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Disputing party line

Damon says Little sat him because of late-night revelry

JUPITER, Fla. -- Two ways Johnny Damon plans to boost his production this year: be a little more aggressive at the plate and make sure his manager knows his performance won't be affected by his night life.

Damon's numbers dropped last year as he seemed to focus as much on wearing out pitchers as hitting them and spent considerable time in Grady Little's doghouse. Damon made no excuses for the former, attributing the team's success in part to his role in driving up pitch counts and forcing out opposing starters. But he took strong exception to Little benching him for engaging in too much late-night revelry.

"There was a time early in the season when he thought I was doing a few things, but it was all false," Damon said yesterday as the Red Sox outlasted the Cardinals, 4-3, before a sellout crowd of 8,239 at Roger Dean Stadium.

"I found out from him that I might have been partying too much," Damon said. "I was like, 'No, I'm out eating food or I'm hanging out with my girlfriend or some teammates, but by no means was I ever unable to play.' "

Damon has developed an image as a free spirit, and he has not been shy about talking about leading an active social life. He has joked often about his postgame drinking, even telling a national television audience on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" last year that the pain of a tough loss to the Angels that night could be cured by "our friend, Jack Daniels."

But the jokes apparently were lost on Little, who played Damon in only 145 games. Damon has not appeared in fewer games since his rookie year in 1995.

"Never one time last year was I incapacitated where I was so drunk that I didn't know what was going on," Damon said. "I'm smarter than that. I've been around. I've seen the toll it takes on guys. I'll go out and have a drink, but never was I to the point where it affected my game."

He wants new skipper Terry Francona to know that.

"My goal is to play a lot more games," Damon said, "and avoid getting run over out there."

The latter reference was to Damian Jackson racing into center field in Game 5 of the American League Division Series in Oakland and colliding so violently with him that Damon was rushed away in an ambulance and experienced severe headaches daily for about six weeks after the season. Damon believes he has physically recovered from the injury but may need a little time to overcome the psychological effects of the trauma.

"I'm going to be cautious," he said. "If there's any ball in between [him and another player], I'm going to be looking out because there's no way I can take a hit, not right now."

Damon, 30, who has two seasons remaining on a four-year, $31 million deal, hit. 273 with 12 home runs, 67 RBIs, and a .345 on-base percentage last year, slipping from the previous year in nearly every offensive category but RBIs (he drove in 63 runs in 2002). But the Sox care most about Damon improving his on-base percentage. Only Todd Walker (.333) logged a lower on-base percentage among Sox regulars, though Nomar Garciaparra matched Damon at .345.

"The only thing I told him is, I want him to get on base," Francona said of Damon. "I don't care if he walks, hits, or bunts. I think he understands that if he's on base, our offense is going to be in the right direction."

In Damon's statistically best season, he hit .327 with a .382 on-base percentage and led the league with 136 runs for the Royals in 2000. His batting style then was "see ball, hit ball," he said. But he moved to Oakland in 2001 and was trained to follow the A's philosophy of working deep into counts to help improve on-base percentage and knock out opposing pitchers. He struggled badly with the adjustment, yet he has adhered to the philosophy ever since. He suggested the strategy has worked, helping the A's win 102 games in 2001, and the Sox win 93 games in 2002 and 95 games last year.

"I would like to get on base as much as you can," Damon said. "The last couple of years, I put myself in a bind as far as average and my OPS [on-base and slugging percentage] because I go up there and take and take and take, trying to wear out the other pitchers, kind of like Oakland's philosophy. It's definitely a lot harder to hit when you pattern your game around taking pitches."

Damon saw more pitches last year (2,850) than any player in the league except his former A's teammate, Jason Giambi (2,916). By doing so, Damon generally gave the hitters behind him a good look at the starting pitcher's stuff each day and helped drive up the pitch count. But he indicated he will alter his approach this season.

He may have provided a preview yesterday as he singled on the second pitch of the game from St. Louis ace Matt Morris. He also grounded out on the first pitch he saw in the third inning and walked in the fourth.

"I'm planning on being a little bit more aggressive at the plate," Damon said. "It's a lot easier hitting a pitch down the middle than not knowing what's coming with two strikes. I have to get away a little bit from that. But I'm not going to get crazy about it."

Nor does he plan any late-night craziness.

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