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Switched hitter

From Nation to Empire, Damon has moved on

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter emerged from the dugout and shouted to no one in particular.

''He doesn't know what the crowd's gonna do in Boston. He doesn't know!"

The impish Yankee captain thus spoke to the burning issue punctuating Johnny Damon's return to Fenway Park tomorrow night in a Yankee uniform.

How will the crowd respond when, at or about 7:08 p.m. EDT, Carl Beane announces him as the Yankee leadoff hitter?

It would have been so much simpler were he coming back as an Angel, Indian, or Blue Jay. You know he'd be showered with love. But when you've signed on as a soldier in service of the Evil Empire, well, common sense says it might not be a pleasant moment.

''I don't think they'll be showing a highlight video, the way they did with [Orlando] Cabrera," he jokes.

But that's management. What about the fans?

On this matter, Damon puts on the rose-colored specs. He thinks the cheers will drown out the boos.

''I think I built up a strong allegiance of fans who knew I could get it done," he says. ''But I know there will be some people who will look at it differently."

First of all, the Chief Idiot lives no more. Johnny has quickly become Yankee-ized, or, should we say, Steinbrenner-ized. The hair is shorter and the beard is gone.

''I know I have to shave again after batting practice," he explains, stroking his late afternoon stubble. ''That's the one thing that's been a bit hard to get used to."

But Johnny Damon the ballplayer and Johnny Damon the plain old nice person remain. The

Damon's 2 HRs lift NY. C7

former has yet to hit his stride this season, but the latter has not changed one bit. He was always the nightly go-to guy for the Boston media, and he has quickly become the reliable go-to guy for the New York hordes. Following the Yankees' 7-2 Friday night loss to the Blue Jays, the one regular quoted in the morning papers and showing up on the video sound bites was, yup, Johnny Damon, who was hardly a pivotal figure, one way or the other, after going 1 for 4 and being thrown out stealing for the first time since last August after 19 successful theft attempts.

''I have always been able to look myself in the mirror and be honest with myself about how I performed, and I've also been able to look at my team and say, 'Hey, we just didn't get it done,' " he explains. ''We all know who did well and who didn't. Dealing with personal matters is one thing, but when it comes to baseball, everything is fair game."

That said, here is the Damon critique of his own efforts through 22 games: ''Everything's gone well, but I just need the bat to come around a little bit. I'm just not getting it done yet. My timing's a little off."

He may have to change that observation to past tense, for yesterday afternoon he started off going single/stolen base, homer, homer to earn his first Yankee curtain call in the fourth inning. He wound up reaching base five times in six plate appearances and scoring all five times, a career high.

On the subject of the two home runs, Damon quipped, ''I wouldn't be able to go back to Boston if I didn't have more home runs than [Bronson] Arroyo. It was 2-1, now it's 3-2. I'm pretty happy about that."

And wait until he starts really feeling good.

He is not 100 percent physically, having injured his right foot April 19 while making one of three spectacular catches during a 3-1 conquest of the Blue Jays. Manager Joe Torre gave him a couple of de facto days off by making him a DH for two games last week, and now Damon says he is fit enough to play defense in center.

Choosing sides
The idea that Johnny Damon is a Yankee will take some time for the more intense members of Red Sox Nation to digest. True, there have been other celebrated defections in the not-too-distant past, but in the case of Wade Boggs the fan fervor had diminished to a large degree by the time he left, and in the case of Roger Clemens there was the two-year buffer period in Toronto. And if you wish to travel back in time, Babe Ruth was traded -- check that, sold -- following the 1919 season and, at any rate, had no say in the proceedings.

Johnny Damon simply exercised his collectively bargained free agent rights when he elected to sign a four-year, $52 million contract with the Yankees. He had a choice, and in the hearts and minds of many, it was the ''wrong" one. The diehards regard Damon as having committed a traitorous act.

But Johnny's version is that he really had no choice.

