Will Johnny be good in New York?
Highly sought free agent defects to Yankees
If Larry Lucchino was raiding his fridge for a near-midnight snack late Tuesday, he probably spit out whatever he was chewing when his phone began going off.Reporters were calling for his initial reaction to Johnny Damon having come to an agreement to join the Yankees. The initial reaction of the Red Sox club president was along the lines of, "What are you talking about?" This was a jarring way for Lucchino to detect the defection. Learning from reporters about the loss of a key and charismatic player has to rank up there with being told by your bankruptcy attorney that your former portfolio manager just bought a villa in Monte Carlo. But "jarring" is stamped all over this development. Not because it comes unexpectedly. In fact, given the Yankees' desperation for a center fielder, the Red Sox were virtually asking to be raided by holding firm to their initial offer to the free agent. Rather, because of how it scrambles the sensibilities of so many people. Yankees fans, for starters. During the rivalry's recent escalation, they most despised two players as symbols of the "unclean dirtbag Red Sox punks," -- literally the sentiments expressed in frequent emails -- perpetual stubble-faced Mark Bellhorn and Damon, with his flowing locks and Grizzly Adams beard. Bellhorn became a Yankee, briefly, last summer. And now here comes Damon, although, obviously, all that hair won't come along with him. When Damon appeared for a midseason Yankee Stadium series last season clean-shaven, we joked that perhaps he just wanted to let Joe Torre and George Steinbrenner know how he'd look -- you know, just in case. At least, we thought we were joking. On the field, Damon is such a brilliant fit for the Yankees that this move had no-brainer written all over it from the moment he became a free agent. That was merely confirmed by his obligatory rejection Monday of Boston's arbitration offer. He gives the Yankees (a) the natural leadoff hitter they've lacked for years, (b) a rock who has played 145-plus games every season and (c) an aggressive center fielder who runs down drives fearlessly.
Coming after a season in which the Yankees were relegated to trying Tony Womack in center, Damon ably fills their biggest hole.Off the field, however, this may prove to be an interesting experiment. Looks aren't always deceiving: In Boston, Damon gained a reputation as a party animal. We mean that as a compliment, in the sense of a social bon vivant whose life didn't stop at the white lines. Will general manager Brian Cashman and Torre be kept awake by having Damon in the city that never sleeps? Damon got married last winter, and hence toned down his partying. But along with greater celebrity, riches and fulfillment, New York also brings greater temptations. That has always been one of the challenges of the "New York experience," which has tripped up many in the past. As for the Red Sox, this development doesn't get their new front office tag-team off to the best of starts. Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer face questions, and right after "Who will replace Johnny?" comes "Would Theo Epstein have let this happen?" Which casts an unfair shadow, because owners John Henry and Tom Werner are the ones who set the $40 million spending limit on Damon. Still, a year ago Epstein was successful at retaining the free agent the Red Sox absolutely had to have -- Jason Varitek. The Red Sox can find consolation -- if not downright encouragement -- in their recent track record with being one-upped by the Bombers. Their toast has consistently landed butter side up. We only need go back to the duel over Jose Contreras -- the one which inspired Lucchino to refer to the Bronx as an "Evil Empire." The Yankees got Contreras but the Red Sox owned him, beating him up for 32 runs in 21 1/3 innings during his season-and-a-half in pinstripes. The teams' legendary wrestle over Alex Rodriguez also went New York's way, but Boston has since won a World Series and the Yankees have not. And while it may be a stretch, when the teams divided Arizona's pitching aces, the Red Sox made out better with Curt Schilling than the Yankees have with Randy Johnson. Schilling of course was instrumental in Boston's monumental 2004 ALCS comeback against the Yankees, pitching on that bloody ankle. And now Damon, who drove the final nail into that Yanks' coffin with two Game 7 homers has, in Hollywood parlance, "ankled" Boston for New York. Stranger things have happened, but not in New York, where baseball allegiances tend to be taken seriously. When the Brooklyn Dodgers traded Jackie Robinson to the New York Giants on Dec. 13, 1956, for instance, Robinson retired rather than have to put on the hated uniform he had been sworn to beat for a decade. During his four memorable seasons in Boston, Damon was celebrated for being a throwback with a hard head. No one ever said anything about hard feelings.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.