On the first day of spring training at Legends Field in Tampa, Florida, things looked a lot like they did last year. Carl Pavano was still hurt. Gary Sheffield was happy, then mad, then happy about his contract. A-Rod and Derek Jeter fielded grounders silently on the left side, a rejuvenated Jason Giambi hit tape-measure home runs, and Hideki Matsui’s every move brought a thousand shutter clicks from Japanese photographers.
After 90 minutes or so, with their morning workout done, the players walked to the dugout. Many of the hundreds of fans on hand started screaming their names.
“A-Rod, pleeassse sign!”
“Derek, it’s my birthday!”
Major leaguers are adept at situational deafness, and a stream of Yankees moved down the dugout steps barely acknowledging the faithful who had traveled great distances to watch them play catch.
Only Yankee debutante Johnny Damon stopped. It isn’t surprising. In his four years in Boston, Damon was the team’s unofficial goodwill ambassador, signing for fans and entertaining the media after tough losses, allowing the more truculent Mannys, Pedros, and Nomars to steal away. Standing on the dugout steps, Damon signed a few balls and was showered with Sharpies, cards, and a program that nearly beaned him squarely on his—it must be said—somewhat Neanderthal head. But Damon didn’t get mad or scurry off into the clubhouse; he just smiled.
In time, he said politely, “I’ll sign more later, but I’ve got to do my running. Believe me, I’d rather sign than run.”
As Damon waved good-bye, fans clapped uncertainly. Some were slack-jawed. An actual interaction with a Yankee? Did that just happen?
It’s unlikely that George Steinbrenner paid $52 million for Johnny Damon to write his name and crack jokes about skipping work. But then again, maybe he did.
Six years removed from its last world championship, the planet’s most storied sports franchise now auditions saviors annually—A-Rod, Randy Johnson, Giambi—only to downgrade them to apostles or false prophets when they fail. With their $207 million payroll, the Yankees blithely ignore modish Moneyball hypotheses and operate instead according to Oscar Wilde’s sports-management theory that “nothing succeeds like excess.” So it came as no surprise that just before Christmas, with no 27th championship trophy to place on his mantel, George Steinbrenner went out and bought the Boston Red Sox personal Jesus. Johnny Damon’s resemblance to the biblical savior is so great that W.W.J.D.D. T-shirts became as common as delays at Logan (a garish take on Da Vinci’s Last Supper hangs in the dining room of Damon’s Orlando, Florida, home with J.D. as J.C. and the 2004 Sox standing in for the Jerusalem Twelve). Signing Damon away from the Yankees’ sworn enemy was a bold, even blasphemous stroke. Imagine the Jews saying “We’ve grown tired of waiting on this Yahweh fellow—let’s grab Muhammad and make him our own.”
Although the Yankees expect their new center-fielder and leadoff hitter to chase down fly balls that the rapidly calcifying Bernie Williams can no longer reach; bat, say, a crisp .300; score 110 runs; and steal twenty bases, Damon is also charged with jazzing up a team that features six possible Hall of Famers but not one soul likely to threaten Yogi for Most Lovable Yankee. Last year, the Yankees got off to a disastrous start and were without four-fifths of their opening-day starting rotation at one point or another, but their fatal flaw was that they played—how to phrase this elegantly?—like they had sticks up their asses. A team that recently boasted a gouty, brawling David Wells, wearing the Babe’s cap, and an erudite but crabby Paul O’Neill, who might go mental after a strikeout and dismantle a Gatorade cooler, is now made up primarily of exquisitely talented drones who play without joy and buckle under the weight of great expectations.
Enter Damon, a man who titled his autobiography Idiot, got stoned every day when he was 12, and relieved stress during the 2004 ALCS by dropping a pumpkin off the balcony of his 34th-floor Ritz-Carlton condo in Boston. Yes, Damon can play the game—he’s among the league leaders in runs scored this decade. But make no mistake: He’s not here simply to hit, catch, and run. He’s here to remove the stick.
It’s lunchtime at Legends Field in the Yankees clubhouse-slash-Biosphere. In one corner, Yankee emeritus Bernie Williams tunes a guitar. The team agreed this winter to bring back Bernie for one more season as a spare part, but at 37, his hair is flecked with gray, and he’s sporting a bit of a belly. Already he seems part of Yankees glories past. Down the row, Derek Jeter patiently answers the familiar March questions about rounding into shape and the team gelling. A few stalls away, Alex Rodriguez undresses. A couple of reporters venture a step toward him before A-Rod sternly but politely says, “After I shower, guys.” The widely held idea that reporters dislike the Yankees’ MVP is both true and not true. What’s clear is that A-Rod despises the media feeding trough that is the Yankees clubhouse. “My whole life is about being crushed,” Rodriguez was recently overheard telling a clubhouse visitor. Still, Rodriguez likes a few reporters, and he exchanges win predictions with one before disappearing into the steam. The reporter says 98. A-Rod offers a shake of his head indicating no, and stage-whispers, “One-oh-three.”