The Yankee Clippee

He became a scruffy star in Boston and the heart and soul of a championship team. But now that he's jumped to New York and ditched the caveman look, what will Johnny Damon do?
February 13, 2006

The man who wasquite literally the face of the Boston Red Sox lives in a house that remindshim why he is a New York Yankee. From the basketball hoop in the driveway tothe infinity edge of the backyard pool that seems to gurgle right into LakeButler below in this gated slice of central Florida renowned for its jockaristocracy, it is all furnished and maintained and its tax payments subsidizedby Yankee dollars. Johnny Damon moved in a year ago, fresh from helping Bostonwin its first world championship in 86 years, but from where he sits now--atthe big, circular wooden kitchen table, his beard grown thick and his hairshaggy again a month after being famously cleaned up for his introduction as aYankee in December--his grand home represents how much more New York wanted himthan Boston did. "Three million a year over four years: $12 million,"Damon, 32, says, spreading his arms wide to emphasize the gap between what theRed Sox ($40 million) and the Yankees ($52 million) thought he was worth overthe next four seasons. "A $12 million difference, which means owning thishouse free and clear for the rest of my life." The beautiful home, whichDamon shares with his wife, Michelle, and his six-year-old twins, Madelyn andJackson, is tastefully decorated. The framed baseball jerseys, baseball-themedpaintings and photos and various other game-related mementos that had filledthe main living area of his previous house, about a mile away, are now confinedto a conservatory in back with a postcard view of the lake. There are, however,two significant totems of his Red Sox past not consigned there.

The first hangsprominently in the dining room above an arched portal that leads to thekitchen. It is visible, if you look to your left, immediately upon setting footthrough the front door. It is a carefully replicated, 40-by-20-inch canvasprint of Da Vinci's Last Supper.

Except, wait. Waitjust a minute. Is that...? It is. Where Jesus should be, that's ... that'sJohnny in the middle of the table with his arms out, palms upward.

And that's notBartholomew on the far left, it's Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager. AndJames the Younger is Curt Schilling, the Boston pitcher. The whole lot of them,in fact, are Red Sox. Or used to be, back in 2004 when they were the kind ofworld champions, like the '55 Dodgers, '85 Bears or '69-70 Knicks, who, nomatter what else they do or where else they go, will forever define a civichappening, not just a season.

"Kind of sad.Six gone already," Damon says, gazing at the print and counting offhimself, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Pedro Martinez, Doug Mirabelli and MannyRamirez, who remains with the team despite sporadic trade requests. "Well,he's next. Manny was one of the guys who told me I should go. I asked him, 'Doyou want me to tell people that?' He said, 'I don't care.'"

What would Johnnydo? For two rollicking years in Boston, when the long-locked, bearded Damonlooked the part of the Nazarene, the parishioners of Red Sox Nation joyfullyco-opted that popular modern Christian guidepost for the conscience. That veryquestion, which had come to represent the height of their belief, degenerated,however, into their worst fear in December as Damon, a free agent, ponderedwhether to re-sign with Boston or defect to the Yankees, the same team forwhich he had said last May he would "never" play.

"Yeah, butpeople always cut off what I said," Damon says. "The rest of it wasthat I'd never go to New York unless the Red Sox disrespected me. That's alwaysleft out. For them to think my best days are behind me, they've got to bekidding."

On his way out thedoor in Boston, Damon was praised by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino as "ateam leader," "an offensive force," "a cult figure" and"the personification of the franchise." Shorn of his trademark locksand his symbiotic relationship with his teammates and fans, can Damon possiblyhave the same impact on the properly pinstriped Yankees? What will Johnny do?The answer may have something to do with what is tucked inside a plastic bag ina drawer in his bathroom. That is the other significant relic from his Red Soxcareer not in his conservatory.

damon became acult figure--even a better player--precisely because he did not act like aYankee. He showed up for spring training in 2004 in Fort Myers, Fla., with theBiblical look after a concussion suffered in the previous postseason left himin no mood to shave or trim his hair. He wasn't sure how the club would react,but general manager Theo Epstein took one look and told him to keep it, withthis blessing: "We're not the Yankees."

