And an Idiot Shall Lead Them

Photo: Jeffrey Lamont Brown

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.”

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.”

That’s okay, A-Rod, your new teammate will! “Alex mentioned that me, him, and Derek were all approaching a lot of milestones and how great it would be to reach them as teammates, but people could look back on us and forget the numbers and remember what we did together,” Damon told me. “It meant a lot to me.”

Right now, Damon is saying all the right things. He long ago apologized for the cheating jab (he took it out of later versions of his book) and is now just looking to fit in. “This is Alex and Derek’s team; I’m just proud to be part of the tradition,” Damon insisted after his first Yankees workout. “There will be time to be nutty, but it’s probably a good thing to tame it for now.”

“This is Alex and Derek’s team,” Damon says. Maybe, but the cap he’s wearing as he heads to his Ferrari says “ROCK STAR.”

Maybe. But the cap he was wearing backward as he headed toward his black Ferrari didn’t say NY on it. It read ROCK STAR.

In the driveway of Johnny Damon’s boyhood Orlando home, his father’s Honda Odyssey still sports a Red Sox bumper sticker. “I have to change that,” says Jimmy Damon. “I keep forgetting.”

There’s a theory with ballplayers: The less they think, the better they play. Damon is like that, and it may well be a by-product of being raised by parents who were virtually oblivious to his talent. While at Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, Damon barnstormed on a national all-star team with a young Rodriguez and was touted as one of the best players in the country. Still, “I never saw him play until his senior year,” says Jimmy Damon.

Jimmy met Yome, Johnny’s mom, in Thailand when he served in Vietnam. Raising their family, “we both had two jobs,” says Jimmy, sitting on his sun porch. “It wasn’t until scouts started to call the house that I had any idea. I just thought he could get a college education out of it.”

Much of Damon’s parenting was done by his older brother, James (Jimmy worked as a security guard, and Yome as a hotel maid). In Idiot, Johnny cops to being a burnout. “He was really cocky,” says James. “He was hanging out with older guys and was stoned every day, drinking a lot at 12, 13 years old.” Still, neither of the Damon boys caused too much trouble,” Damon Sr. says. “The cops never came down here.”

By his senior year, Damon was being introduced at games as “the No. 1 prospect in the nation, Johnny Damon,” but he remained a quiet kid, largely because of a stuttering problem. “My thoughts just raced ahead of my tongue,” says Damon. “I’d sing songs as therapy, and I got better, but I just kept quiet most of the time.”

Damon met his first wife, Angie, in high school, and they married when he was 19. In 2001, after six seasons with Kansas City and one with Oakland (where he and Jason Giambi, among others, earned a reputation for playing as hard off the field as they did on it), Damon signed a four-year, $31 million deal with the Red Sox.

Damon put up solid numbers for the Sox—batting close to .300 and scoring 100-plus runs per year—but it wasn’t his play that won the hearts and minds of Red Sox Nation. In addition to the hair, the beard, and the smile, Damon, along with teammate Kevin Millar, fostered an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude through nude jumping jacks, group Harley rides, and other high jinks. Boston fans ate it up.

Damon soon became a man about town, and his marriage began to crumble (he and Angie split up in 2002, but Damon admitted in his book that he began cheating on her before that). At times, Damon’s extracurricular activities concerned both Sox management and his brother. Red Sox manager Grady Little wouldn’t tell Damon in advance when he would have a day off for fear he’d party too hard. “We talked it out,” recalls Damon. “I let him know I was going out, but I wasn’t tearing up the town. We were fine after that talk.” Still, James Damon wondered about the possibilities if his brother lived a more homebound life. “One time, me and some of Johnny’s buddies from here went up to Boston and we stayed out to three or four in the morning. The next day, Johnny went two-for-four, and I was like, ‘Man, what could he do if he got a good night’s sleep?’ ”

In 2004, after 86 years of misery, Damon and the Red Sox engineered their historic comeback from a three-games-to-none deficit against the Yankees, and Damon’s legend in Boston was secure. Part of what made the feat possible was the “Who gives a fuck, let’s just play” attitude Damon instilled in the Sox clubhouse. The title of Damon’s book refers to a comment he made about his teammates before the 2004 miracle run began. “We’re just the idiots this year,” said Damon. “We feel like we can win every game. We feel like we have to have fun—and that’s why this team is liked by so many people out there.” The quote, and his six RBI in Game 7, made most people forget that Damon went 10 for 55 in his two ALCS matchups against the Yankees.

