Former Major League Baseball star Johnny Damon was the guest of honor Sunday at The Ripken Experience as the Myrtle Beach baseball complex welcomed 63 teams into town for the start of a week-long tournament.
And it wasn’t just the hundreds of youth ballplayers who were eagerly anticipating the arrival of the former Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees great.
While he was speaking during the tournament’s opening ceremony and fielding questions from the 10, 12 and 13-year-old little leaguers, a woman chimed in on behalf of a wholly different demographic of Damon fans, asking, “For all the moms, can I get a hug?”
As the former All-Star somewhat bashfully obliged to the crowd’s approval, another woman came running over from the other side of the field to make sure she got one as well.
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“You’re welcome,” Damon said before quickly drawing the attention back to questions about past teammates like Manny Ramirez and how it felt winning the World Series twice.
In its 10th summer in Myrtle Beach and ever growing, The Ripken Experience has added a full lineup of notable baseball personalities to usher in the start of each weekly tournament this year, and the response to familiar names like Dale Murphy, Cal Ripken Jr., Bill Ripken and now Damon has been strong, said Bobby Holland, the facility’s general manager.
That goes for the kids and – as illustrated again Sunday – their families, who trek from all over the country to take part in the complex’s events.
“It just kind of takes everything to another level to let them hear a story or hear maybe some bit of inspiration,” Holland said. “Some of it’s not even always directed at the kids, but the parents or a coach. And all of them have been great.”
After racking up 2,769 career hits and 235 home runs over 18 seasons in the big leagues before finishing up in 2012, Damon keeps plenty busy with his own kids these days – he has seven – and was just with his son at baseball tournaments in Atlanta and then Florida before jetting up to Myrtle Beach.
While he had to skip away from his son’s tournament for a day to make the appearance happen and would comment later that he was due to catch up on some much overdue rest at some point very soon, he also recalled how he had benefited from similar encounters with big league stars when he was growing up and said he has always wanted to pay that favor forward.
And as Holland recalls, it was actually Damon who initiated contact with The Ripken Experience staff about eight months ago, looking to get involved.
“Cal Ripken was very huge in my development as a player and a person because when I was a 12-year-old kid going to watch spring training games at Tinker Field in Orlando, Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray stopped and signed autographs for myself and hundreds more kids,” Damon said. “So I always knew if I was going to be a baseball player, I was going to do the same and give back as much as I could. So it was a no-brainer for me.”
In general, the plan for The Ripken Experience to line up a list of recognizable baseball stars to meet with the teams each week originated rather organically last summer when Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro happened to be coming to a tournament with his grandson’s team. The famous knuckleballer agreed to speak to the teams that week and an idea was born.
“It’s impossible for Cal and Bill [Ripken] to be here every Sunday so almost by accident last year we had Phil Niekro’s grandson’s team come out and he ended up talking at the opening ceremony and the kids got a real kick out of it,” Holland said. “So we decided to start doing it every week. We try to make it a true experience out here the way we run our tournaments and make it like a big league environment for the kids to play in.”
Murphy was the first special invitee Holland thought of, having rooted for the former Atlanta Braves star when he was younger. Former big league manager Bobby Valentine was the headliner another week, Jim Morris, the impetus for the movie “The Rookie,” has been out to the complex this summer as have both Ripken brothers. Still to come is two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, a joint appearance by 1986 World Series headliners Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner, and visits from Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry and former Yankees star Bobby Richardson.
“I just threw spaghetti up against the wall and came up with a list in my head,” Holland said. “... And then all of them I lined up either just by connecting, believe it or not, on Twitter or finding a way to get in the backdoor and deal with them directly. ...
“Johnny had actually reached out to us about eight months ago, I think it was. He gave a call and said, ‘If you ever need anything, I’d [like to be] involved with kids.’ And I jumped all over it.”
As for Sunday, Damon had actually been running a little behind schedule after missing a morning flight and having to scramble to find another way to get to Myrtle Beach for his planned appearance.
All the while, the swarms of youth baseball teams and their families had packed in and around one of The Ripken Experience’s main fields for the opening ceremony as Holland addressed the group and stalled as best – and as long – as he could under the blistering sun.
Sure enough, though, Damon – the longtime fan favorite who helped key the Red Sox’ first World Series in 86 years in 2004 before winning another championship in 2009 with the Yankees – showed he still had a flare for timing.
A little before 3 p.m., Holland gladly passed the microphone to the day’s main attraction, who apologized for being late but proved worth the wait for the little leaguers while fielding questions – and hug requests – for 13 minutes before signing autographs and posing for photos.
“Are you guys excited to be here and play some baseball? Is there another Johnny Damon out there? Maybe?” Damon asked the players. “You guys probably don’t even know me. I’m an old man to you guys now, right?”
While the players gathered before him weren’t old enough at the time to appreciate the history of that 2004 Red Sox World Series run that cemented Damon as a superstar in the sport, they nevertheless knew who they were talking to Sunday.
They asked about Ramirez, his complicated steroid-tainted former teammate, and Damon responded simply, saying that he was a great hitter who got himself in trouble but has a lot to offer the game. He had to add one thing on that topic, though.
“I didn’t like when he cut off my throw from left field going to third base,” he quipped of one of baseball’s more memorable bloopers of the 2000s. “Unfortunately, I’ll be in the highlights for that for a long time.”
The kids asked Damon why he cut off his long hair, which became a symbol for those Boston teams. They asked what his favorite team was, what kind of car he drove, what he thought of former Detroit Tigers teammate Miguel Cabrera – “The best hitter I’ve ever seen, hands down. There’s nobody better than him.”
And eventually it was time for the kids to go make their own baseball memories.
“It’s great just hearing all the questions they had,” Damon said later in a quieter moment. “I was trying to talk and give them a lengthy speech and all of a sudden I see all these hands up in the air wanting to ask me certain things, so I felt I might as well open it up to questions because I’m sure I was boring them with little tidbits of my career.”
There ended up being more than he could get to in time, and with that another week of tournament play commenced as Holland, meanwhile, peeked ahead on his busy calendar.
“We’ve got four weeks left,” Holland said. “All of the [invited speakers] have something. Murphy was a great sportsman. I always thought of him kind of like Cal, somebody that’s got such a clean record, does a lot for kids, does a lot to give back. Bill [Ripken] is a personality, but also an incredible baseball mind and always has great feedback for kids. Same with Cal. Bobby Valentine just blew me away the other week with the speech he gave. ...
“But all of them, we were looking for somebody that had a good personality, good charisma, good playing career and somebody that kids and adults could look up to.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.