Boras and Damon thought the Sox would raise their offer after the Yankees’ proposal, but Boston, mindful of Damon’s shoulder, and his hard playing and hard living, didn’t budge. Jilted, Damon had 24 hours to take it or leave it. It was only then that Damon began seriously considering playing in New York. “I didn’t think it was possible up to just before I signed,” says Damon, clearly still smarting from the snub. “I knew what we accomplished in Boston and thought my value to the team would be a little bit more than they thought.”
It was A-Rod’s call and talks with Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar, two of Damon’s Red Sox teammates and friends, that sealed the deal. “They told me, ‘Think about all the money you’re leaving on the table. Think about your kids,’ ” says Damon. They also said that “the world revolves around you,” playing in New York, Damon says.
On December 20, Damon agreed to a deal with the Yankees. All of New England was apoplectic. The Red Sox had let their beloved team leader go. The Yankees—the freakin’ Yankees!—had signed him. Soon came the pictures of Damon wearing a Yankees jersey and lopping off his mane at the Boss’s request. Back in Boston, Damon’s jersey was being sold at a steep discount, with DEMON replacing DAMON on the back.
On March 2, the sky above Legends Field in Tampa is filled with the screams of fighter jets. Yes, the New York Yankees have a flyover for Grapefruit League opening day.
After the jets clear the airspace, Damon goes two-for-three in his first exhibition game with the Yankees. With the contest still under way, the Yankee regulars hit the showers. Damon, Jeter, A-Rod, and Al Leiter have a charter to Arizona to catch to meet up with the rest of the U.S. squad for the World Baseball Classic. Rodriguez showers quickly, answers a few questions, then starts dressing (all in white).
Damon, meanwhile, is moving at a leisurely pace. He chats with clubhouse boys and struts around like a 5-year-old who hasn’t yet discovered modesty. He is naked except for flip-flops. Eventually, he makes his way to his locker and plops his naked self onto his chair. Out of the corner of his eye, he spies Rodriguez eyeing him as if he were a Martian. “Just think of my bare ass if you ever think of stealing my seat,” says Damon. He smiles, then ducks into the shower.
Rodriguez is ready to roll—there’s a car waiting. “Hey, Al, you ready to go?” barks Rodriguez.
Leiter, an All-Star pitcher turned reliever about to retire, steps lively, grabs his bag, and scurries after the greatest player of this generation. Jeter soon follows. After a long shower, Damon emerges and talks patiently to every reporter. “You hear the names of all the legends being introduced,” says Damon as he slips on some tastefully shredded jeans. “Yogi, Reggie, Torre. It’s amazing to be part of that.”
Maybe fifteen minutes pass. A clubhouse attendant comes over and whispers the obvious: Two Yankee future Hall of Famers are cooling their heels waiting for him.
“Okay,” says Damon.
In the hallway, he jumps into a waiting golf cart, but pauses to do an impromptu interview with a TV crew. Finally, the media and fans sated, Damon is whisked away, shouting “Later” over his shoulder.
The Yankees’ dream version of Damon’s 2006 season goes something like this: Damon comes in, plays solid ball, provides a clubhouse jolt, and hoists the world-championship trophy that gets the pack of lemurs off A-Rod’s back. Joe Torre gets his fifth ring, Steinbrenner his seventh. Or there’s this scenario: Damon, only 32 but an old 32, breaks down, maybe offers an ill-timed pep talk to A-Rod or Jeter, and is labeled a “clubhouse cancer” in the Post by unnamed teammates. The Yankees fall short of the championship, Steinbrenner rages, Torre leaves, and the Yankees are officially flailing. It’s 1965 again.
Before I left Tampa, I asked Reggie what impact Damon might have in the Yankee locker room. He looked at me like I was a slow child. “We know Johnny is a free spirit, but we got him here because he’s a great player, not because he’s a free spirit,” said Reggie. “All that personality and the lighthearted comments? How about hitting .350? How about October? If he doesn’t help us win a championship, he’ll be at the Laugh House in the meatpacking district on open-mike night, and it will be, ‘Here’s Johnny,’ and then Cashman will come out and say, ‘Johnny’s gone.’ ” Reggie started to walk away, then added, “And we’ll bring in a new comedian.”