The Long, Dark Voyage

or, JohnnyD's Beard

Sure, he came to spring training with a shaggy beard and a mane of hair thick enough to choke a cat. And he knew for damn sure he was going to get comments. A lot of comments. At least it'll give the press something to talk about, he was thinking. Something else.

He'd had a list, that first morning, as he headed out the door: Captain Caveman, Jesus H Christ, Samson, Grizzly Adams, Caveman Pete, Johnny Come-With-A-Lotta-Hair. He figured he'd get 'em all, and more, from the Boston media. And most of them had been used. Or at least had been used to date.

No matter. None of them knew, none of them would know. What really happened that winter.

He told them the stories about migraines after his collision in Oakland at the Coliseum. He told them about other stuff, he couldn't quite remember all of it. If he seemed foggy about things he could usually get away with a smile and a weary shake of the head. With his longer hair it made the shake all that much more effective. The guys ate it up. And then they'd move on to Pedro, or Manny, or Nomar. Or somebody else. And he'd be able to sit back and relax at his locker. He'd put his head in his hands and let the cool steel mesh make marks on his forehead through a few layers of hair.

In November, he was having migraines, truth be told. But it was also when he got The Call.

Some of his buddies from the Oakland days rang up one day, and he could tell they were had him on speakerphone almost straight away. He could hear his own voice groggily saying "Hello?" The grogginess really plunked home with the echo reverberating in the phone with the swirl of voices accompanying.

"Heya Johnny, how's your head?"

"S'allright. I suppose. How're you guys?"

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

"Hey, guys." He held the phone a little away from his head and tilted it at an angle, as if he could tip the conversation out of the phone like water.

"Uh, yeah. Listen. Wanna come outside, like, now? There's a car out front." There was only one voice on the phone now. Johnny could hear the emptiness of the room that phone was sitting in. He pictured brown walls and those hard linoleum floors of a school cafeteria. He wasn't quite sure why.

He got up out of his chair, where he'd dozed off and sidled over to the front window. He pulled the blinds back a little bit. Sure enough, there was a car out there. A black four door sedan, some weird looking gold-like trim glinting in the streetlights. Not entirely unusual for Florida, which has some pretty damn ugly cars, but odd for his neighbourhood, for sure. He let the blinds back down, gently, so they wouldn't rattle and wake anyone. Which is when the guys burst through the front door, sending a good chunk of wood, formerly of the door jamb flying out into the hallway, grabbed him, and half dragged, half carried him to the waiting car.

At first, he couldn't quite tell what was worse, his sea-sickness or the migraines. It turned out they probably weren't migraines at that point, it was probably a different manifestation of the seasickness hitting him. If you get your head shoved in a canvas sack and then get tossed on what has to be a boat, from the sounds and smells, your general well being, well, isn't so well. He thought he was out of the sun, for the most part, but by the end of a couple days he wasn't feeling so hot, and really wished the rocking of the boat would just stop. And this from a guy that likes to fish.

On the third day he woke to the scraping of wood against sand, and the sudden land vertigo that hits you when you rush ashore again after an extended period on the water threw him forward on his forearms. The inside of this new boat felt very smooth, plasticine, which was a mild blessing, as it at least meant he didn't have to worry about splinters.

He was put ashore, the bag removed from his head, and his arms untied. He was sat in some incredibly soft sand, and he watched as the two men whom had rowed him to shore struggled to get the boat out of some impressive surf. The men leapt and dove forward against the boat, trying to push it out of the way of the breakers, crashing down over the top and into the boat, pushing back against them. The thought crossed his mind that they would look ridiculous performing the same actions on dry land. And just then, they were over, out of the crash zone and bobbing over the waves before the breaking point.

He found a cave set back from the shore, surrounded by a sort of grassy clearing. It looked like it had been left behind by a reality television show and, in fact, probably had been. Judging from the brightly coloured banners he occasionally dug up while looking for grubs. He didn't know what he was looking for, exactly, in the grubs, but he was digging because he seemed to remember something, either from television or some deep seated primal knowledge, about food being underground. At least the easily catchable food. Low-hanging fruit, as it were.

The lighter and boxes of matches for the fire he found wrapped in plastic at the back of the cave also suggested this might have been used for something else. The lighter ran out of fluid after the third day, but the palette of matches seemed almost inexhaustible.

As the weeks wore on, he subsisted largely on wild pigs, fish, and fruit. Actual fruit, not the supposed low hanging fruit of grubs, which he never actually had to eat.

He suspected there were other people on the island, helping him in small ways, because oftentimes the wild pigs would appear just inside his cave, occasionally with an apple in its mouth already, and stuffed with this really nice apple stuffing.

His runs along the beach wouldn't reveal anything special about his island, though he could hear the occasionally drone of a plane overhead, the rasp of outboard engines coming from somewhere out there on the water. As he cast his makeshift line out into the water to see if he couldn't catch his dinner. It was just your average, ordinary deserted island. With either nice savages who liked to drop pigs ready for cooking off on his doorstep or some pretty amazingly (and poorly, looking at it from a survival of the fittest point of view) evolved pigs.

"Some bachelor party, eh?" said an enormous man with his head stuffed into a black mask, the kind you used to see on wrestlers when they had nothing else to use as a gimmick. He had stepped out from behind a copse of trees at the mouth of the cave. Disturbingly, he wasn't wearing a shirt, just a pair of very faded basketball shorts, a pair of Chuck Taylors, and that mask that made his head look like a really large baked potato in a bag. It had been a month since Johnny had seen anyone else, and worried this might be his painted volleyball. Although this obviously wasn't a volleyball, it was a large, hairy man in basketball shorts and a mask.

"I'm not getting married, man." Those being his first words in two and a half months, Johnny was disappointed. He had been hoping for something a little more indicative of his being rescued or something.

"No way. Really?" The guy in the mask stepped back a bit.

"Yeah, no."

"Aw, damn. You're kidding, right?"

"No, man. I'm not. I'm already married. Couple of kids. Y'know." Johnny produced his wallet, which was looking worse for wear, with pictures of his kids and wife.

The big man stepped forward, and a shadow fell over the wallet. "Oh man." He stepped back again, his hand to where his forehead would be. "Listen, I'll give you a lift, then." The big man pulled a battered-looking motorcycle out of the bushes, and hopped on. He motioned for Johnny to hop on behind him. The man in the mask was on the phone most of the way to a small airfield about a mile, maybe two, from the cave. From there, he let Johnny off down the less grassy end of the airfield, where a plane was idling, its steps down and a couple of bored guards leaning on either side of the staircase. They got him on with a minimum of fuss, closed up the door at the top of the staircase and remained there while the plane wiggled off, down the runway, and back to Orlando, Florida.

He had some time. Time to spend with his family, who got used to the hair and beard, sort of. And he worked up his excuses, what the Boston media would subject him to when he got back in camp, and prepared for the upcoming season. But mostly he spent time with his family, the way people are supposed to do when they get euphemistically laid off, but who probably don't. Most of them probably look for jobs straight away. But Johnny D wasn't laid off, he was just getting through the off-season until they all had to report again to start that long, slow climb through one hundred and sixty two more games...

And he'd grown a little partial to the beard, anyway.


Here we are, once again, for your reading pleasure.

And is it the truth? Have we got some inside scoop on what, exactly, went on this winter in Johnny Damon's life? We'd say no, but, then, maybe, just maybe, we do.

Enjoy your week, and see you Monday.
Thank you for coming.

5 April 2004

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