It’s one thing to have your team lose a close one on the field when you’re outmatched, it’s a completely other thing to have you club lose because you’ve been outmatched by an advertising agency. This is the story of Johnny Damon and, more importantly, George Brett’s shadow.
George Brett, former third baseman for the Royals, if you hadn’t heard of him, retired from baseball in 1993. His shadow still loomed large over the club and in the 1995 season, the search “for the next George Brett” was pervasive and natural for a city that really didn’t know baseball with out Brett. Late in the 1995 season, a young kid out of AA Wichita who had been lighting the Texas League on fire, Johnny Damon, was promoted to the majors. It was not a full season, and the Royals were in the midst of a pennant race. Bob Boone’s Royals needed a late push from some fresh legs. Damon fit that bill. And he fit the whole bill. Born at Fort Riley in Kansas, and grew up as an Army brat. Was drafted out of the first round in 1992 and immediately showed that the minors was not the place for him to be.
Damon would notch three hits in his MLB debut and played in the final 47 games of the year – a season where the Royals would finish second. He hit .282 with three homers and 53 hits. Damon had a number of tools. He had youthful speed, pop in his bat, and flashes of leather in centerfield. All the makings were there to put on a show the following year.
The 1996 season was significant in a couple of different ways. It was two years after the most destructive Civil War in baseball’s history cancelled the World Series (a series that the Royals were in contention for until The Strike.) It was also a year where the ownership and the future of the ball club was very much up in the air. The Kauffmans had passed away, there was transference of the club to a charitable trust and 1996 was kind of a fresh start for the Royals. New “ownership.” Baseball back post-strike. And a young crop of youngun’s set to be the next generation of the Royals.
In addition to Damon, the Royals outfield was as fast as I-70 just beyond. Tom Goodwin in left and Michael Tucker in right. In addition, Joe Randa at third and Mike Macfarlane gave a veteran presence along with one of the best pitching staffs since the championship years including Mark Gubicza, Kevin Appier, and Jeff Montgomery. There was a palpable excitement in the spring of 1996. Maybe this is the year that baseball comes back to Kansas City.
Unfortunately, the Royals had no shot at a championship that season or, for the remainder of Johnny Damon’s career. Unfortunately, the Royals were doomed by the karmic Gods that don’t allow any good deed to go unpunished. Unfortunately, the Royals were torpedoed before they even hit the water. Unfortunately, the Royals lost 1996 because of a commercial. Our 45th nominee for the worst Royals moment of all time is March, 1996. The Johnny Damon/George Brett commercial.
They seem pretty dated and silly now, but the Royals commercials and promos were really put on by whatever station was broadcasting the team. Other than making a yearly slogan and a little radio jingle, you didn’t see much in the way of marketing directly by the Royals. It’s sexy af though. You really need to check it out (below.)
But for some reason, someone decided to double-down and call the Royals shot before the season. The setup of the commercial was simple, Damon and Brett wrestling over a television remote on who would watch highlights of “the past” or shots of “the future.” The metaphor was dripping through the commercial like BBQ sauce on your shirt at Bryant’s. Live in the past? Embrace the new? Passing of a symbolic torch between the Great One and the Next One. It would be unrivaled until the Heat’s “Not one… not two…” speech decades later.
It was pompous and premature. It was reckless and wrong. It was dumb and doomed to fail. Johnny Damon, arguably, never became the player he is remembered for until he left the Royals. He won a World Series with the idiots of the Red Sox and grew a ridiculous beard. That baby faced kid in the Brett commercial had no shot of living up to the bronze statue of George Brett until he left the shadow and could be his own bronze statue elsewhere.
In a decade filled with turning points (or actually downspiral milestones), this one seems to have really resonated with fans, radio show callers, and the occasional Facebook talker. It wasn’t a complete bust. Damon was amazing to watch in his too short years here. But damn, it seems like he was never really given a chance because of that damn commercial forcing him to live up to an icon. All because of a bold idea for a commercial.
Note: This is the only Youtube I could find of it. The music has been stripped from it, but it’s some poppy 90’s music as I recall. You can still get the gist. If you know of another copy of it, tweet me.
The sexiest Royals intro you’ll ever see.