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Damon serves as mentor as he chases 3,000 hits

CLEVELAND -- Johnny Damon desperately wants to get to 3,000 career hits but can't do it until late next season or maybe not even until 2014. Still, at age 38, he's no sideshow just hanging on. He's still got plenty to give at the plate, even if his legs aren't going to be able to push him around the outfield as they once did. And all he does is win wherever he goes.

Damon was a boon to the young players in the Tigers' clubhouse in 2010 and to the Rays last year. The Indians are hoping he can play the same role here while they try to stay in front of heavily favored Detroit in the AL Central.

"Hopefully I can teach these guys a few things but this is a pretty good club with or without me," Damon said Friday, prior to his first game with the Tribe in Progressive Field. "I'm excited to have the opportunity to play and there's always pressure on me every single year. I have to go out and do certain things. If I play well, I continue to play. If I don't, contracts are getting tougher and tougher to get. But people know what I can do to a clubhouse, what I can do with young kids.

"This team is pretty awesome. They have a chance to win now but they're also developing for the future and not too many teams can say that. That was very enticing to me."

Damon entered the weekend fourth on the active hit chart with 2,725, with the latest being Friday's key two-run triple to center that soared over the head of Texas all-star Josh Hamilton. The only active players ahead of Damon in hits are Derek Jeter, Omar Vizquel and Alex Rodriguez.

"There's incentive for me to go out there and give it my all and do my best," Damon said. "I'm more here for my bat than my defense. Hopefully my defense can be adequate or more than adequate but if I don't play well, it could be the end and I'm not quite ready for that."

"We needed a guy like him. His track record speaks for himself," said Tribe manager Manny Acta. "He's been there and done that, close to 3,000 hits and still had a very productive year last year. We're going to do the best we can to keep him healthy and try to help our lineup out."

Acta has penciled Damon in the leadoff hole and in left field in his first three games with Cleveland but it remains to be seen how that will work. Damon batted .261 with 16 homers, 73 RBIs and 19 stolen bases last year for the Rays but played only 16 games in the outfield and 135 at designated hitter. He's spent a couple of weeks in Arizona getting ready but had to leave a game early Thursday in Chicago due to cramping.

"I probably need to get used to the grind of playing the outfield again and the humidity again," he said. "I plan to go out there, play hard, give this team what it wants and hopefully we won't have too many instances like we had the other night where I had to come out."

Damon is one of the most durable players of our time, with 16 straight years of 140 games or more. And once he left Kansas City, all he's done is win with the A's, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers and Rays. And, of course, he got the big rings in 2004 with Boston and 2009 with New York.

"Over the last couple years, I've been a mentor to teams, probably teaching them too much if you look at the Tigers and Tampa Bay," he joked. "But that's what I do. I want everyone to have a fair shake at this game and approach the way I approach it."

Damon spoke fondly of playing with the Royals, in the early days in his career, at Cleveland, where sellouts at then-Jacobs Field were the norm. He even had a good laugh at his own expense when he was asked if he was happy to have the Lake Erie midges on his side.

The midges, remember, are the waterbugs that drove Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain crazy to the point where he blew a save in a loss to the Tribe during the 2007 division series.

"I like them only if it works in our favor," Damon said. "But those midges really hurt us. Cleveland was going pretty strong that year. They had a lot of momentum, tough starting pitching with CC [Sabathia], guys like Grady [Sizemore] and Haf [Travis Hafner] at all-star/MVP caliber. The midges were definitely out for them too."

The Tribe haven't been to the playoffs since. Having Damon in the lineup would be a huge boost for them if they make it come October.

"I know Cleveland needs something to grasp on to right now," Damon said. "I remember coming here from 1995-2000 and how crazy this place was and how the fans rallied behind the team. It was special and we feel this is a team that can do it too."

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Moneyball

I really get what the Rochester Red wings are doing today. It makes all the sense in the world from a business standpoint -- but I still hate it.

The Red Wings will have a full house today to watch Andy Pettitte's outing for Scranton against Pawtucket, so they will make a ton of money. They would have had maybe 4,000 on hand for their scheduled game against the Bisons, which was played instead as part of a doubleheader Saturday.

For a community-owned team, that boatload of cash is probably too good to pass up. Still, the whole Scranton thing feels dirty. It's presented like Rochester is being a good neighbor to a fellow league member and the Wings are, even if Scranton's stadium troubles have been self-inflicted over many years. But while you're helping your neighbor, of course, be sure to buy your "Empire State Yankees" gear in the gift shop. Oy vey.

Now the Wings are pushing aside their own team -- their own team! -- in what amounts to a sheer money grab. The Rochester and Buffalo players, of course, are happy to have a day off but I think it's an affront to the current Rochester players and the Minnesota Twins.

As much as it would love to be, Rochester is not the Yankees' affiliate and never will be. The Wings have a passionate front office and have long been one of the flagship franchises of the IL. But this kind of bottom-line behavior is unseemly.

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No halo for Albert

How bad is it getting for the Angels? They were shut out on back-to-back nights by Toronto's Brandon Morrow and Henderson Alvarez Thursday and Friday, and Albert Pujols was roundly booed after another 0-for-4, homerless night dropped his average to .194.

"If I could boo myself, I'd boo myself, too," Pujols said. "But I know better than to just get myself down. My message to the fans is that they have a reason to boo.

"They need to be patient in knowing that I'm going to be here for 10 years. I guarantee you there's going to be more cheers than boos in those 10 years."

Pujols entered Saturday homerless in 108 at-bats, with only Atlanta leadoff hitter Michael Bourn having more at-bats without a homer. Guess $240 million doesn't buy as much as it used to.

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, got back-to-back complete-game shutouts for the first time since Jack Morris and Al Leiter did it in 1993. Angels starter Ervin Santana fell to 0-6 Friday night -- and became the first pitcher since 1974 to have no runs scored on his behalf in five straight starts.

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Herd on the grapevine

*More ammo for the Mets if they want to stay in Buffalo: They had the top collective record of their affiliates in the minors in April. The four teams were 60-36, with Class A St. Lucie's 20-4 mark the best in the minors and a franchise record for any month.

*Bobby Scales, the Bisons' 34-year-old second baseman, was pushing .400 as the calendar turned to May in part because friends told him to play this year like an 8-year-old: "It sounds stupid, it sounds like Walt Disney-type stuff, it's the truth," Scales said. "Just go play like when you're a kid. Have some fun. Get your work done, understand how to play the game, all the adult parts of it. But when the umpire points at the pitcher and says play ball, just let it go and play."

*The Bisons started a season-long 10-game road trip Saturday in Rochester. When they return May 15, it will be to open the longest homestand in Coca-Cola Field's history. It's 16 games in 17 days, four of them serving as Scranton home games as Buffalo bats first.

email: mharrington@buffnews.com