''We waited and waited and waited, but there never really was a negotiation," Damon insists. Indeed, the Red Sox put out a four-year/$40 million deal and never budged, even when word came back to them that the Yankees, who weren't even his first choice (the Dodgers were, in large part because he would have liked a reunion with Grady Little), had come in with the four-year/$52 million proposal.

The Red Sox, Damon maintains, were far more interested in their concurrent haggling with Kevin Millwood than they were with him. So, naturally, he began to feel unappreciated and more inclined to cut the cord with the Red Sox, despite the obvious benefits of remaining in Boston, where he had become far more than just a popular and successful ballplayer.

On a team with Curt Schilling, Manny Ramírez, and David Ortiz, Damon had become the reigning folk hero, the one player on the team as likely to turn up in People magazine as Sports Illustrated. Isn't it amazing what shoulder-length hair and a beard can do for a baseball player?

''I don't think it was just, 'Here's a pretty boy with long hair and a beard who can play baseball,' " he reflects. ''It was a guy with long hair and a beard who played hard all the time. Hustle. It all started with hustle. I think that's what ignited the fan base. Then you mix in the team getting some spectacular wins to enhance it."

That hustle was on clear display in yesterday's eighth inning when, in a 16-6 game, Damon hit a towering infield popup and was just pulling into second base when second baseman Aaron Hill dropped the ball.

''I told him that was a great example for youngsters," said Torre. '' 'You legged that out, and made it to second.' "

Damon then scored his fifth run, and his team's 17th, on a Miguel Cairo single.

''That's just the way I play," Damon said. ''The one thing you can always do is hustle. It is a good lesson. Anything can happen in this game."

Even if he had been able to retain the Chief Idiot look (he did coin the original phrase, remember), it would not be the same for him in New York, where there are resident locker room celebrities, including a certain shortstop who is no stranger to the gossip columns and non-sports pages himself.

''That's true," Damon agrees. ''You've got guys here who have won in the past and who will go down in Yankee lore. But that's OK. I just want to be me. For a short time there in Boston I was shot up into the stratosphere. It was great. I can't say it wasn't a lot of fun. But now I'll be able to chill out a bit."

Fitting right in
Acceptance in the locker room has not been a problem.

''These guys wanted me to come," Damon says. ''All during the free agent period, I'd get calls from guys on this team. 'What's happening? Are you coming? We need you.' "

The manager wanted him, of course, but now Torre admits that the complete Damon package has even more to it than he thought.

''I always liked him as a player, and he was always respectful," Torre explains. ''When he'd be on first base, there might be some eye contact, a nod of respect. He always played hard. I admired him for that. He went out there every day and played hard and he was always about the team.

''Now that he's here, I've noticed there is a 'looseness' to him in the locker room," Torre continues. ''By that, I mean he keeps guys loose by virtue of his personality. There is nothing forced. That's something you wouldn't know unless you were around him every day."

Torre never worried about Damon being ready for New York.

''Absolutely not," says the skipper. ''This guy has probably spent as much time around New York over the years as anyone who doesn't play in New York. There was never going to be any need for an adjustment."

Playing for Torre, Damon says, is easy.

''You make a mistake," Damon explains, ''and he'll just quietly pull you aside and say, 'What happened? That ball that fell in, what happened?' You say, 'I gave up on it.' Point made."

Moment of truth
The biggest adjustment for Damon might be the one he'll need to make tomorrow night. The day, he figures, should be tranquil.

''I'll go check on my house, make sure everything's ready for it to sell," he says. ''You know, Ortiz should buy it. I know he needs an eight-car garage, but he'll have to make do with my three and then add some of his own."

But the game, the intro, the whole experience of returning to Fenway as one of George's soldiers, that will be interesting.

''When I first started hearing people ask, 'What kind of reception will Damon get in Boston?' I couldn't understand it," Torre says. ''I said, 'There'll be no question. They'll be cheering him. Then I heard people talking about 'Benedict Arnold,' and that surprised me. I just thought he gave them those four years and it should be left there."

Shouldn't Joe know better by now? Does he think he's coming in here with the Tigers?

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