This article was written by David E. Skelton
A boy of perhaps 8 or 9 years planted himself strategically between the spring training practice field and the Detroit Tigers’ clubhouse in Lakeland, Florida. As the players filed past, the youngster began pleading for an autograph from his favorite. The player not only did not sign, he completely ignored the child as he walked briskly by.
The youngster’s shoulders began to shudder as a burst of tears ensued. The loud outcry drew the attention of all around, including a player who had passed the child moments before. His hand on the clubhouse door, the door itself ajar, this player could easily have walked inside. Instead he slowly closed the door, walked over and addressed the boy. The tears quickly subsided as Damion Easley engaged the boy at length, providing a glimpse into the kindheartedness of Easley. This scene unfolded three years after Easley captured a Silver Slugger Award and All-Star berth, the pinnacle of his 20-year professional career. But in the midst of such acclaim, Easley always made time for fans young and old.
Perhaps it was his own exposure to heartache at a young age that molded Jacinto Damion Easley, having suffered the anguish felt by all children exposed to their parents’ divorce. Easley was born on November 11, 1969, in New York City. His father was half-Puerto Rican, half-Jamaican; his mother was Cuban with Cherokee Indian blood. “I have a little bit of everything,” he later joked.[fn]“Conversation with Damion Easley,” Halo Magazine, Volume 4, 1993, pg. 9.[/fn] It was Damion’s father who introduced him to baseball. When Damion turned 4, his father bought a “big red bat, one of those bats you couldn’t miss the ball with. He boosted my confidence with that. I started to like it, and I kept going.”[fn]Ibid.[/fn] Baseball’s appeal continued with a hometown fascination for the Yankees, with Easley often sneaking out to hallowed Yankee Stadium to take in a game from the outfield bleachers. Dreaming of one day wearing pinstripes himself, Damion’s proclivity for the sport soon translated to its own measure of success.
In 1980, following the split of his parents, Easley moved with his father to Southern California. His development on the baseball diamond continued such that seven years later Easley, while patrolling centerfield, led the Lakewood High Lancers to the California Interscholastic Federation championship his senior year. Easley’s contributions were recognized by his being named to the all-state, all-city and all-conference teams. Success continued to follow Easley after he made the short one-mile jaunt from Lakewood High to Long Beach City College, where he was named to the All-South Coast Community College Conference and All-Southern California teams. Easley’s prowess did not go unnoticed. In 1988 Easley was selected by the California Angels in the 30th round of the amateur draft.
The 1988 draft was one of history’s most fruitful, producing an impressive 159 major-league players through 30 rounds. Easley’s professional course appears to have received early guidance and attention from minor-league manager Don Long. The 27-year-old skipper was entering his second year at the helm of the Bend (Oregon) Bucks in the short-season A-ball Northwest League when Easley was assigned to Bend in 1989. Over the next three years the sophomore manager and his young pupil — Easley was often the teams’ youngest position player — were inseparable as together they advanced to the Midwest and Texas Leagues. Easley made Long’s choices easy by placing among the team leaders in offense while manning shortstop.
In 1992 Easley’s path to the major leagues was furthered when Gary Disarcina, the Class AAA Edmonton Trappers’ shortstop (and Easley’s fellow 1988 draftee) was promoted to the Angels. Easley was chosen to fill the vacancy created, and produced as spectacularly as he had for Long, placing among the team leaders in stolen bases, runs scored and hits. His rapid ascendancy through the minors had already drawn the attention of the parent club and resulted in an August promotion. On August 13, Easley earned his major-league debut at third base against the Athletics in Oakland.
In 1992 the California Angels were suffering through their 16th losing campaign (and fifth 90-loss season) in 25 years. A lack of offense — last in the American League in average (.243) and runs scored (579) — was a contributing factor to a dismal fifth-place finish. The team sought help from all quarters. Easley captured the bulk of the starting assignments at third throughout the remainder of the season. Hitless in his first nine at-bats (three games), on August 16 Easley connected against Oakland righty Kelly Downs for his first major-league single. He came around to score and two innings later lifted a fly ball for a sacrifice RBI. He hit safely in nine of the next ten games as his average rose above .326. Easley’s three hits on September 11 paced the Angels to an 8-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins. Nine days later, as a pinch-hitter, Easley connected for his first homer against Twins relief ace Rick Aguilera in a losing effort. As the season drew to a close manager Buck Rodgers “envision[ed] the Angels breaking camp next April with a lineup that includes … Easley.”[fn]“California Angels,” The Sporting News, October 12, 1992, 28.[/fn]
On December 8, 1992, the team traded second baseman Luis Sojo to the Toronto Blue Jays for third baseman Kelly Gruber. To make room for Gruber, Easley would be moved to second base. This projection nearly fell apart when Easley was sidelined with severe shin splits in spring training. Originally doubtful for opening day, he rebounded nicely to take the field alongside the many youngsters that made up the Angels’ 1993 roster.
