
Damon says The Sports Museum award is special to him.
“I want the fans to know that I love the Boston Red Sox,” he says. “I never wanted to leave, and unfortunately, circumstances came up, and it’d be great to get cheered again in Boston.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.