ISLAMORADA, Fla. -- Just like when he runs down a deep fly ball or smacks a clutch hit, Johnny Damon makes fishing under pressure look easy.
With threatening rain clouds gathering overhead, a fishing guide, a cameraman and a website fishing video host crammed into a flats skiff with him, a second camera boat nearby and time running out, Damon hooked a tarpon to save the day.
The acrobatic tarpon, Damon's first, jumped four times for the cameras before getting away. But no one minded, because the resulting video was exactly what was needed.
Damon, who grew up in Orlando and played for the Detroit Tigers this season, was fishing with Capt. Mike Kozma in Islamorada for TheFishingTube.com, a website that Frank Viola III hopes to turn into a TV show.
Viola is the son of Frank Viola, the 1988 Cy Young Award-winning pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. The younger Viola, who lives in Orlando, Fla., pitched in the minor leagues, but injuries sidelined his career. He attempted a comeback with an Appalachian League club, but realized his heart wasn't in baseball when he was more excited about some trout he had caught that morning than the game he was supposed to pitch that evening. So he decided to make fishing his career.
Viola met Damon at a golf tournament. The two hit it off and Viola invited him to go tarpon fishing.
Unlike some celebrities Viola knows who wanted to be paid to fish with him, "Johnny asked for nothing but a fun time," Viola said. "He even offered to pay me."
The Johnny Damon you see on the baseball field is the same Johnny Damon you get off the field: humble, dedicated, caring, down to earth and fun to be around.
Damon also is the national spokesman for the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps injured veterans make the transition to civilian life.
His Johnny Damon Foundation works with numerous charities, including the Winnie Palmer Children's Hospital and the PACE Center for Girls in Orlando, which helps troubled teenagers get their lives back on track. Working with Habitat for Humanity, the foundation got a home built in Winter Garden for a soldier in need.
"We visit places," Damon said. "We make sure our presence is felt. We don't just send a check. We've helped more than 20 different charities."
Damon, 36, was a first-round pick out of Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando by Kansas City in the 1992 amateur draft. He played six seasons with the Royals, a year with Oakland and then four seasons with the Red Sox, where he was an integral part of their 2004 World Series title.
He played four seasons with the Yankees, where he won a second World Series ring in 2009, and played as an outfielder and designated hitter for the Tigers in 2010. He is now a free agent and has no idea where he might play next, but he'd like to be with a team "where I play all the time." With a career .287 batting average and 2,571 hits in 16 seasons, he'd love to play long enough to get 3,000 hits.
Focusing on his successful baseball career and his family -- he and his wife, Michelle, have 11-year-old twins, a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old -- doesn't leave him much time to go fishing, although baseball has enabled him to purchase a boat for the lake where he lives on the outskirts of Orlando as well as bigger ocean-going boat.
Damon said he grew up fishing from the shoreline in the Banana River for sheepshead and redfish and in the numerous small lakes and creeks in Orlando for bluegills, bass and gar.
"We also went to New Smyrna Beach and put out crab traps off the bridge," Damon said. "We'd come home with three or four dozen blue crabs."
Damon doesn't do much bluewater fishing, although he did catch tuna while visiting Hawaii and Mexico.
"I definitely enjoy that, especially when you're on a trip with your wife," said Damon, who also enjoys taking his kids fishing in Mosquito Lagoon, which is known for its big redfish, sea trout and black drum. They've also fished out of Ruskin, on the Gulf Coast, for snook and redfish.
"I have to say, the snook my daughter caught last year, it was as big as she was," Damon said, "and the smile on her face . . .
"It was cold and they were miserable when we started fishing, but they were dancing when they started catching fish."