John McGrath: Mariners should take a chance on Johnny Damon

Former All-Star outfielder Johnny Damon, who got his cue to retire when the Cleveland Indians released him 23 months ago, sounds frustrated. He wants to play for a big league team, and no big league team has reciprocated the interest.

“When you feel you can still outhit at least half the league and you don’t get that call,” Damon told the Associated Press, “it’s rough.”

Obvious question: Is this somebody who could help the Seattle Mariners?

The impulsive answer is no. He’s 40, a decade removed from his prime, and there’s that 23-months-without-facing-a-pitch issue. Damon was hitting .222 when Cleveland released him Aug. 9, 2012. The fact he cleared waivers before spending almost two years in limbo makes Damon’s boast of still being able to “outhit at least half the league“ sound like Marlon Brando’s “I coulda been a contender“ soliloquy from “On the Waterfront.“

Damon failed investments are no secret, but he’s long been in better shape physically than fiscally. He has 2,769 career hits, and though his power and speed have diminished, he hasn’t lost the enthusiasm that made him a catalyst of two world-championship teams.

“Despite Johnny almost having 3,000 hits and over 200 home runs and two world championships, the numbers never defined Johnny Damon,” former minor league teammate Mike Sweeney said Tuesday during a jersey retirement ceremony for Damon in Wilmington, Delaware.

“To this day,” Sweeney continued, “people ask me: Who was the best teammate you ever played with? The answer is simple: Johnny Damon.”

The Mariners aren’t lacking for good teammates. What they’re lacking is somebody who can step up to the plate in, say, the eighth inning of a 0-0 game — the sort of situation the Mariners found themselves facing Saturday against the White Sox in Chicago — and deliver a pinch hit with the go-ahead run on third.

Manager Lloyd McClendon called on the left-handed Endy Chavez to pinch-hit for Willie Bloomquist during the eighth-inning threat, which ended when Chavez hit a grounder to the shortstop.

Who would rather see with a bat in his hands in that situation? Damon, with a lifetime on-base percentage of .352? Or Chavez, with a lifetime OBP of .306?

The Mariners ended up winning, 3-2, in 14 innings — a victory worth savoring because the comeback was achieved a few hours after the Oakland Athletics’ trade for Chicago Cubs starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel became official.

Oakland probably wasn’t going to be chased down in the American League West anyway, but acquiring the pair of top-of-the-rotation arms all but sealed a third consecutive division title.

Twenty years ago, a trade with such preposterous short-term benefits for the A’s smothers whatever intrigue remains in a winner-takes-all pennant race. But with two wild-card bids up for grabs in 2014, the Mariners were able to consider Oakland’s bold power play with a shrug of their shoulders.

The Mariners aren’t in a race to overtake the A’s. They’re in a race to finish with a record that’s no worse than second-best among the non-division winners.

When this race concludes, it’s almost certain the gap between playing on and going home to play golf will be one game.

In other words, every game counts, and when every game counts, every at-bat counts. Once again: Who would you rather see at the plate in the eighth inning of a scoreless tie and the go-ahead run at third: Johnny Damon or Endy Chavez?

Damon isn’t in a position to demand a seven-figure contract. Signing him to a minor league deal, with some performance-incentive clauses based on pinch hits, sounds like a more-than-reasonable gamble. And when a gamble is more than reasonable, can it really be called a gamble?

Given the rust accumulated during his hiatus, Damon would figure to need a month in the minors to polish his swing against professional pitchers. Fine, give him a month. As long as he’s on the Mariners’ 25-man club before Aug. 31, he’s eligible for the playoffs.

I am reminded of the Mariners’ mid-May acquisition of Hall-of-Fame outfielder Rickey Henderson in 2000, six days after he was released by the Mets. Henderson was 41, hitting .219. He hadn’t been named to an All-Star team since 1991.

In terms of his clubhouse presence, well, let’s put it like this: No player has described Rickey as the best teammate he ever had.

Henderson ended up hitting only .238 for the 2000 Mariners, but he still had a knack for coaxing a walk (.362 OBP), and when he got on base, he was a threat to steal.

The Mariners clinched a wild-card berth on the final day of the season, and under the spotlight of the playoffs, the 41-year-old Rickey Henderson resembled the 21-year old Rickey Henderson.

He scored a team-high three runs in the sweep of the White Sox in the best-of-five division series, including the run that clinched Game 3.

Henderson merely had a bit role on that team. He and the Mariners never pretended their association would extend beyond the season.

But Henderson was familiar with the pressure of must-win games, familiar to the point he craved the chance to make a difference. Pinch hitter, pinch runner, whatever, and it didn’t matter that he was supposed to be too old to steal a base in the clutch. His ego told him otherwise.

Johnny Damon is empowered by a similar ego. He hasn’t played a big league game in almost two years, and he thinks he can outhit half the league.

Signing him won’t ensure the Mariners a playoff berth, but it could decide one game. Same thing.