So began whatMillar last October called "the greatest marketing gimmick in the historyof pro sports." (Says Damon, "I won't argue with him.")

Damon had been anaccomplished player before that--Boston signed him as a free agent from Oaklandafter the 2001 season for $31 million over four years--but nowhere near thestar and celebrity that he quickly became. Women swooned. Men copied his look.Parents named their children after him. Gossipmongers adored him. (BostonMagazine found that Damon was listed in the Boston Herald gossip column 64times in 2004, or roughly once every five days.)

He appeared ontalk shows with David Letterman and Regis Philbin, made the cover of TV Guideand ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, and was featured in PEOPLE. When he did shave once inMay 2004, it was a media event that drew hundreds of people to Boston'sPrudential Center and raised $15,000 for charity. When he stopped in a Lowell,Mass., salon unannounced to get his beard trimmed after Boston won the WorldSeries, hundreds of people filled the street outside, chanting his name.

Damon raised hisgame along with his profile. A career .284 hitter before the beard-and-tresses,he batted .310 over two seasons with the hirsute look, becoming one of thetoughest outs in the league as a leadoff hitter with an ugly but effective chopof a swing, like a man warding off a pesky bee. Meanwhile, he helped imbue theSox with their fearless frat-boy persona. Damon was famous for soaking naked ina whirlpool five minutes before the first pitch, or six minutes before he wasstanding on second base after a single and a stolen base. He was a leading manby any definition, and that extended to his self-described "go-to guy"role with the media.

Boston dugeverything about his act. And that's what worried Brian Cashman. The Yankees'general manager needed a centerfielder and wanted Damon, but he could not counton Damon's turning away from his cult following there. "I felt all alongthat all things being equal, or even close to equal, he was staying inBoston," Cashman says. "And it was not out of loyalty to the franchiseas much as it was his bond with the fan base. We thought [the Red Sox] would goto 111/2, 12 [million dollars] a year for four years."

The Red Soxappraised Damon differently. They worried that his hard-charging style afieldand on the bases would reduce his durability as he aged into his mid-30s. Theysaw, by their scouting reports and complex statistical analysis, a decline inhis defense last season that they feared would accelerate. (Damon blamed thedrop-off on playing through injuries to his left elbow and right shoulder.)They assumed that his runs (he scored 240 times in the past two years) could bereplaced by someone cheaper as long as Ramirez and David Ortiz anchored themiddle of the lineup.

On Dec. 6 the RedSox offered Damon a four-year contract for $40 million, the same deal that theyhad given the year before to free agents Jason Varitek, a 33-year-old catcher,and Edgar Renteria, a shortstop who had never played a day for the team orscored 100 runs in a season in his life. Meanwhile, the Sox were exploringtrade possibilities for younger centerfielders Jeremy Reed of Seattle and CocoCrisp of Cleveland. "That's when I began to see the handwriting on thewall," Damon says.

The Red Sox saidthey wanted an answer to their offer by Christmas Eve. Meanwhile, on Dec. 20,Cashman, who had stayed in the game with loose discussions of a three- orfour-year deal, made his move. He offered Damon $52 million over four years andtold his agent, Scott Boras, that the offer would disappear in 12 hours, afterwhich he would announce that the Yankees were done pursuing Damon. The gambitworked. The Red Sox, unaware of the specifics or the urgency of the Yankees'offer, held to their $40 million bid when Boras probed them for more interest.The $12 million difference and the lukewarm vibes Damon was getting from theRed Sox pushed the face of the franchise into the hands of the enemy.

