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Even as they divorce, Damon thinking of a return to Yankees

Free agent Johnny Damon isn't upset about being unemployed. Not at all. He is spending time with his four kids and he is staying in playing shape, waiting for the right call to come, from a team with a deal he likes.

"I know what kind of player I am. I know I'm a player who makes a difference and won't back down,'' Damon told SI.com by phone on Thursday.

That's true in more ways than one.

And it's apparently true for his former team, as well.

Neither side backed down in its belief regarding Damon's value and yet neither compromised enough to make a deal happen that everyone figured would happen. The result is that the Yankees have Randy Winn -- .158 hitter vs. left-handers last year -- as a starting outfielder. And Damon still has to find work.

Damon is said to have a few possibilities. Teams reported to have shown some interest include the A's, Rays, Tigers, Reds, Braves and Blue Jays. Damon doesn't sound worried at all.

"I'm all right being a free agent at this point. I get to see how teams are shaping up,'' Damon said. "I know what I can do. And I think the rest of the world knows what I can do.''

But while Damon and the Yankees are divorcing, there's also already some thought being given to a possible and eventual reunion. In a moment that seemed slightly more than whimsical, Damon ruminated on the phone Thursday about being traded to the Yankees at midyear after signing elsewhere soon. And Yankees GM Brian Cashman didn't seem to mind that idea, either.

Maybe that's the best way to get these two together. In that scenario, Damon and another team come to the financial agreement he and the Yankees couldn't, and the Yankees take half that contract at midyear.

"You never know,'' Cashman said. "The Yankees like players who can help us win.''

It's still hard to believe they couldn't make a deal, given that both sides seem to agree on Damon's contribution to the Yankees.

"I feel I did a great job there,'' Damon said.

"Johnny was awesome here,'' Cashman said. "He was great in the clubhouse, great on the field. He is a great competitor, a great person and a great player,'' We're going to miss him. We wanted him to stay. We looked forward to having him back. But not at all costs.''

So if they agree so easily on the basic topic in question (Damon's contribution), what happened to drive Damon away? The "not at all costs'' thought certainly is a part of it. But is there more to it than that? How did it come to be that the Yankees and Damon -- two sides that professed love for one another and continue to do so -- never got close to an agreement?

In a last-ditch effort late last week after Damon himself called the team, Cashman, one of baseball's best dealmakers, tried floating a contract of $6 million with $3 million deferred at no interest (with the caveat that it would have be cleared with team boss Hal Steinbrenner, who was about to return from his honeymoon). But Damon, perhaps looking for something more concrete, didn't respond.

So now the man who has played a prominent role in two World Series championships and could have a chance to become a Hall of Famer if he reaches 3,000 hits (he has 2,425) is looking for his fifth team with a small thought of returning to his fourth team in the not-so-distant future.

"This is just how baseball goes,'' Damon said. "Unfortunately, players switch teams a lot these days. I've been in the two biggest markets, and pretty much everything gets magnified. But I can handle the toughest of circumstances.''

If Damon is perceived to be in a jam now -- a star with no job as February approaches -- you can't hear it in his voice. Or in his words.

"It's one of those things,'' he said matter-of-factly. "You hear how your team goes after other guys instead of you. That's how I left Boston. And how it is now. ''

You wouldn't think it would have to be this way. You would think Damon and the Yankees would have figured it out by now. One of the best things about their 27th World Series championship team was the top four hitters in their lineup. Now they have a cheaper replacement for Damon at the No. 2 spot in Nick Johnson. And an even cheaper replacement in leftfield in Winn.

Damon thinks that he had almost too good a season in 2009 for his incumbent team. He matched his career-high with 24 home runs to go with his 10th year of 100 or more runs, not to mention his basestealing heroics in the World Series.

And he sounds like he thinks he's just getting started.

"I've got plenty more years to go. I've got as many as I want,'' he said, defiantly. "I'm cool going year to year and proving myself."

Damon says he hopes to sign fairly soon. For that to happen, things will have to proceed more rapidly than the glacial pace of the talks with the Yankees. It's hard to know exactly where things went wrong. But one could reasonably wonder whether he wanted to be a Yankee quite as badly as everyone thought. And definitely also wonder whether the Yankees wanted him back as badly as everyone thought.

