Johnny Damon, Superstar

Red Sox outfielder thrives in spotlight

By Bob Hohler
Globe Staff / July 11, 2005
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She charged him with all the gusto of a linebacker, a wild-eyed young woman all but tackling a powerful baseball executive amid the serenity of a Cambridge restaurant during the 2001 holiday season.

''You're Dan Duquette!" the woman shouted.

''Do I know you?" a startled Duquette, then general manager of the Red Sox, said as he tried to squirm free of her embrace.

''No," she said, ''but thank you, thank you, thank you, for signing Johnny Damon!"

''That was the first hint I had," Duquette recalled in an interview, ''of how popular Johnny Damon was going to be."

In the last major acquisition of the Yawkey era, Duquette signed Damon as a free agent four days before Christmas in 2001, a gift whose bountiful dividends have included the franchise's first world championship in 86 years, the charismatic center fielder's extraordinary surge to stardom, and a lifetime of memories for legions of fans who tomorrow night will witness Damon's latest feat: a starting role in the 76th All-Star Game.

''It's been a great marriage," Duquette said as Damon enters the final months of his four-year, $31 million contract with the Sox.

The love affair began when Damon first donned a Sox jersey at his introductory news conference and issued a brash -- and prescient -- prediction.

''When we win a World Series," he said, ''we're going to be put on a pedestal and be immortalized forever."

So it was that three winters later Damon became one of the most celebrated figures in Boston sports history, a champion on a red carpet ride. He touched down everywhere: ''Fever Pitch," ''Cribs," ''Celebrity Poker," ''Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," ''Saturday Night Live," ''The Today Show," ''Live with Regis and Kelly," the couches of David Letterman, Jay Leno, and Conan O'Brien, book signings for his ''Idiot: Beating 'The Curse' and Enjoying the Game of Life," commercial productions for Puma, Dunkin' Donuts, Sprint, and DHL, the covers of Entertainment Weekly, Sports Illustrated, and Sports Illustrated for Kids, a Daytona 500 pace car, Johnny Damon Day in Orlando, a weeklong wedding celebration in Florida and the Caribbean, autograph sessions, charity events, a traveling carnival of acclaim.

Dealing with fame
Fame came, as it often does, with a measure of adversity. Damon encountered friction with his only brother over his business affairs, anger from his former wife over his unfiltered book version of their breakup, stress with his new wife over unflattering characterizations of her in the media, and public concern about whether his winter of dancing with the stars would compromise his performance this season on the field.

Yet Damon, as if he were more savant than idiot, transcended the tumult. He started by making peace with his brother, James, his closest adviser since he turned pro out of high school. Besieged with opportunities and obligations after the World Series, Damon increasingly vented his frustration at James, who fielded many of the business inquiries.

''Sometimes it got to the point where he wanted to kill the messenger," James said. ''We couldn't find that fine line between brother and [business] partner, so I quit the business end of it. We decided we wanted to be brothers more than anything."

Damon may never convince his first wife, Angie Vannice, that he had the best interests of her and their 6-year-old twins at heart with his raw account of their final months of marriage. Vannice publicly lashed out at him when the book was released, but Damon quickly contained the fallout in part by praising her as a good wife and mother. Still, he could have avoided the mess.

''I asked him before the book was published, 'Are you sure you want some of that in there?' " James recalled. ''He said he would rather have it come out now than 10 years later."

As for his new wife, Michelle, Damon and she have been so angered by several published depictions of her as a former stripper that they have contemplated legal action. Michelle Damon said in an interview that she previously worked for a talent scouting agency and now splits her time developing ''In Style with Michelle" segments for NESN and selling real estate in Florida.

''It makes me mad because it's a blatant lie," she said of the stripper assertion. ''They don't realize how that affects me and Johnny."

Life could have been harder this season for Damon had he failed to thrive on the field. And no one feared the toll that his celebratory victory tour may have taken on him more than his brother.

''I was very scared for him," James said, ''because I knew he was going to be a target."

Instead, Damon hit the bull's eye, running up one of the best first halves of his 10-year career and overtaking Ichiro Suzuki in the fan voting to capture his first starting role in the Midsummer Classic.

Scared of failing? Not the new Damon, who attributed his success on the field in part to improving his physical fitness by cleaning up his personal life. He said he ''stopped all my late-night shenanigans" even before he married Michelle in December.

''When I was married before, I was so miserable that I would drink all night and go chase girls all night," he said in an interview. ''I kind of went overboard drowning my sorrows."

Michelle said they now spend much of their free time at home swimming or playing cards or video games.

