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ON BASEBALL

Damon may soften his hardball stance

CLEVELAND -- Face it, you'll miss Johnny Damon if he isn't in a Red Sox uniform next season.

Every time he's missing from the Red Sox lineup, there's a large void. His bat, his speed, his hair, his mannerisms, his charisma, his style, his flair, his humor, his leadership, and lately, his toughness, are all things that would be difficult to part with.

Unless he has an extraordinary falloff, life in Boston without Johnny Damon is not appealing to anyone. It might not be appealing to Damon, either.

The center fielder has talked about wanting a five-year contract when he becomes a free agent after this season.

If it's five years he wants, he's not likely to get it in Boston, though there probably are teams who would oblige Scott Boras, Damon's agent. But yesterday, Damon, who is battling a painful right shoulder injury, started to back off that stance.

Asked if he would take fewer years to stay in Boston, Damon said, ''You'd probably want more money per year for less years, but yeah, that's a possibility. It's something I would consider especially because in a couple of years all of these guys in here are going to be older. So yeah, it's something I would consider, but we'd have to get it done right."

It is a major concession on Damon's part. Earlier this year, he said he might retire if he didn't get a five-year deal from a team on his preferred list. Nobody believed that one.

What's happened since is that Damon's popularity has grown even more. Boston needs him and he needs Boston. He's one of the few players who enjoys the pressure cooker of Boston (something Keith Foulke could learn from). Damon is always willing to engage the fans, the media, and be the face of the team.

Damon had what proved to be the biggest hit of last night's game -- a homer leading off the top of the ninth that gave the Sox a 10-8 lead in an eventual 10-9 win. Damon also made a superb running catch of a Coco Crisp liner to the gap in left-center to end the game with the tying run on second.

''It was a screaming liner," Damon said. ''Manny [Ramírez] was playing shallow [in left] and I was deep and when I saw the ball I knew it was coming my way. I had to make sure Manny heard me and I called him off so I could make the play. It was a good way to end the game."

Damon probably has the highest volume of requests for his time among Sox players, and there isn't much he turns down. With a .339 average and 40 RBIs, he has silenced critics who said he might be doing too much off the field and not concentrating enough on baseball.

Damon seems to express different thoughts on free agency every time you speak to him. The fact he's having an exceptional season is helping his cause, though now he's playing hurt and readily admits he'd be better off going on the 15-day disabled list.

This is where his toughness comes in.

''I understand what I am here," Damon said. ''I intend to play 150 games this year no matter what's wrong with me. I've had some things this year, but I haven't had anything that I can't overcome. My shoulder hurts when I swing and miss; well, I've got to reduce the number of times I swing and miss. But I know my body and I know how far I can go with it."

The MRI exam he had recently showed no tears, just a strained rotator cuff. He was told that rest would likely solve the problem, but he doesn't think this is the time to sit.

''It's just something I know is going to be here, hopefully not through the season," he said. ''It feels better today. An extended break would help it out, but I know I can't do that."

You don't have to dig deep into Terry Francona's inner sanctum to know how much he respects Damon and how much he appreciates Damon's willingness to play hurt.

''I've said this about 15 times: He's about the toughest kid I've ever seen," said Francona. ''Johnny's honest with me. He called me this morning and told me he wanted to get back in there.

''Sometimes it's not easy to judge when you should have him sit. Last year he had no business playing sometimes and he went out there and hit home runs."

Damon had a couple of feeble at-bats in his first two tries against lefthander C.C. Sabathia last night. He was swinging and missing, even struck out swinging in his second at-bat. But then he increased his hitting streak to nine games with a single up the middle in the fifth. His ninth-inning blast was his third homer of the season.

Damon even said he would play in the All-Star Game if named, though that could be a good healing time for him.

Damon's health means it's probably a good thing that the Sox haven't moved Jay Payton, who recently has expressed his dissatisfaction with playing time.

''He's probably the best No. 4 outfielder around," Damon said. ''He does deserve to play. I feel for him. I hope we can get him in the right situation.

''To me, he's a good insurance policy. If they don't re-sign me, they can pick up his option."

Payton's option is $4 million, and he knows the Sox will likely not pick that up. Of course, for all the shopping the Red Sox have done, there were no bites on Payton, according to a team source.

Damon is already an $8 million-a-year player. Would it take $10 million or $12 million a year to tie him up for four years? Would the Sox do that?

The Sox are certainly protecting themselves. They drafted speedy center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury in the first round. Of course, he'll need a couple of years of seasoning. What the Sox have to decide is whether Damon is the one who bridges the gap or whether they seek a replacement in free agency.

Damon is associated with the World Series win, the ''Idiots," as well as the intangible things like toughness and leadership. Which is why it might not be so easy to cut the cord. And maybe Damon is feeling the same way.

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