After the World Series victory, Damon was everywhere: Leno, Letterman, and later, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. His December 30, 2004, marriage to Michelle Mangan, a blonde former modeling agent, featured guest appearances by members of AC/DC, an eight-carat ring, and Damon in a sleeveless tux shirt. The following spring, Damon’s Idiot hit the New York Times best-seller list (there was a clause in the book contract that prevented him from trimming his long locks until he was done promoting the book). The book was a relatively tame affair, except for Damon’s inexplicable decision to use the pages to tag his ex-wife as an insufferable nag and then confess to three years of infidelity before they divorced. “I just wrote things honestly. I wasn’t critical about anybody,” says Damon, being either acutely naïve or disingenuous.

In Michelle, Damon seems to have found a sybaritic soul mate and a real firecracker. “It seems like they party quite a bit,” says James Damon. “They complement each other.” That’s a bit of an understatement. In response to a report that Damon and Mangan were one night dropping water balloons (not pumpkins this time) from the terrace of their Ritz-Carlton digs in Boston, Mangan responded, “That couldn’t have been me. I was having sex with my fiancé.”

“She’s awesome,” says Damon. “You meet a lot of women who are beautiful, but not a lot of women who are beautiful and cool. She’s like a five-tool player.”

In New York, Mangan and Damon are living in One Beacon Court. “I want to get that real feeling of being in New York,” Damon says. Twelve years into his career, he knows the good life won’t last forever, he says. “I just want to soak up as much as I can.”

Back in Orlando, I tell James Damon a story about how his brother is starting to shape the Yankee clubhouse in his own image. James just laughs. “He’s had such a charmed life,” he says. “He got drafted in the first round by the Royals, and I thought that’s as good as it gets. Then he gets traded to Oakland, and I say this is as good as it gets. Then he signs with the Red Sox and they win a World Series, and I know that’s as good as it gets. Now he signs a big contract with the best franchise in sports, and I keep waiting for the good times to stop.” He looks at a picture of Johnny as a young Royal on the wall. “But they never do.”

Last year, Damon and the rest of the Red Sox suffered through a mild hangover of a season. After an MVP-quality first half, Damon’s numbers dipped dramatically after a collision with the Fenway Park fence damaged his right shoulder, then a hard slide into second base mangled the left. Damon didn’t miss many games, but by September, watching him fling the ball back to the infield was a grisly sight; you could see the pain with every throw. The Sox blew a season-long lead to the Yankees in September and were swept in three games by the Chicago White Sox in the American League Division Series. The Yankees, meanwhile, struggled through a year of injuries, nipped the Red Sox for the division title in a tiebreaker, and then lost in five games to the Los Angeles Angels in the ALDS. By season’s end, it was apparent that Bernie Williams was no longer an everyday center-fielder.

Damon’s contract expired at the end of the season, and Scott Boras, his Über-agent, declared his client would accept nothing less than a seven-year, $84 million deal. The Sox countered with four years at $40 million. Disappointed with the Red Sox’s attempt to re-sign him, Damon contemplated retiring. “I could just play in a beer league,” Damon told me. “That’s what I wanted to do during the ’94 strike. I just love playing.” Still, Damon was the Red Sox’s soul (and biggest draw), and most observers believed he’d return to Fenway.

