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Johnny on the spot

Damon has made the Sox go -- now he must get going again

It has never just been about the hair.

Certainly Johnny Damon's long, flowing locks with auburn highlights, which have left women suffering from Clairol envy, have come to symbolize the carefree ways of the Red Sox. Yet the self-professed leader of this "bunch of idiots" would not have enjoyed the same impact in the clubhouse had he not also submitted a career year in which he batted .304 and hit a career-high 20 home runs and 94 RBIs. No one emulates an idiot who can't hit.

"He's such an awesome guy to have on the club, because we all forget this is a game," said kindred spirit Kevin Millar. "You're in the playoffs and about to play the Yankees and the pressure is, `Oh my God!'

"But then there's Johnny, with that hairdo, and that beard, and he's sitting there in his underwear and a T-shirt at 7:45 p.m. We're half an hour away from the first pitch and he hasn't even thrown a ball yet.

"But when it's time, he goes out there and bangs out a whole bunch of big hits."

To be fair, Millar offered this assessment of Boston's laissez faire leadoff hitter hours before Wednesday's Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Although Damon had looked as inept as anyone against Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina in Game 1, including three consecutive flailing strikeouts, the feeling was Damon would rediscover his swing in Game 2 against Jon Lieber.

He didn't. Damon will step to the plate for Game 3 tonight at Fenway Park as the only Red Sox starter without a hit in this series. He is 0 for 8 with five strikeouts, and he's looked every bit as bad as that sounds, with the exception of a gritty 16-pitch at-bat against Lieber that ended with a line out to center field. If hitting coach Ron Jackson's mantra "As Johnny Damon goes, so we go," is true, then the Red Sox better hope their leadoff man turns it around quickly.

"I take full responsibility for these two losses," said Damon. "I'm the catalyst of this team, and when I'm not doing my job it makes it even tougher for my teammates. I've got to get on base.

"I'm the guy that gets us going. I'm the one who can run, who can cause havoc on the bases. I haven't been able to do that, yet -- but I will."

The ramifications of Damon's struggles have been felt from the top of the order to the bottom. Asked yesterday what effect Damon's futility had on his lineup, manager Terry Francona answered, "It's huge . . . When he's on base, regardless of whether he walks, hits a home run, single, or an error, pitchers have to pitch out of the stretch. He's capable of stealing a base. They have to be aware of that. It opens a hole for our lefthanded hitters. That's why they say offense gets contagious, because it does."

Damon's hitting woes have overshadowed a dream season for the center fielder, both personally and professionally. He scored 123 runs, second in the American League only to MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero, and batted .355 with runners in scoring position. At the same time, he smoothed out some tumultuous personal issues he admits distracted him last season. Let's not forget an impromptu decision to grow his hair to his shoulders, prompting a bizarre fashion explosion in the clubhouse (is anyone used to Bronson Arroyo in cornrows yet?). Damon's hair and beard has been news all season, and it transformed him into a cult figure virtually overnight.

"Best marketing move by any player I've ever seen," Millar said. "When I saw him in spring training I was thinking, `What's going on? He'll cut it in a day or two.' But he kept it, and the thing snowballed, and now it's become this amazing thing.

"He's our rock star. He knows all the songs. He knows all the drummers. He's Johnny D."

Damon's freewheeling persona hasn't always been embraced by his team. Former manager Grady Little sat down with his center fielder early last season and registered his unhappiness with Damon's taste for the nightlife. Damon had gone on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and told a national audience he killed the pain of a tough loss with "the help of my friend, Jack Daniels."

In spring training this season, Damon disputed Little's assertions that his extracurricular activities had affected his performance, but has since taken his former manager's words to heart.

"What Grady Little said to me made me open my eyes," Damon said. "He was right in some of the things he was saying. I was hurting myself by going out, having fun, and staying out late at night with my friends.

"I've toned it down this year. I've gotten engaged, and I'm getting married for the second time. I'm not out every night anymore. I'm having dinner with my fiancee or staying at the hotel."

Damon conceded last year's turmoil surrounding his divorce and the uncertain custody agreement regarding his twin children was both upsetting and distracting.

"It was difficult," he said. "The fact that I didn't know when I'd be able to see them, and battling over how much time I'd get to spend with them, it took a lot out of me. You try not to let it affect your play, but sometimes it does."

"People forget we are human beings," said teammate Tim Wakefield. "They forget when we leave the ballpark we have families at home. Sometimes our day-to-day struggles off the field affect us on the field.

"But to be honest, I didn't notice that it affected Johnny that much. He's happy this year, and he seemed happy last year."

The numbers from 2003 were decent, yet unremarkable. Damon batted .273 with 12 homers and 67 RBIs, but his on-base percentage was a disappointing .345. His strategy last year was to wait out pitchers and increase their pitch count, and while he still subscribes to that approach, he has been far more aggressive at the plate this season.

In the clubhouse, he remains the guy who saunters out of the shower five minutes before game time, the laid-back, what-me-worry? outfielder who doesn't seem to be ruffled by much of anything. He has become so recognizable, he often pulls his hair back in a ponytail and scrunches a ball cap over his face in hopes of buying some privacy. Most times, it doesn't work, so Damon delights his fans with another pithy variation of his "idiots" theme.

"He comes off as this free spirit, but underneath all that is a very serious side," Wakefield said. "Johnny is a stand-up guy. He's not afraid to speak his mind."

Damon has been an outspoken player representative and often a spokesman for anything and everything Red Sox in the clubhouse. Earlier this season, while his teammates complained privately about the mind-set of pitcher Byung Hyun Kim, Damon was the only one who was willing to publicly air his views.

"People need to hear the truth," Damon said. "I'm never going to run away from it. I learned that from [Gary] Gaetti and [Greg] Gagne when I first came into the league. Always take the blame when it belongs to you, because a lot of people can't."

Although Damon submitted what team president Larry Lucchino termed "a classic leadoff season," Jackson maintains Damon could be just as effective in the 3, 5, or 6 spot. "He can drive in runs," said Papa Jack. "You could put him almost anywhere."

Lucchino said he recently ran into former general manager Dan Duquette, who signed Damon as a free agent shortly before the John Henry ownership took over.

"I thanked him for a number of things, but especially Johnny Damon," Lucchino said.

With his team trailing this best-of-seven series, 2-0, Damon is mindful of the expectations that await him tonight. He must guard, above all, against pressing too much. He has been in town long enough to know that one stellar season can be wiped out by one miserable series against the Yankees.

"I'll get my game going," Damon promised. "The unbelievable thing about our team is we're upbeat all the time. We know we have dug ourselves a hole, but even idiots know how to dig themselves out." 

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