Chapter 1: So Close, but So Far. October 2003
I was standing out in center field under the bright lights in Oakland. The Red Sox were playing the A’s, my old team, in the first round of the playoffs in the fall of 2003. Jermaine Dye, probably my best friend in baseball, hit a lazy fly ball my way. I remember thinking it was going to be an easy catch. I ran over to get it. Then I blacked out. Damian Jackson, our second baseman, had run out for the ball, and just as it came down, we both went for it and collided. His hard-ass head struck me in the temple, knocking me out cold for a few minutes. If you look at the replay, I fly into the air, and my whole body goes numb. One of my arms starts shaking. It was the hardest whack I ever got. When I was playing football in high school, Warren Sapp hit me pretty good but Damian Jackson’s head-on-head collision was definitely harder.
While I was on a stretcher being put into an ambulance, I gave a thumbs-up. When they carted me off the field, everyone thought I was okay, but I wasn’t. I’d suffered a bad concussion. My mind was scrambled. I actually thought I was wearing an Oakland uniform and that I was walking off the field waving to the Oakland fans, saying, “Thank you for supporting us this year.”
After the medics loaded me into the ambulance, they put some fluids in me and hooked me up to an IV. But as they were sticking it into my left arm—people think everyone’s right-handed—the ambulance hit a speed bump on the way out of the coliseum and the IV rammed into my veins. I ended up with a bruise from my wrist to my bicep that pained me for weeks.
When I arrived at the hospital, I asked one of the staff to turn on the TV, but I hardly remember anything about the game. Richard Halpern, a friend of mine from L.A., came to see me. He was wearing a shirt that said “Boston Red Sox vs. Oakland A’s, 2003 ALCS.” I kept looking at it thinking, “2003? When did Boston and Oakland play?” And I continued to think I was part of the Oakland A’s, who I’d been with in 2001. I remember thinking, What just happened to those two years? I had no clue.
My girlfriend Michelle, whom I’d later marry, was in the room, and I kept asking her, “Did we win? Did we win?”
“We won,” she kept assuring. “The team is going to New York.” But then a few minutes later I’d ask her, “Did we win? Did we win?”
I kept asking the same question over and over, 10 times, driving Michelle crazy. She told the doctor, “Every question he’s asking me, I’m answering the same way, but he’s not taking it in.”
That’s because my brain was scrambled. I knew what I was asking, but the answers I was receiving didn’t register. They say that when you suffer a serious concussion, you get thrown into a loop of questions. No matter how much your questions get answered, you don’t comprehend. That’s exactly what was happening here.
The doctors sent Michelle back to our hotel so she could take a nap. After she left, I kept asking for her. “Where is she? Tell her to get back up here.” When she returned, I figured she’d been away 10 minutes. But she’d taken a 2-hour nap before coming back.
When I was released from the hospital and returned to my hotel room, I kept asking, “What kind of game did I have? Was I doing good?” I really had no idea what had occurred that night. I didn’t know if I’d struck out four times or hit two home runs.
“You had a good game,” Michelle assured.
About five months later I got to watch a replay of the game. That was the game in which Derek Lowe finished off the A’s in the ninth by striking out the last two batters looking on two of the most hellacious pitches he’s ever thrown. It was a satisfying first-round win that had my teammates celebrating while I was lying in a hospital bed.
Hours after defeating Oakland, the Sox left for New York without me. Our head trainer, Jim Rowe, an incredible guy, made it his job to stay with me. He didn’t get to celebrate our advancing on to the next round of the playoffs, but he never complained.
The next morning one of our owners—I’m not exactly sure which owner—sent his private jet over to fly us into New York.
Before the series with the Yankees, the team doctors were debating whether to even put me on the roster because they knew how messed up I was. I went to Grady Little, our manager, and I said, “I can pinch hit if you need me.”
“You don’t look like you’re all there, son,” he said in that southern drawl.
“I’m ready to pinch run for you. I’ll be ready to play whenever you need me.”
“You don’t even sound right, boy.”
Grady may have had that slow drawl, but he was a very smart man. What a great guy to play for. He knew he couldn’t keep me off the roster, nor did he want to, even though I sat and watched those first two Yankee games from the bench.
I don’t remember those two games at all. I know we won the first one with Tim Wakefield on the mound. In Game 2 Andy Pettitte beat us, but I had no clue. Every time I’d stand up and grab a bat or do something to get loose, Grady would look at me and say, “Sit down, boy.”
When we got back to Boston, I went to the team doctor, and he said everything was checking out fine, that I was regaining some of my faculties. But the truth was I wasn’t close to normal—it took me four or five months before I had a clear, vivid picture of what was going on. When it rained the day we were supposed to play our first game in Boston, I got in one more day of recuperation. I don’t get much time off, even in the off season, and in all I ended up resting five days, which was huge. Everything started to feel fine. I felt like I was pretty strong.
Only a couple of people knew how beat up I really was when I started against the Yankees in Game 3. Not only was I not playing with a full deck upstairs, but my left arm was still bruised from the IV and was absolutely killing me. I was playing with one arm. I couldn’t move it.
I have an unorthodox swing where I release the bat just after contact. The pain didn’t allow me to do that. People said, “Your swing really changed for the Yankee series.” It wasn’t because I was scared in the box. It was because I had no motion owing to what had happened in the ambulance.
