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And an Idiot Shall Lead Them

Across the room, the Latino pitchers congregate, with closer Mariano Rivera and newcomer Octavio Dotel leading a Spanish-language gabfest. No one knows what they’re saying, but they seem to be the only inhabitants of Planet Yankee having a good time.

The fiesta ends at Randy Johnson’s stall. The laconic and curt Johnson not only took Kevin Brown’s lead spot in the rotation but also replaced the gone and unlamented Brown as the surliest Yankee. He wears a WELCOME TO NEW YORK, DUCK MOTHERFUCKER T-SHIRT perhaps with some degree of irony, but perhaps not. When asked earlier about the challenges Damon offered him as a pitcher, Johnson snorted, “He went two-for-fifteen against me last year.”

Damon’s locker is a few feet from Johnson’s, and next to that of Damon’s longtime pal Jason Giambi, who used to be a cutup until New York and a steroids scandal beat it out of him. But Damon isn’t home right now: He’s visiting a two-locker neighborhood that could be called Disappointment Town. It’s where Pavano and Jaret Wright live. Together the pair earned some $14 million last year and, plagued by injuries, provided a total of nine wins. They’re not exactly Whitey Ford and Don Larsen, and they get few visitors.

But that’s why Damon is here—he brings people together. “People say Johnny was a leader on the Red Sox,” says a longtime Red Sox observer. “That’s a mistake. Johnny was a consensus builder. He’d move from the Latinos to the blacks to the whites, just making sure everyone got along.”

Today, Damon talks nascar with Wright. The right-hander is amazed by Damon’s stock-car connections.

“You know Tony Stewart?” asks Wright like a wide-eyed kid.

“Yeah, he’s cool,” says Damon, who drove in the pace car at the Daytona 500 after the Red Sox’s 2004 championship season. Wright is on the hook. “Earnhardt?”

“Yeah, he’s cool, too,” says Damon. “I met a lot of them at Homestead for the last race of the year.” The topic turns to the lavish pleasure domes with which some NASCAR drivers outfit their homes. There’s talk of full-size dance floors and Crobar-quality wet bars.

As the conversation shifts to after-hours pursuits, Damon adds nonchalantly, “My wife wants us to put a swing in our New York place.”

Wright’s eyes go wide. An oblivious Yogi wanders by with seconds from the mess table.

Damon gives a naughty, kidlike shrug. “We’re married; you have to keep it interesting.”

Unlike recent marquee acquisitions A-Rod (godlike and private), Hideki Matsui (doesn’t speak much English), and Johnson (stiff-armed a cameraman on his first day in New York), Damon has a personality that’s all “Goddamn, they pay me millions to play this game? Sweet!” Damon radiates charisma—he’s all exotic good looks (he’s half-Thai) and surfer-dude charm. And he likes attention. He’s Reggie Jackson without the serotonin swings.

Even A-Rod, who ducks touchy subjects like they were brushback pitches, allows that Damon has an attitude the Yankees have been missing. “He brings swagger and confidence,” Rodriguez told me as a trainer waited with a pair of calipers to measure his body fat. “He’s different than what’s been here. He says things that need to be said and heard. Before, we didn’t have the type of person who would go out on a limb.”

A-Rod certainly isn’t that person. He and Damon are barely part of the same species. Few know what A-Rod’s home looks like; Damon’s Orlando digs were featured on an episode of MTV’s Cribs. While A-Rod’s private life is exactly that, Damon admitted in Idiot to cheating on his first wife, and detailed a playa period when he kept a separate cell phone just for the ladies. He drew the line at threesomes, though, writing, “One time, I was propositioned by two girls at once, but I passed. Two girls might be able to handcuff me and kill me.’’ And it was just a year ago that Damon’s autobiography called A-Rod’s swatting of the ball from Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo’s glove during a critical play in the 2004 ALCS “an unsportsmanlike act of cheating the likes of which none of us had ever seen.” When the dutiful Rodriguez bragged last spring that he works out while other players are still sleeping, Damon responded, “If it takes him waking up at six in the morning, that’s great. There have been many nights when I might not have been in bed at six in the morning.”

A-Rod says his differences with Damon are all in the past. He says he picked up the phone and called Damon last December, urging him to join the Yankees, something he had never done before. Then he admits, “Cashman gave me a direct order to do that,” referring to Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager. When I asked what he and Damon talked about, Rodriguez reverted to form. “That was a private conversation. I’m not going to talk about that.”