A Red Sox offseason of discontent and upheaval took another shocking turn last night when free agent center fielder Johnny Damon, who had achieved rock star status in Boston, defected to the New York Yankees, agreeing in principle to a four-year, $52 million contract that will become official when he passes a physical.
Almost as stunning as Damon's decision to sign with Boston's storied archrival was that the Red Sox did not learn of Damon's decision until they were contacted by reporters last night. CEO Larry Lucchino, who already has endured intense criticism in the wake of Theo Epstein's unexpected departure as general manager Oct. 31, was in charge of the Damon negotiations and said last night he had not been told of a deal by either Damon or his agent, Scott Boras.
''We have received no such notification," Lucchino said in an e-mail after having referred to ''ongoing negotiations" with Damon in an earlier e-mail. ''No further comment."
Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, reached by telephone last night, also said he was unaware of Damon's agreement with the Yankees.
''No, I'm not aware of it," Werner said. ''We knew there have been conversations [between the Yankees and Damon]. I'm not surprised by it. I knew how interested they were in him. But you're telling me something I didn't know.
''If that's true, I'm disappointed, but nothing surprises me anymore."
John W. Henry, the Sox principal owner who had met with Damon at the owner's Florida home not long after Damon filed for free agency, did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment as of midnight last night. Boras also did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.
The Yankees' offer, while far short of the seven-year, $84 million deal Boras had set as the target price for Damon, trumped the four-year, $40 million proposal Lucchino made to Boras during the baseball winter meetings in Dallas two weeks ago. The Red Sox are not believed to have moved off that offer, though in a conference call with reporters yesterday afternoon, co-general manager Jed Hoyer described talks with Boras ''as very productive."
The Yankees, who publicly took the posture they were prepared to begin the 2006 season with extra outfielder Bubba Crosby as their everyday center fielder, swooped in while the Sox, according to Damon, did not respond to his appeals to become more aggressive in their attempts to sign him.
''It was a very tough decision, but New York came after me aggressively and that's what sealed the deal," Damon told Channel 4 last night. ''They showed they really wanted me. I tried with Boston, waiting for them to step up, but unfortunately they didn't and now I'm headed to New York.
''They [the Yankees] were coming after me aggressively. We know George Streinbrenner always wants to have the best players and he showed that tonight. He and Brian Cashman came after me hard and now I'm a part of the Yankees and a great lineup. We're going to be tough to beat.
''I wasn't quite sure what happened, but I'm very excited. The [Yankee] players were calling me and trying to recruit me. They did a heck of a job doing it. You know, I'm with mixed emotions. I'm very happy starting a new career. I'm sad to say goodbye to some of the greatest fans in the world. Unfortunately they had to see this day, but it's time for me to move forward."
Damon said he spoke with manager Terry Francona, urging the Sox to step up their efforts to re-sign him.
''I talked to Tito [Francona] and I told him they had to really get going, . . . [I] had other plans. I'm not sure if they knew I meant it, but I'm a Yankee. Hopefully now they'll go off and get one of the center fielders they've been courting for the last month or so."
Damon in an earlier interview with New York Newsday had expressed some frustration with the turbulence in the Sox front office and the departure of some of the teammates he valued most, like free agents Bill Mueller, who signed with the Dodgers, and Kevin Millar, who remains unsigned.
Only 14 months after winning a World Series, the Sox have undergone almost a complete facelift, with only outfielder Trot Nixon, catcher Jason Varitek, outfielder Manny Ramírez, and DH David Ortiz the only regular position players left from the championship team. Ramírez has demanded to be traded, amid reports that he won't report to spring training if the Sox don't satisfy his request, as has lefthander David Wells, who is seeking a return to his hometown, San Diego. The Sox already this offseason have traded shortstop Edgar Renteria, who replaced 2004 hero Orlando Cabrera, and backup catcher Doug Mirabelli.
With Damon inheriting one of the fabled positions in pro sports -- center field for the Yankees -- the next, and most important, question becomes: who inherits his position here in Boston?
The list of possible replacements includes Seattle's Jeremy Reed, Cleveland's Coco Crisp, San Diego's Dave Roberts, Tampa Bay's Joey Gathright, the Cubs' Corey Patterson, and free agents Preston Wilson, Terrence Long, and Juan Encarnacion.
The Sox have discussed deals with Seattle for Reed and Cleveland for Crisp. Both Seattle and Cleveland, as of late, appeared inclined to hold onto those players. The Sox are believed to have been offering Matt Clement in potential deals. Bronson Arroyo, because of his age and contractual status, would, at face value, seem more appealing.
Reed, 24, was a disappointment in his rookie season, hitting .254 with a .322 on-base percentage, 45 RBIs, and 61 runs scored in 141 games hitting second, sixth, and seventh.
Crisp, 26, has split his time between left and center field in Cleveland, and in each of the last two seasons, has hit about .300 while averaging 16 homers and 70 RBIs.
Though San Diego GM Kevin Towers has publicly announced Roberts as his starting left fielder, the team has enough outfield depth to move Roberts to the Red Sox in a deal for Wells. Roberts, the most celebrated base runner in Boston history, hit .275 with a .356 OBP with 8 homers and 38 RBIs in 115 games last season.
Tampa Bay, which has a loaded outfield with Carl Crawford, Aubrey Huff, Jonny Gomes, and Rocco Baldelli, may be willing to part with Gathright, the 24-year-old who has played just 95 career games, hitting .271 with no homers, 14 RBIs, and 26 steals in 32 attempts. He's made only three errors and runs exceptionally well.
Patterson, 26, hit .215 with a .254 on-base percentage, 13 homers, and 34 RBIs in 126 games with the Cubs in his fourth full season and struggled so badly that the team demoted him to Triple A. The Cubs tendered Patterson a contract yesterday but then signed Minnesota's Jacques Jones to a three-year deal, making Patterson quite available. He's young, but he's hardly ideal atop a lineup. His career OBP is .293, and he's ranked in the top 10 in the NL in strikeouts twice in the last four seasons.
Wilson, in a 2005 season split between Colorado and Washington, hit .260 with 25 homers and 90 RBIs hitting mostly cleanup in the final year of a five-year, $32 million deal that paid him $12 million last season.
Outside possibilities -- because of their lack of recent time playing center field -- are Encarnacion and Long. The 29-year-old Encarnacion, who has played predominantly the corner outfield positions but has played 316 of 1,053 career games in center, hit .287 with 16 homers and 76 RBIs last season as the Marlins' right fielder.
Long has played more games in center (407) than left (301) or right (128) but hasn't played center full time since 2002. He hit .279 with six homers and 53 RBIs last year with Kansas City.
In the bound presentation Boras and his staff prepared for clubs interested in Damon, the first page in Section One is a quote from Sox owner Henry.
''Johnny Damon has been the face of our franchise," Henry said.
That face -- one Damon vows he will keep clean-shaven to accommodate Yankee owner George Steinbrenner -- now is about to join the Yankees.
''My message to Sox fans is I tried," Damon said. ''I tried everything in my power. Unfortunately I know they are going to be upset. I'm always going to remember the good times, the World Series, the three out of four years we made the playoffs. I want them to know I appreciate them and I tried. I know they will continue to root for the Red Sox and they should. I'm going to try and win another World Series. That's what I have to do."