Before the game I didn’t even take batting practice. I just stepped out on the field and tried giving it what I could. Thinking about it now, I was in no condition to play. I’d start the games, and every game by the third or fourth inning I’d experience a painful migraine brought on by the concussion. I’d always been able to relax before a game, but not now. As soon as I started feeling stress or exerting energy, I’d get a migraine. Every day before the game was half over I’d just be wiped out. I would be standing out in center field, and my head would be throbbing. But being the kind of person I am, I still thought we were a better team with me out there. I just wish I’d been a little bit healthier for that Yankee series.
My memory of Game 3 is spotty. Roger Clemens started for the Yankees, not a very fun situation. When I came into the league in 1995, Roger was having a couple of down years. I’d say to myself, Hey, I see the ball pretty decent off him. Then when he got to Toronto he started throwing his split-finger pitch, and I thought, My gosh, this is one of the greatest pitchers ever. This is what they’ve been talking about!
Roger has been a workhorse. Against him that day the scorecard says I got three hits, but they were all softly hit to the left of the third baseman and to the right of short. I beat out a couple of tough hops on slow rollers which were credited for hits. I wasn’t going to complain, but I very easily could have been 0–3.
So even though I was in such bad shape to play, I went 3 for 3 against Clemens right out of the chute. I didn’t even consider myself a player in those games. Normally I’m filled with adrenaline. I hustle. Normally, I can do some special things on the baseball field. Against the Yankees, nothing was there, though the last thing I wanted to do was tell Grady, “I’m not really the guy you want to play.”
You just can’t ask out of big games, even if you have nothing going for you and your head is throbbing. That’s not how I was brought up as a ballplayer. You go out there because you think you’re the best option for the team.
Though I don’t remember a lot of that game, one incident does stand out: after Pedro Martinez hit Karim Garcia, tempers got hot and both benches cleared. I came running in from center field, thinking, No way in heck can I get in the middle of this thing. I have absolutely no strength, and I’ll get beat down something awful.
I ran toward the home plate area to find my best friend on the field, Jason Giambi, who was playing first base for the Yankees. When Jason and I were teammates in Oakland in 2001, we were very close.
“Hey, protect me if you can,” I said to Jason, “because I’ve got no clue where I am right now.”
Jason, being the great player he is, had to clear some guys off, but he kept coming back to me, making sure I was all right. While Jason and I were dancing, I could see a big commotion going on to the left of me. I turned to see Don Zimmer sprawled on the ground.
Pedro was looking at Zim laying there on the ground, but he wasn’t concerned about it. Pedro is a warrior. He’s one of the greatest competitors there ever was. He wasn’t quite the pitcher he’d been back in the late ’90s, early 2000s, but he went out there with his heart. You knew when he had it. He got that serious look in his eyes that said, Hey, I’ve got my stuff today. If you scored him a couple of runs, he was going to be fine.
As a person, Pedro was generous and giving. He was one of those guys who’d always pick up the check when the team went out to dinner. He has three kids, and he made sure they were taken care of. He didn’t go around with a big entourage. He was very smart. When he got to talking about baseball, he wouldn’t shut up. He knew how good he was. He wanted to win, and he did what he needed to do to win.
I wasn’t really sure what had happened until after the game. As much respect as Don Zimmer got from the Yankees, he used to be the Red Sox manager, so he got a lot of respect from our players as well. We liked that guy. He’s tough not to like. After the game Zim said all the right things, that he was wrong to go out there, that he was out of place. It had been building for years between Pedro and the Yankees, and Zim decided it was time to act. And so he went after Pedro, who defended himself and pushed Zim down on the ground before Zim could take a swing at him.
When you’re part of a rivalry, the best of friends can become upset with each other. We play each other 19 times a year, and we expected to play each other 7 times in the playoffs, so unfortunately you can see your friends too much. We got sick of each other. By the time September rolled around, they knew all of our weaknesses, a lot of our strengths, and it made it harder to get hits. We had to go into Yankee Stadium, the most intimidating ballpark there is, and a lot of players can’t take it. We could. The 2003 Red Sox weren’t afraid to walk into any ballpark. We knew what we had to do to win.
The fans and the press see these rivalries in terms of Hatfields and McCoys or good against evil, but for most of us it isn’t like that. It may be that way for the guys who came up in an organization and played 10 years—guys like Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, and for us Nomar Garciaparra and Jason Varitek. But these days most players jump teams a lot, rarely staying long enough to develop strong feelings. Sometimes, though, the passion of the fans can get a player caught up in the craziness.
That happened in the ninth inning when Paul Williams, one of the Fenway Park groundskeepers, one of the nicest, most respected guys, was in the Yankee bullpen waving a towel and rooting us on. That’s all he was doing. But because he was in the Yankee bullpen, the Yankee pitchers took offense at the show of support. Jeff Nelson of the Yankees and Karim Garcia, who ran over from right field, got in some pretty good shots, and Paul ended up in the hospital. The way we saw it, it was so uncalled for, way out of line. To avoid a trial, Nelson and Garcia each accepted 50 hours of community service. The important thing is, Paul seems to be doing great.
We ended up losing that game, but in the next Tim Wakefield threw a beauty, and Scott Williamson struck out David Dellucci and Alfonso Soriano to end it. Wake, who has the longest tenure on the Sox, was a guy who started every spring as the odd-man-out in the rotation, or was relegated to a role as fifth starter. It was probably because he’s too darn nice. He’d say, “Whatever you need from me to make the team better.” If they wanted him to be the fifth starter, he was happy to accommodate. Then management would realize it was a good idea to stick him between two hard throwers, and by the time the season was halfway done, he’d end up the third guy.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Idiot by Johnny Damon with Peter Golenbock. Copyright © 2006 by Johnny Damon. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.