''We had a talk about this drinking stuff," Johnny Damon said. ''We said, 'If we want to grow old together, we need to chill and enjoy each other's company. If we can't do that, we should be in different places.' "

Will he be back?
Where they want to be next year is Boston, though it remains to be seen whether the Sox will meet his anticipated request for $50 million or more over four or five years.

''They know how much I want to come back," Damon said of the Sox. ''Hopefully, they don't use it to their advantage and disrespect me with a minimum of years and minimum of salary. I'm 31 now. [Jason] Varitek just turned 33 and they had no problem giving a catcher a four-year contract [worth $40 million], so I have a valid point there."

His agent, Scott Boras, has witnessed Damon's drive to succeed since he was 16. When Damon was a high school junior in Orlando, Boras advised him he would be one of the top 15 players selected in the 1992 amateur draft. But Damon struggled as a senior and tumbled out of the first round to become the 35th pick overall, prompting Boras to recommend he accept a scholarship at the University of Florida.

No thanks, Damon told him, ''I'm going to make it to the big leagues."

He made it with the Kansas City Royals in 1995 and has since accomplished enough to adopt a new goal: a plaque in Cooperstown. With 1,711 hits and 1,021 runs in his career, Damon believes he has an outside shot at reaching 3,000 hits and 1,700 runs, milestones that historically have guaranteed membership in the Hall of Fame.

''It's in the back of his mind," James said. ''And he knows how helpful it is to have Big Papi [David Ortiz] and Manny [Ramirez] hitting behind him."

Boras also recognizes the benefits of Damon remaining in Boston, but he predicted as many as 13 other teams may vie for his services when he enters free agency after the season.

''He's at a point in his career where every player would want to be," Boras said.

Celebrity status
Though Ortiz and Ramirez have helped Damon become a household name in much of the nation, the shaggy-haired leadoff hitter did his part by launching the decisive home runs in Game 7 of the historic American League Championship Series last year against the Yankees. The homers all but clinched the book deal, according to Rick Horgan, executive editor of Crown Publishing.

Horgan said Damon's feats helped him persuade Crown's publisher the book would sell. And Horgan helped boost publicity by inserting a contract clause that required Damon to keep his hair long at least until his media tour ended.

''I told him, `You're the Farrah Fawcett of baseball,' " Horgan recalled. ''He's got that rock star presence. He's sort of direct from Central Casting."

The book spent four weeks on the national bestseller list, and the few signings that Damon did drew such large crowds that organizers needed either to turn away customers or limit the number of books they could have autographed.

''I'd never seen anything like it," said Damon's literary agent, Ian Kleinert, whose firm also has represented the likes of Britney Spears, Iggy Pop, and Terry Bradshaw. ''It totally transcended anything I had seen before in terms of celebrity book signings."

Dunkin' Donuts, which last year signed Curt Schilling to sell its breakfast sandwiches, turned this year to Damon to push its line of iced lattes. In marketing tests, Damon appealed to the company's target market.

''He scores very high on being relevant to young consumers, both male and female," said Tom Manchester, the company's director of sports marketing. ''It's very similar to how Tom Brady is with the Patriots."

Thanks largely to Damon's commercial with Theo Epstein, the company's iced latte business has jumped 20 percent from last year, Manchester said. Franchises also have had trouble holding onto the life-sized cutout figures of Damon they use for in-store promotions.

''They're all getting stolen," Manchester said of the $70 cutouts. ''We know if the cutouts get stolen, it's a successful promotion."

Puma plans to enhance its strategy to parlay Damon's celebrity into a marketing bonanza Wednesday when it introduces limited edition Roma JD footwear that ''reflects Johnny's laidback nature" and ''individual style." The red, white, and blue suede shoes are inscribed with ''Johnny D" and his number ''18."

''Puma has been pushing me big overseas," Damon said. ''I think 90 percent of America knows who I am and probably 75 percent of the world knows me. It's pretty much a global thing."

Damon helped position himself for stardom by long endearing himself to the public with his carefree and accommodating style. No Sox player has been more accessible to the fans and the media in recent years. In typical fashion, Damon, who is riding a 25-game hitting streak, spent nearly 20 minutes before a game last week in Texas with Clay Dalrymple, an 11-year-old center fielder and leadoff hitter for a team near Dallas who has grown his hair to his shoulders to emulate Damon.

''Johnny was as gracious and caring an athlete as I've been around in a long time," said Clay's father, Rich Dalrymple, public relations director for the Dallas Cowboys. ''I don't know who was more impressed, the 11-year-old boy or the 44-year-old professional sports publicist. It was one of those priceless moments."

There may be some more in Detroit, where Damon is expected to be a prime attraction during the All-Star extravaganza. And Damon hopes they continue long after.

''It's been a pretty cool ride," he said. ''I never want to get off."

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