A New Park Deserves...No, NEEDS...a New Leadoff Hitter

John KessanisCorrespondent IMarch 31, 2009

I didn't even want to do the research for this one.

In about a week, the 2009 Major League Baseball season will commence and thousands of recycled story lines will be aired on SportsCenter until the November cold shuts down ballparks for the winter. 

Some of the stories will fascinate, some will get old quick, and some will just never get off the ground.  Period.

But one story/event/epic landmark in the timeline of the history of the universe will reign supreme for baseball fans in the greater Northeast and aficionados nationwide. 

Apr. 16, 2009 will mark the beginning of a new chapter in the life of the most storied franchise in all of sports. The New York Yankees will play their first game in their new ballpark, located just a few thousand feet from the House That Ruth Built. 

The old park saw them win 26 World Championships, 40-some odd Pennants...You know the deal.

The legacy that the old stadium had will be, in my mind, irreplaceable. Never again will so many amazing players- and more importantly, considering the environment in which the game is currently played, so many amazing CLEAN players—play in one outfield, walk through two batter's box, or sit in two opposing dugouts.

Nevertheless, with the expectations the Yankees have every year (and with the prices they charge for tickets), fans will be expecting more of the same despite the new address.

And the front office, without question, knows this. And one move made this offseason, which has been noticed yet is receiving a fraction of the media attention of the other Yankee moves, is a sign that tradition still comes first in the Bronx.


Like I said, I didn't want to have to do this...

Red Sox 11.  Yankees 2.

Game Seven. 2004 American League Championship Series.

The biggest choke job in sports history.

I still remember Game Three.  Where I was, what I was thinking. I was at a college house party in my freshman year of college.

In the basement of the decrepit-to-some- palatial-to-college-kids house, I was drinking a red Solo cup full of jungle juice, talking to my buddy Adam about who the Yanks were going to play in the World Series.

"I THINK THE ASTROS. BELTRAN IS INSANE," I yelled over the blaring Lil Jon song on full blast about a foot away from me.  Carlos Beltran hit eight home runs in the postseason for the Astros after being traded there mid-season.

The score was 19-8. The Yankees had just roughed up the Sawx for 22 hits in Fenway.  Hideki Matsui looked like the Asian Ted Williams. It was bliss.

Then Game Four. Me and my roommate Paul were waiting for delivery in the bottom of the 12th. When the food came, David Ortiz was walking to the plate.

"I don't even want to watch this, I'll get it." I ran up the stairs as fast as I could and answered the door for the delivery guy. I was housing in the Rutgers dorms, so when I went outside I was in the middle of about 100-150 rooms.

As God as my witness, as I took the food from the guy, about 300 profanities echoed through the New Brunswick campus. I took the food, tipped the less-than-entertaining delivery boy, and walked down to my room, knowing what had just happened.

Paul was sitting there, just staring at me, as David Ortiz threw his helmet off and stomped on home plate on the flat screen. Boston 6, Yankees 4. Final, 12 innings.

Yankees lead the series three games to one. That's all that mattered.

Flash forward to Game Seven. We have a flag football game scheduled for 8:00. The Yankees go on at 8:27. The refs allow us to play the game on a radio on the sidelines.  The football game seems secondary to John Sterling and the Pinstripes. 

By the time our game was over, the Yankees chances were too. 8-1 after four innings.  All the hate, anger, frustration, and disappointment I was feeling came out of me in three simple words:

Johnny "Bleepin'" Damon.

The caveman, whom I have heckled mercilessly from the center field bleachers on numerous occasions, hit 2 HRs in Game Seven after doing nothing for the previous six games.  It was bad enough that I hated how he looked, how he talked, and how he was a Red Sock.  Now, he had just sealed the deal on the greatest comeback in pro sports.  I couldn't believe it.


I had just parked my car and was down the block from the house.

"Are you serious?"

"Swear to God."

"I don't even think I'm happy about this. OK I just parked the car I'll be in in a minute."

My friend Diego had just called me. Johnny Damon had just signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees just before midnight on Dec. 21, 2005, just one year removed from stabbing them in the proverbial heart in the ALCS. 

I sat there on the couch, staring at the ESPN "Breaking News" slate as Tim Kurkijan's words just seemed to go in one ear and out the next.  I relished in the fact that the Yanks had just taken the Beatles from London, or Gretzky from Los Angeles, but could not hide my utter disgust with Johnny Damon in general.

As the years have passed, my hatred for Johnny has dissipated. I have learned to accept his .300 batting average, 20 stolen bases, and complete noodle arm in center field, supplanting former Yankee CF Bernie Williams as arguably the weakest arm in a Major League outfield. 

He has, in my opinion, been a productive- at the very worst, serviceable—leadoff hitter for the past three seasons for the Bronx Bombers.

Leadoff hitter.

The decision last week by Joe Girardi to now bat Derek Jeter leadoff instead of Damon really raised few eyebrows. Both are prototypical 1-2 hitters who bring virtually the same amount of power, speed, and contact to the plate.

You could probably project both of them this year to hit .300, about 10-15 HRs, drive in 70 RBI, and steal 15 bases (maybe a few more for Damon). No biggie, Joe.

But no matter what the Yankees may say, it means so much more than that.

Just piece the puzzle together. New ballpark...new legacy...Yankee tradition...first game...first batter...in the new park...it HAS to be...

Johnny Damon? The "usual" leadoff hitter?

You want Johnny "Bleepin" Damon to be the first Yankee to take an AB in the new ballpark? 

And you want Mr. New York/November/Clutch  Derek Jeter to stand in the on deck circle and watch ALL this happen?

Yea. Right.

The Yanks can try and defend this any way they want to. They can sugarcoat it and talk about good spring trainings, off season workouts, solar eclipses...I don't care. Both guys can hit 1-2 in the lineup, so it is not going to have a major impact statistically.

However, unlike DJ, Johnny was a Red Sock. And once a Red Sock always a Red Sock, or so it seems.  Curt Schilling will be considered a Bostonian when the curtain closes on him, not a Diamondback or Fightin' Phil. 

The same can be said about Pedro Martinez. Places like Boston and New York are where great players forge legacies on the biggest stages. Johnny forged his legacy as a Yankee killer that winter in 2004. And he will always be remembered for that in some degree.

But there is no need to hide all this. Why try? Who is going to blame you when you explain yourself. You think any Yankee fan who was alive in 2004 will say you're wrong in your reasoning? I highly doubt it. Derek Jeter has been the face of the franchise since 1996.

He has four World Series Rings. He has earned the respect and adornment of baseball fans worldwide. He was the backbone of a dynasty which pulled the Yankees out of their 15 year absence from prominence.

And now, he'll have the first at bat...

In the House That Jeter Built.


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