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Face in the crowd

In New York, this ex-Sox icon will be just another face in the crowd

TAMPA -- Johnny Damon gave Manny Ramírez his best sell. For $5.1 million, the Chestnut Hill house Damon bought for $4.75 million, and the pool house he added for $375,000, would be Ramírez's. Damon did not want actual value for the place, which he pegs at $6 million. He simply wanted the return on his investment.

At cost, Damon told Ramírez, he could have an actual home and be done with the Ritz, a place, Damon said, ''where sometimes it all becomes too much for him.

''There are people taking his picture when he gets into his car, people talking to him. It's a difficult ride to the park.

''But," Damon said, ''he didn't want it because he was convinced he was leaving Boston."

With Ramírez initially uninterested, and now poised to reinhabit his Ritz penthouse, Damon is selling his Massachusetts home back to the builder, as he prepares to shift to his new April-to-October coordinates -- a place, incidentally, that Ramírez would love. The 3,000-square-foot, 39th-floor condo at One Beacon Court on Manhattan's Upper East Side has it all: an urban panorama (the view includes the Chrysler Building), green grass (Central Park unfolds below), and, perhaps best of all, relative anonymity.

In Boston, Damon was iconic.

''I was me," he said. ''I was the voice. I was the face."

In his new home, he merely will be a face.

Damon, when he steps on the elevator, is liable at any time to encounter singer/songwriter/designer/actress Beyonce Knowles. Or, her paramour, rapper Jay-Z. Or Brian Williams, on his way to the NBC studios to anchor the nightly news. Or former General Electric CEO Jack Welch, who at his peak earned in one year ($94 million) nearly as much as Damon will in his career ($97.2 million), if he walks away at the end of his four-year deal with the Yankees. Or Jeff Immelt, Welch's successor at GE. Or Phillies slugger Bobby Abreu, who owns an off-day getaway spot in the uber-luxurious tower.

''I'm trying," Damon said, ''to get the full New York experience."

An old friend
As Damon talked inside the clubhouse at Legends Field, springtime home of the Yankees, he sat at his locker, bordered to the right by Jason Giambi's.

When Pedro Martínez spiked septuagenarian Don Zimmer during Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS, and the benches cleared, Damon raced to Giambi. Not because Damon wanted anything to do with the enormous slugger, whose arm veins rise, in serpentine paths, above his skin. Damon did so because he had suffered a concussion four days earlier in a sickening collision with Damian Jackson, and he knew that Giambi, who in 2001 in Oakland became his all-time favorite teammate, would protect him.

Similarly, on Day 1 in Yankee camp last month, Damon walked into the clubhouse, saw the locker next to Giambi's unoccupied, and announced, ''Oh. This is where I'll be."

Last Wednesday morning, as Giambi autographed a few photos, Damon leaned in and asked, ''How many bedrooms do you have?"

''Three," Giambi answered.

''I've got to get home and pack and then leave tomorrow," said Damon, who was to leave the next day for the World Baseball Classic. ''Can Michelle and I stay over tonight?"

''Yeah, yeah," Giambi said. ''Come on over."

Giambi, turning away, said, ''That's why I got three bedrooms. I knew he'd be there sooner or later."

Damon, unlike most of his teammates, isn't living in Tampa during camp. He makes his year-round home in Orlando, where he grew up, and he has been commuting the 90 miles down Interstate 4 each day. It takes him an hour and a half to get there in the morning, an hour and 10 minutes to get home in the early afternoon.

Outside of workouts, Damon said, he hasn't gotten to know his teammates that well.

''All these guys here know what I'm about," he said. ''I'm going to see these guys plenty the next four years. The commute is great. I see the kids all the time. I sleep in my own bed. It's just been great. Obviously, I would like to be closer, but I can deal with this."

The clubhouse, he said, ''has been a blessing in disguise. These guys have welcomed me with open arms. You never really see yourself being on the other side, but the clubhouse is better than what I'd anticipated. And I think it's just part of my character. I think I can get along with anybody."

Damon claims there's been no awkwardness between him and Alex Rodriguez (whom Damon ripped in his book) or Bernie Williams (whose prestigious plot of Yankee Stadium land Damon is inheriting).

''No," Damon said, when asked if he'd had any uncomfortable moments with A-Rod, whose slap of Bronson Arroyo's glove in the 2004 postseason Damon called ''an unsportsmanlike act of cheating the likes of which none us had ever seen."

''I talked to him about it last Opening Day, so there was no need for that as time passed," Damon said.

And Williams? ''We have the same agent [Scott Boras], and as we negotiated with the Yankees, we knew Bernie was going to come back. Bernie is going to continue to have a job. He's going to get some playing time in right, in left, at DH. Bernie is going to be counted on a lot to anchor the bottom half of our lineup."

The new guy
It's difficult to gauge what relationships, beyond Giambi, Damon has developed in this Yankee clubhouse, which holds four certain Hall of Famers (Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Randy Johnson), three former World Series MVPs (Johnson, Jeter, Rivera), two former regular-season MVPs (A-Rod twice, Giambi), nine players making at least $10 million, and several social cliques, some of which appear to count memberships of one.

This is OK with manager Joe Torre, who doesn't necessarily believe that his many stars must align on a personal level.

''I'm not necessarily a believer in, you need chemistry to win," Torre said. ''The thing you have to have is respect for each other, and you come together at the right time."

