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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

For Sox, a little off the top

No way around this one. Johnny Damon is a Yankee and it looks like the Red Sox don't know what they are doing. Time for Ben Cherington and Jed Hoyer to say hello to Lou Gorman and Dan Duquette. Looks like John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino finally know what it feels like to be Haywood Sullivan, Buddy LeRoux, and/or John Harrington.

While New England slept last night, Damon got into bed with the enemy. Sox officials smugly believed there was no market for their marquee center fielder and the Yankees took advantage of Boston's big sleep.

Damon agreed to a four-year, $52 million pact with the Yankees sometime yesterday and when Sox CEO Larry Lucchino got home at 11 last night, all he could say was, ''We don't have comments on ongoing negotiations. We have received no such notification [of Damon signing with the Yankees]. We have not been notified of any such deal."

Asked if it would be standard procedure for the Sox to be made aware of their free agent center fielder signing with another team, Lucchino said, ''It's generally customary."

So now your Boston Red Sox have no center fielder, no shortstop, and no first baseman to go along with no Theo Epstein and no clue. It's fair to say this is becoming a winter of discontent in Red Sox Nation. Ben and Jed and Craig and Larry and Tom and John and Crosby, Stills & Nash can spin this anyway they want, but Sox fans can't escape the conclusion that there's chaos at the top. The Josh Beckett trade bought some goodwill and glad tidings, but losing Damon to the Yankees is a devastating blow to the foundation of the Nation.

The Sox won't recover from this one easily. In an already dismal offseason, they've now lost their center fielder and their leadoff hitter. They've also lost a local icon, a rare favorite of teenage girls and fanboy bloggers. Losing Damon hurts them on the field and in the arena of popular opinion. And losing Damon to the Yankees compounds the damage. When Alex Rodriguez got away a couple of years ago, Sox fans were fairly quick to scorn A-Rod and move forward.

Losing Damon won't draw the same reaction. The Idiot center fielder is Johnny Angel with Sox fans and his production in pinstripes will be a personal affront to Red Sox fans around the world.

Damon was quick to say he'll get on board, and cut his hair and shave to conform to Yankee ways. An all-too-modern ballplayer, he switched allegiance from Boston to New York before you could say, ''the New York Times owns 17 percent of the Red Sox."

Here's what Damon told Channel 4: ''They were coming after me aggressively. We know George Steinbrenner's reputation. He always wants to have the best players. He showed that tonight. He and Brian Cashman came after me hard. Now I'm part of the Yankees and that great lineup. We're going to be tough to beat."

We? Johnny, how could you? It took only a few minutes and $52 million to make you start calling the Yankees ''we."

Actually, it's pretty easy to understand. For all of his athletic gifts, we always knew Johnny had the depth of your average kiddie pool, and it's therefore entirely believable that he could invoke the royal Yankee ''we" so quickly.

He had no problem hanging the Sox brass out to dry.

''I tried everything in my power to come back," he told Channel 4's Steve Burton. ''I made contact with them [the Sox]. I talked to Tito [Sox manager Terry Francona]. I told them they need to really get going because, if not, I'm going to be on another team. Unfortunately, Boston had their plans. I'm not sure they knew that I meant it. But now I'm a Yankee and hopefully they can go off and go get the other center fielders they've been courting for the past month or so.

''Our policy with the Yankees is to go out and win, and we're going to try to bring another championship to them. They haven't had a championship since Chuck Knoblauch was there when they had a great leadoff hitter so I think the leadoff role has been underappreciated. A good leadoff hitter is tough to find and I think New York just found the best leadoff hitter in the game."

Thanks, Johnny. Very humble of you.

This signing will polarize the Nation. Most fans will paint the current Sox bosses as buffoons and there's good evidence to support the charge. But others will see Damon as a traitor, a mercenary ballplayer no different than Messrs. Clemens or Boggs. Damon went to the Yankees because they offered him $52 million over four years while the Sox offered $40 million over four. We all know simple Johnny loves to be romanced, and the Apple has Regis and Kelly and infinite possibilities for Johnny and Michelle sightings on Page Six. The Sox certainly couldn't compete with that.

Bottom line: The Yankees just got better and more interesting, and the Red Sox just got worse and more boring. And a Nation is certain to wonder if this would have happened if Theo were still on the job.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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