The Yankees were Damon’s primary, if stealthy suitor. Cashman needed a center-fielder, but having watched Williams wither in the final year of a seven-year deal, Cashman told Boras he wouldn’t sign Damon for more than four years. When Boras called Cashman in mid-December and said four years was doable, Cashman made the Yankees’ only offer: four years at $53 million. “I didn’t want to be just hanging in the game until Boston moves the numbers up,” says Cashman. “All things couldn’t be equal for us to get Johnny. He would have taken less to stay in Boston. He was very loyal.” Cashman says he had several conversations with Damon. “It was a process he had to get comfortable with, considering the Yankees.”

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.”

Maybe even the freewheeling Johnny Damon realizes that. Out in Anaheim for the World Baseball Classic, Damon momentarily lost his sense of humor and his hitting stroke, batting just .167. More worrisome, Damon’s left shoulder flared up. Although he said it was merely a case of spring-training tendinitis, the Yankee brass was left with the possibility that their $53 million man could begin the season as the most expensive non-home-run-hitting designated hitter in baseball history.

Damon uncharacteristically dodged the media before a game against South Korea. The next day, at a team workout at Cal State, Fullerton, he didn’t even join some of his teammates in ogling the Texas Longhorns women’s softball team (they watched with a laserlike focus absent in last night’s 7-3 loss). Damon shagged some flies, but tossed them back toward the infield underhanded. During batting practice, Ken Griffey Jr. grabbed an aluminum bat and started launching 500-foot tower shots that had even the living legends oohing and aahing. Damon just gloomily joked, “I better not use the aluminum. The way I’m going, I’d just break it.”

Two days later, Damon seemed in better spirits. An MRI on the shoulder showed no major damage, and with a win over Mexico, the United States would make it into the semifinals, despite some embarrassing losses. In batting practice, Damon seemed to rediscover his swing, sending three balls into the right-field stands at Angel Stadium. There had been talk that Damon might be left off the semifinals roster, but when asked whether he would rather go to San Diego for the semis with his teammates or back to Steinbrennerville in Tampa, he flashed one of his incandescent smiles and laughed. “Dude, what do you think?” Then he giggled, and was off to sign some more autographs.

A few hours later, as a predominantly Mexican-American crowd shouted for the American team’s demise, the U.S. squad—in more ways than one, the Yankees of international competition—entered the bottom of the ninth down a run. With one on, A-Rod walked, and Damon was summoned from the dugout to pinch-run for him. On a double, Damon could score the winning run, jump into his teammates’ arms, and, as his brother said, his life would just keep getting better and better.

But it didn’t happen. On the next pitch, Vernon Wells grounded to the shortstop. Alfredo Amezaga, who flipped the ball to Jorge Cantu at second, nimbly avoided Damon’s hard slide and threw to first to complete a double play. The crowd screamed as the Americanos stood in shock. Damon rose slowly, gave Cantu a hug, looked into the crowd, and trudged off slowly. Ever considerate, Damon paused on the American dugout steps and tossed his batting gloves to a young fan. He can only hope for his sake the scene is not repeated in October.

How Johnny Damon’s marquee-acquisition predecessors fared in their first season in pinstripes.

2005Randy Johnson
$48 million for three years

The six-ten lefty won seventeen games and finished second in the American League in strikeouts. But for a guaranteed future Hall of Famer and the staff ace, that was considered an off year.

2002 Jason Giambi
$120 million for seven years

Belted 41 homers with a .435 on-base percentage. Another outstanding season in ’03 was followed by health problems and accusations of steroid use in ’04. An impressive comeback in ’05.

2004 Alex Rodriguez
$179 million for seven years

Also an off year—36 home runs and a .286 average—at least by A-Rod’s gaudy standards. Those numbers jumped last year to 48 homers and .321, but his playoff struggles continued.

2003Hideki Matsui
$21 million for three years

The hustling fan favorite’s .287 average was accompanied by just sixteen home runs. He improved his power numbers in ’04 and ’05 and earned a new four-year, $52 million contract.

-By Ben Mathis-Lilley

And an Idiot Shall Lead Them