''But," he added, with emphasis, ''with John, he's very easy to get to know. He doesn't seem to have any kind of shield up. He's very open. I think these guys had a chance to know him as I had a chance to appreciate him [as an opposing player], and there's a great deal of respect for Johnny Damon."

It is rare that Torre refers to Damon as ''Johnny." Usually, the name is ''John," which means dropping, of all letters, the ''ny," as if, along with the hair, the team also professionalized Damon's name.

The hair, by the way, is in a plastic bag inside Damon's bathroom. He hasn't considered selling it.

''If people want to start offering for it, so be it," he said. ''I just see it as hair."

Hair, Damon said, that he was prepared to cut, even had he remained with the Sox.

''I feel younger," said Damon, who turned 32 in November. ''I feel different. I saw some pictures of me last year with the hair and thought, 'Damn, I let that go a little too much.' "

While Damon has remade his look to comply to code, his new manager doesn't want Damon to reinvent himself.

''I'm happy to say I haven't observed anything different than I watched on the other side of the field, except that he's wearing our uniform," Torre said. ''What I told John is, you don't have to prove yourself to anybody, because you've already established who you are. And that's all we want, is that player.

''He's always been a special player to me. I noticed when he was with Kansas City, a skinny kid, over there to Oakland. The one thing I noticed, statistics aside, is he gave you your money's worth every time he put on the uniform. Ran hard to first base. Played hard. Good, bad, or indifferent, he was always that type of player. Fans appreciate that. And I can tell you, first-hand, the manager appreciates that."

Damon, now with Team USA in Arizona, made an impression in the short time he spent in Tampa. In his first intrasquad contest, he dived to catch the first ball hit to him and singled to right in his first at-bat, off Mike Mussina. In a batting practice session, Damon stood in against Johnson, as the menacing lefthander grazed Damon's left arm with a fastball and sailed a couple more over his head.

Damon genuinely believes he'll handle each of his Yankee firsts as well as he did those, and Torre doesn't disagree.

''I don't really concern myself with his getting adjusted," said Torre, who couldn't say that about Rodriguez two offseasons ago or Johnson last winter. ''I don't think [the adjustment] is going to be as much as it was for other players who come here, because every year we play them 19 times plus the postseason.

''I think he's had a taste of what there is to get used to: the notoriety he's had, the success he's had at the Stadium, the passion."

Enemy territory
According to Giambi, there will be one adjustment Damon can't avoid, something Giambi had to stomach in 2002, when he returned to Oakland after signing with the Yankees for seven years and $120 million.

''His hardest thing, I think, is I don't know how the fans are going to react to him," Giambi said. ''He was one of their leaders. When I go back to Oakland, it stings a little. It stings. You have all these great memories there. He loved it in Boston."

But can't a player compartmentalize each experience and realize that the fan is booing the decision to leave, not the person who played there and not the memories he left behind?

''If you're that type of guy, yeah," Giambi said. ''But I don't think necessarily."

Damon doesn't know how he'll be greeted when he leads off the May 1 game at Fenway.

''I haven't thought much about it," he said.

He also contends that the ad he took out in the Globe to thank the Boston fans wasn't an attempt to influence their reaction come that night.

''There was nothing to gain for me with the ad," he said. ''Whatever fans decide to do, cheer me, boo me, I didn't do it to change that. It was just to say, 'Thanks.' Unfortunately, in this game players move on. Life doesn't stand still, life keeps going. As much as we wanted to hang on to the 2004 championship, it was a time for many players to go."

How much would it have taken to keep Damon in Boston?

''Probably $11.5 million" a year, he said, or $46 million, the midpoint between the Sox' offer ($40 million) and the Yankees' ($52 million).

''They set a value on me, and I respect that," he said. ''They didn't want to go over that threshold. But it's $3 million a year, and with that $3 million, I could help out so many unfortunate people."

Damon said he has donated money to children's foundations in Orlando and to a community initiative in his hometown aimed at putting more police on the streets.

''There's going to be a lot more in time," he promised. ''I'm going to make a difference in a lot of people's lives. I know I did it in Boston, and I hope to help people in Boston more. But I want to focus on Orlando and make a lasting impression."

Is it too soon to look back on the impression he left in Boston as a baseball player?

''I know what I meant to the city, and I know what the city meant to me," he said. ''They introduced me to the world as a pretty good ballplayer."

He was more than that, in the words of team president and CEO Larry Lucchino, who a day after Damon signed with New York called him ''in some ways, the personification of the franchise."

''Well," Damon said, ''how come you didn't make me a better offer?"

At times over the winter, Damon has said the Sox believe he is over the hill. Perhaps he actually believes that. Perhaps he's convinced himself of that, as motivation. When these two theories were put to him, he said, ''I'm speculating, because reporters are telling me that's what [the Sox] are thinking. I just kind of go off of that."

He doesn't begrudge his successor, Coco Crisp, though he does have some advice for him. Two pieces, actually, one specific and one general.

The specific: When the ball is hit to left-center, and Ramírez is in left, Damon said, ''He definitely has to keep his eyes open."

The general: ''Just enjoy it. Over time, the fans are going to love the way he plays the game. Yeah, he's learning how to play center again. Yeah, he's learning how to lead off. But those guys hitting third and fourth can make you look better than you probably are.

''He just has to enjoy it, respect the fans, and they'll respect you."

That, Damon said, was his ultimate reward in Boston. He hopes that remains the same, even when he returns as a turncoat.

But what happens if a brawl breaks out?

''I definitely won't go get Varitek."

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