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Star bursts

Damon makes a stylish arrival

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Johnny Damon and his new wife, Michelle, rolled into Red Sox camp yesterday afternoon, and when they did, the ring stole the show. The stunning piece of jewelry was a gold band encircled by diamonds.

And that was his ring.

"Johnny bleeping Damon," announced the Red Sox center fielder. "Or blinging Damon. Bling-bling. I was going to go simple, but because I wanted to make it look good next to the World Series ring, I had to spend a little more money."

Damon has had quite the offseason, writing a book, honeymooning, vacationing, and most recently, partaking in prerace ceremonies at Sunday's Daytona 500. Despite the fever pitch, he claimed to be in excellent shape.

Wearing a chest-gripping shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, Damon appeared toned and lighter than last season. The hair? That remains shoulder-length, accented by golden highlights. The beard, while still there, is neatly trimmed.

"Mentally, I'm stronger than I've ever been," said Damon, 31. "Physically, I feel very strong. I've trimmed up a lot. I've been running the hills in Jamaica over the past week. I've been doing a lot of pushups, with and without Michelle on my back. I've been swimming a lot, doing a lot of things to make sure that I'm ready for this year.

"Some strenuous things, but also some things I like to do, which is have fun. Trying to swim after the alligators. I didn't get a chance to race after cars this year. No. 1, there weren't as many drunken nights as there were last year, with trying to cure the migraines I had from the year before."

At that point, a bewildered reporter piped up. Had any other player made the alligator comment, the writer said, he would have assumed it was a joke, but with Damon, he just didn't know.

"There are gators in the lake," Damon said. "I had my boat on the lake late at night looking for them because it gets a little chillier in Orlando. They normally embed themselves for a couple of months."

Damon, who evidently has an unusual offseason conditioning program, was asked about another player who claims to have an unmatched routine: Alex Rodriguez, whose 6 a.m. workouts have taken on legendary status.

"Well," Damon said, "there's been many nights where I haven't been to bed at 6 in the morning. You know, if that's what it takes to be him, he's a heck of a player. If it takes getting up at 6 in the morning for him, that's great. But like Trot [Nixon], I enjoy taking my kids to school and trying to shake them at 7:45 in the morning, saying, `Get up, you've got school.'

"They're just like me, they don't want to go. I take them, and after that I get to get my work done."

Damon, the living, breathing mascot of the 2004 Red Sox, was asked if he relishes his cascading celebrity.

"Yeah, but it's kind of weird because I'm always the same outgoing person that I always am," he said. "Now, when people come up and get autographs, it's a flip of the coin if you get them or not. I try and take care of as many as possible. You don't always have the 10 hours that they want you for. I just got off the plane from New York a couple of days ago in Orlando and it was a mob scene and I started signing and signing all these pictures.

"All of a sudden I had this beeline to my car. So, it's been great. It's what you expect, and I think everyone who has run across me still enjoys [it]."

Though his celebrity status once was confined to Boston, he's become a worldwide figure, for better or for worse.

"Obviously you guys wrote those great stories about my beer and my hair last year," he said. "It's not just people around Boston. It's most of the world. I get a lot of the Matt Damons. People being huge Red Sox fans call me Matt Damon. Yeah, you must be a huge fan.

"But it's been great. I got to enjoy it as much as possible. One day, it may not be here, but then again, it still might be."

Damon's immediate focus is proving to the Sox that he warrants a contract extension. As a rule, the club prefers to resolve contract situations before or after the season, though there have been exceptions (David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez). If he is not re-signed this month or next, Damon stands to become a free agent at season's end.

"I would definitely love to get something done and lock up the rest of my career here in Boston," he said. "It's up to them. I know they want to see what kind of shape I wanted to come into camp [in]."

Privately, club officials said they expected Damon to show up a bit on the heavy side. Instead, he arrived a slim shaggy.

The book, scheduled for release April 4, was originally going to be titled, "Idiot, Or How I Stopped Thinking and Beat `The Curse.' " But Damon and Crown Publishing settled on the more mundane "Idiot: Beating `The Curse' and Enjoying the Game of Life.' "

"I think it fit me just perfect," he said. "The idiot thing took off, so we kind of had to go with it. I think it can help sell books. Mom's not too happy about it."

Asked if his book would be juicier than Jose Canseco's, Damon said, "There's no juice involved in mine."

His contract with Crown mandates that he keep his hair long for the book tour.

"It wasn't a major stipulation," he said. "They kind of wanted to have a fun quip in the contract. I was like, `OK that's great, now if anyone has long hair in the future, they can say, `Damon did it.'

"I will get a trim. I will trim up the beard, especially in this hot Fort Myers sun. I couldn't believe it was 83 degrees; it could have been a little hotter today. I'm anxious."

Indeed, almost lost amid Damon's wellspring of humor was the fact that he is here to play baseball and defend a championship. He will try to match, or exceed, a career year in which he hit .304, cranked 20 home runs, and drove in 94 runs.

"Now that spring training is here, I'm very excited," he said. "This is the first spring training I've been very excited to get back to because now everyone who is trying to pull you in one direction knows that they can't. We're here, and it's time to get back to business."

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