The infusion of youth appeared to reinvigorate the team. Beginning April 21, the Angels held a stake in first place for 15 consecutive games and remained within three games of the AL West Division flag through mid-July. Fans and scribes alike bubbled over the fast start.“[T]he Angels’ inexperience is a gleeful contrast to the core of prima-donnas who dominated the clubhouse for several years,” Reid Creager wrote in The Sporting News.[fn]“Atop, For Now,” The Sporting News, June 14, 1993, 13.[/fn] The output of budding stars Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds and Chad Curtis garnered great attention, opined Dave Cunningham just one week later in the “Baseball Bible,” “but Damion Easley might be the best of the bunch. He has been hitting above .300 almost all season. He makes spectacular plays at second base. He bunts. He hits behind the runner.”[fn]“California Angels,” The Sporting News, June 21, 1993, 26.[/fn]
But the shin splints resurfaced in mid-June and Easley was placed on the disabled list. Upon his July 4 return he was moved to third to spare the wear and tear on the shins. But the aching continued and Easley began experiencing severe chronic leg pain. Easley’s discomfort was so acute that following an appearance on July 27, 1993 — his last of the season — he was again placed on the disabled list.
Easley underwent offseason surgery and was fully recovered when he reported to training camp the following spring. Projected as an “impact player” at third base for the 1994 Angels[fn]“Too Young and Inexperienced to Contend in ’94,” The Sporting News, April 4, 1994, 78.[/fn], Easley carried a respectable .276 into May when he succumbed to a 6-for-47 slump. Coach Rod Carew blamed the sag on Easley’s tendency to swing for the fences. Notwithstanding the veracity of Carew’s remark, Easley never found his stroke for the rest of tenure with California, save for a brisk start to the 1995 campaign. A series of nagging injuries relegated him to a platoon role. Easley managed a mere .198-8-56 line in 591 at-bats from the May 1994 slump to July 31, 1996, when he was traded to the Detroit Tigers for righty hurler Greg Gohr. The swap was soon labeled “one of the Angels’ worst trades in recent history.”[fn]“Heavenly News: Finley’s Injury Isn’t Serious,” The Sporting News, May 11, 1998, 36.[/fn]
The Tigers appear to have acquired Easley as infield insurance. Their second baseman, Mark Lewis, would become arbitration-eligible at the end of the season and was perceived to be too expensive to re-sign. Along with an aging Alan Trammell, Easley became one of six Tigers used at shortstop in 1996. But Easley’s bat came alive as soon as he arrived in the Motor City. An 8-for-14 surge against the Yankees on August 9-11 paced the Tigers to a series win. In 67 Detroit at-bats Easley produced a .343-2-10 line, topped off with a season-ending eight game hitting streak. Easley engaged in an extensive weight-training program that helped him shed (at least temporarily) the injury-prone label. Though Tigers general manager Randy Smith would continue searching for infield help through the offseason, Easley soon laid claim to the second base job.
From 1996 to 1997 the Tigers authored the major league’s greatest improvement in wins with 26.This boost was largely attributed to the contributions of Damion Easley. He became the fourth Tiger in history with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a single season while also leading the team with 37 doubles. A .203 slump in May was the only factor marring a fine .264-22-72 line, while Easley’s four stolen bases on June 28 against the Boston Red Sox tied the most thefts by a Tiger in nine years. At year’s end Easley’s yield was rewarded with a three-year, $8.7 million contract. In the offseason Easley constructed a batting cage at his Arizona residence with a goal to improving upon his 1997 season.
Betterment was Easley’s 1998 return as he posted his finest major-league campaign. He produced career single-season high marks with 594 at-bats, 161 hits, 38 doubles, 27 homers, 100 RBIs and a .478 slugging percentage. His .422 average with runners in scoring position — a 38-for-90 pace that resulted in Easley batting clean-up for a brief period– led the American League through July, a pace slowed largely by a broken fingertip the last two months of the season.