"My heart wasin Boston," Damon says. "I really wanted to stay there. The Red Soxtreated me great while I was there. I'm not bitter at all. Life's too short forthat. They got the guy they wanted [Crisp, obtained in a trade on Jan. 27].It's just the business side of the sport. You grow numb to it."

what will Johnnydo? The Boston apostate most likely will bat leadoff in the Yankees' modernMurderers' Row, which will now include five of last year's top 12 run scorersin the AL: Damon, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and HidekiMatsui. "We're going to manhandle some pretty good pitching," Damonsays.

Says Rodriguez,"There was not a player in major league baseball [available this winter]I'd rather have than Johnny. You're talking about a guy who walked into thepressure-packed atmosphere in the New York--Boston rivalry and got an Aplus."

Well, yes, but therules are different on this side of the rivalry, which is to say there actuallyare rules. The Yankees do not allow facial hair below the upper lip, they donot allow long hair, they do not allow music without headphones in theclubhouse, and, while there are no established prohibitions against nakedchin-ups, shaving-cream fights and bold quotes to the media (all among Damon'sfavorite pastimes), the existence of such behavior in the New York clubhouse islargely unknown.

Roger Clemens,Jason Giambi, Rodriguez and Randy Johnson are among the stars whose productiondeclined in their first seasons in New York, perhaps because of their attemptsto fit into the conservative Yankee culture. Cashman says he told Damon,"Just be yourself. The guy in Boston, that's the guy I want. I want thewhole package."

Says Damon,"I'll still be there for the media. I won't change." But he also adds,"I know it's Jeter's team. I'm just the piece of the puzzle that's beenmissing."

Since signing withthe Yankees, Damon has been blitzed with endorsement offers for, among otherthings, automobiles, a marina, razors, shampoo and grooming products, most ofwhich he says he will decline. But last week Damon set the town abuzz during asix-day visit in which he took in a Rangers game, posed for a magazine cover,sat for a television interview, signed memorabilia as part of his endorsementdeals with a trading card company and a collectibles company, received aFerrari Spider as a thank-you from the shoe company he represents and shoppedfor a home in Manhattan.

Damon reverted toYankees mode for the New York trip with another haircut and shave. In December,the Yankeefication of his hair had become a subject of such speculation that acasino had offered him a six-figure paycheck to get his beard shaved and hairtrimmed onstage in front of a live audience. Instead, Damon prepped for hisintroductory Yankees news conference at a New York salon, avoiding thepaparazzi encamped at his hotel by ducking out a back exit. He left the salon,also by sneaking out a rear exit, looking like ... well, a Yankee.

And that brings usback to that other special keepsake of the Red Sox cult hero that was JohnnyDamon: that plastic bag in his bathroom. Inside is the hair that the salonsnipped off Damon's head, the hair that used to leap and fly from the bottom ofhis Boston cap and batting helmet. At first Damon saved it with the idea thathe might auction it off for charity.

"Then Ithought, that may be kind of cheesy, putting a piece of you up for bid oneBay," Damon says. "I'm in New York now. I can't be cheesy. So I justkept it myself."

It's all that'sleft of those wild, hairy days in Boston. As a Yankee, Damon starts clean, andthe question, What will Johnny do? has acquired a new, if more sober,relevance.

> SI.COM
Photo gallery of key players who switched sides in the Red Sox--Yankees rivalryat SI.com/baseball.

Damon felt "disrespected" by the Red Sox:"For them to think my best days are behind me, THEY'VE GOT TO BEKIDDING."

PHOTO ILLUSTRATIONWALTER IOOSS JR. (RED SOX); JUSTIN LANE/EPA (YANKEES); PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SI IMAGING PHOTOPhotograph by David BergmanCHANGINGSTRIPES - A clean-cut Damon was the toast of Broadway during a series ofpromotional appearances last week. PHOTOMARK MANDRAKE/EPAGOING,GOING ... Damon turned down a six-figure offer for an onstage shearing inDecember, opting for a private salon visit.
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