Six weeks went by between the Yankees' World Series championship and the time they threw out their first figure. And by then, they were already "down the road'' with Johnson (though just how far down is still in dispute).

No dollars were discussed in a meaningful way until Dec. 17, when both sides agree that Damon's agent, Scott Boras, suggested Damon would return for $26 million over two years. Cashman responded by suggesting he could find a No. 2 hitter at half the years for less than half the price.

The Yankees thought that was way too high a price in a tight market for outfielders and by the very next day they were close to a deal for Johnson, an ex-Yankee. Boras, hearing through the media about this surprising turn of events, called Cashman in an attempt to resurrect things. So he asked Cashman what the Yankees would pay, and that's when Cashman threw out the figure of $14 million for two years.

This is where things get tricky. Damon said he has no hard feelings and doesn't really want to re-live the talks, but also suggested now by phone that his text message of Dec. 18 to the New York Times that the "Yankees offered 2 for 14'' didn't really tell the whole story. It was Damon's impression that the $14 million offer was actually contingent on Johnson's deal falling through. "The situation is, it was pending if Nick Johnson wasn't accepting or didn't pass the physical,'' Damon recalled.

Cashman remembered things slightly differently. Cashman said he only told Boras he better hurry, because the offer would be off the table if Johnson said yes first, and certainly if Johnson had already called in with a message to accept. Cashman said the Yankees were prepared to retract their offer from Johnson, though not if he'd already left word with someone that he already accepted.

This point is mostly moot, except to the most inside of baseball people. Because, as Damon said by phone Thursday, "I heard that (my offer) was pending, but I really didn't care too much. It wasn't going to be taken. ... I definitely wasn't in the mode to take it. Taking a 40 percent pay cut just didn't seem to be the right thing.''

It is curious in any case why there was no offer for six weeks, and even then, only after the Yankees were on the verge of signing Johnson, a younger but injury prone (he averages missing 68 games a year) and considerably less accomplished player. The Yankees loved Johnson's sterling .426 on-base percentage last year. But the Yankees say the delay was mainly because Damon priced himself out, that it was implied early on that he wanted $13 million for three or four years, and that that very belief was reinforced by several comments Damon made to teammates, to other Yankee personnel and to Mitch Modell, a Yankee sponsor who was leasing his house to Damon this winter. It seems all that chatter and hearsay killed Damon's chances to come back.

The Yankees' say they never made an offer because they gathered that Damon's price was way above what they wanted to pay. They figured: why bother? So no offer came. And when it did come, Damon said it is his understanding it came with strings attached.

"I'm not bitter,'' Damon said. "It's part of baseball. Teams are trying to stay within a budget.''

The Yankees have done plenty of budget busting in the past for their better players. So there's plenty of wonder as to why they toed the line here.

Damon wonders if his age works against him. While he scored 100 runs for a 10th time, he turned 36 the day after the Yankees won the World Series. His steals were down, from 29 to 12, but he said he can run "if I have to,'' and explained the decrease in stolen bases by saying new star and No. 3 hitter Mark Teixeira wanted the hole between first and second to stay open.

Could it be is defense? A person familiar with the Yankees thinking suggested they didn't love his glovework last year. But Damon said in his defense, "I know I could go to any team and get a starting job. I can still run. The fielding thing was only the first two months, and it involved probably five plays. (After that), I got it going on a tough field.''

The other theory is that the Yankees were still annoyed that Damon nearly walked away from the team in the spring of 2007 and that the Yankees still questioned his commitment. Even Damon wonders about that one. "I'm not too sure,'' he said about whether that was a factor. "I don't know any other way but honesty. I talk from my heart. And that was a very emotional time, seeing former teammates Cory Lidle and Joe Kennedy die that offseason and having a new baby.''

Cashman insisted it wasn't at all a factor in these negotiations. "No relevance whatsoever,'' he said.

Cashman is philosophical about the entire episode.

"Scott's a great agent. Johnny's a great player. And the Yankees are a great organization,'' the Yankees' GM said. "Sometimes, these things just don't get done. The value we set for him didn't meet the value he set for himself.''

It could be just as simple as that.

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