The player who would later secure a Tigers franchise record for consecutive games (99) without an error was nearly flawless in the field in 1998, establishing the highest fielding percentage for second basemen in the league (.985). His impeccable play alongside shortstop Deivi Cruz drew favorable comparisons to the double play combo of Trammell and Lou Whitaker from the preceding decade. Easley secured an All-Star berth and participated in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. He was later honored with a Silver Slugger Award. Dubbed as potentially “the best [second baseman] in the game,” Easley attracted attention throughout the majors.[fn]“TSN’s Power Poll,” The Sporting News, September 21, 1998, 66.[/fn] The Toronto Blue Jays were rumored to have offered righty stalwart and Detroit native Pat Hentgen in exchange for the slugger. Despite a 97-loss campaign, the Tigers looked to Easley as one of a trio of untouchable core players.
An average line of .258-15-63 over the next three seasons — including a third consecutive 20-homer campaign in 1999 (a franchise record for a Tiger second baseman) — placed Easley among the most productive players on an anemic Tigers squad. As the losses piled up, Detroit was beset with even more trade offers for their splendid second baseman, including a demand from the Texas Rangers — subsequently retracted — of Easley’s inclusion in the large November 2, 1999, swap for outfielder and two-time MVP Award winner Juan Gonzalez. On June 8, 2001, Easley became the ninth player in Detroit history to hit for the cycle. Exactly two months later he joined Ty Cobb and Bill Nance as the only Tigers to garner six hits in a game (Carlos Pena joined this trio four years later). In 2000 Easley sustained a fractured wrist that he tried unsuccessfully to play through. Forced to the disabled list, he returned to the team on June 2 and, through his quiet but effective leadership, paced the team to a 52-36 mark (the Tigers had a .367 clip prior).
But the injury specter would haunt Easley again. In each season from 1999 to 2002, he missed time due to back spasms, a trunk strain, a pulled left oblique muscle and the fractured wrist — all of which hobbled his offensive production. His homer totals were further diminished by the move to spacious Comerica Park in 2000. Additionally, following Easley’s superb 1998 campaign, pitchers began adjusting to the 5-foot-11 155-pound power hitter. The discovery that Easley struggled with breaking pitches away resulted in a steady diet of outside off-speed deliveries. Easley began lunging at the ball, opening his hips too soon, and his numbers began to tail off.
A 0-for-22 skid in June 2002 following Easley’s return from the trunk strain — evidence, perhaps, that he returned to the lineup too early– caused his average to plummet to a dismal .134. Though he rebounded nicely in July to cross over the Mendoza line — including a three-hit, three-RBI game against the Cleveland Indians on July 27 – the Tigers began shopping their not long removed untouchable. But teams were wary of the former slugger and his hefty contract. Easley had signed a four-year contract extension in 1999 that made him the highest paid second baseman behind Roberto Alomar — an estimated $14.3 million of which remained guaranteed following the 2002 season. But in 2003 the Tigers, committed to a youth movement under the helm of new manager Alan Trammell, chose to absorb the remainder and released Easley on March 28, 2003.
Over the next six seasons Easley bounced among four teams. Serving as a utility player (seeing time in the outfield as well), Easley garnered less than 200 at-bats in three of those six years. In 2008, while playing for the pennant-contending but injury-riddled New York Mets, Easley notched 316 at-bats — the most since 2001 — with a productive .269-6-44 line. For the second consecutive season the Mets lost the NL East flag in the waning days and Easley missed one of his best opportunities for postseason play. He exited after the 2008 season saddled with the dubious distinction of playing 1,706 without a postseason appearance — a high-water mark since the start of divisional playoffs (this sad threshold was surpassed by Randy Winn in 2010).
Easley left the game with 163 home runs, 684 RBIs and a .253 career average in under 5,500 at-bats. He retired to his adopted state of Arizona, where he and his wife Dawn raised their four children. But baseball remained an integral part of Easley’s life. He served as the assistant hitting instructor for the Arizona League Padres (San Diego’s Rookie-level entry) and executive director of a youth instruction program called the Warrior Baseball Academy. Easley provided hands-on training to the youngsters alongside other former major-league players, including his onetime Detroit teammate Tony Clark.
In 1998, while Clark was immersed in an early-season slump, he found in Easley solace, friendship and leadership by example: “It’s his work ethic,” Clark said.“He cares so much that if you spend any time around him you automatically stay positive.”[fn]“Improvement In All Areas Spurs Team’s Turnaround,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1998, 34.[/fn] That caring, positive outlook was glimpsed a few years later when a young, heartbroken fan was taken under Easley’s wing for a brief few minutes. The youngster’s name will likely remain unknown. What is certain is he will never forget the moment he was cheered by the All-Star infielder.
Last revised: January 8, 2015
The author wishes to thank SABR member Bill Hickman for his insights related to the 1988 MLB amateur draft. Further thanks are extended to Mark Pattison for editorial assistance.
The Sporting News