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ON BASEBALL

No need for it to end like this

This didn't have to happen, this apocalyptic vision of Johnny Damon in pinstripes.

Until the last few days, even the Yankees never thought it would happen.

''They came in and stole me," Damon said yesterday.

The questions that will torment Damon's heartbroken fans is this: Did the Red Sox willingly look the other way when Damon was swept away by the Yankees' four-year, $52 million offer? And was there divided sentiment in the Sox' front office about how badly the team really wanted to retain Damon, despite all the vows that re-signing Damon was the No. 1 priority of this turbulent offseason?

Yesterday, Red Sox principal owner John W. Henry confirmed that Damon's agent, Scott Boras, had called the day before and expressed some urgency about getting a deal done.

''He called to say that he had a six-year deal but would sign with the Red Sox for five years," Henry wrote in an e-mail. ''We weren't willing to do that. [Tuesday] night he again called to tell me that he had a 'hot' offer of $65 million over five years, and might take it.

''We discussed it internally and unanimously felt that it was well beyond the range we wanted to go. Then, after the signing, I called Scott, who told me that Johnny turned down that offer to go to New York. We were very surprised to learn that it was a four-year deal, but we wish him the very best."

In a phone call yesterday, Boras said he had called both Henry and the Yankees and said that Damon was now willing to accept a five-year deal -- the agent originally had sought a seven-year contract -- and that Damon was ready to do business with whichever club satisfied that request. The Yankees, both Boras and Damon said, called back and offered both a five-year proposal and a four-year deal.

When Sox co-general manager Jed Hoyer called back that evening, Boras said, Hoyer said he was calling about someone other than Damon. ''I asked him if he was aware of my conversation with John Henry," Boras said. ''He said yes.

''We didn't get any economic response from the Red Sox. The Yankees made proposals and we worked on them."

According to industry sources with direct knowledge of the negotiations, that's not quite how it went down: The Yankees made Boras a take-it-or-leave-it offer, and gave him until yesterday to respond. The proposal was never for more than four years, guaranteed. Technically, Boras was not fibbing when he told the Sox that he had a five-year, $65 million offer -- he insisted yesterday that Damon didn't take the highest offer, suggesting a third team was involved (perhaps Baltimore, though that could not be confirmed) but if it was the Yankees' offer to which he was referring, he never made it clear the fifth year was a club option, and that the guaranteed money was the same in a four-year or five-year proposal.

This much, all parties agree upon. The Sox never moved off the four-year, $40 million proposal they made to Damon Dec. 6, during the winter meetings. CEO Larry Lucchino said yesterday that he had informed Boras that offer would expire if an agreement could not be reached by Christmas Eve. Boras said Henry informed him Tuesday that the team had sent him written notice of the deadline, but because he was out of the office he was unaware a date had been set until Henry told him.

Lucchino also suggested yesterday that the Sox were willing to increase their offer.

''I think it's fair to say we left the door ajar for another offer," he said.

But it never came, and the Yankees happily filled the vacuum left by the Sox' inaction. After being so sure that Damon would not be available to them, Yankees GM Brian Cashman had exhausted nearly every conceivable avenue for a center fielder, exploring trades for Juan Pierre and Jeremy Reed and Torii Hunter and Jason Michaels and Joey Gathright and Curtis Granderson and Nook Logan.

Last week, Yankees manager Joe Torre publicly acknowledged that he had called Damon. Cashman also called, wanting to hear for himself whether Damon would be willing to leave the Red Sox.

''They pursued me very heavily," Damon said yesterday in a call-in to ''Red Sox Now" on NESN. ''They didn't back down. They knew what they wanted and needed . . . I like the fact they came at me hard. That sealed the deal."

Initially, three weeks ago, the Yankees had offered Damon a four-year deal for $46 million, an average of $11.5 million a year. At that point, Boras was still insistent that it would take a seven-year offer to sign Damon, and so the Yankees looked elsewhere.

But when it became apparent this week that a four-year deal might get it done, and convinced that Damon would take their offer seriously, the Yankees exceeded the Sox' offer by $3 million a year. The average annual value of $13 million a year is what the Dodgers had given another premium leadoff man, shortstop Rafael Furcal, in a three-year deal earlier this offseason.

The Yankees were aware of Damon's concerns regarding the direction of the Sox, especially the uncertainty in the front office engendered by Theo Epstein's departure and the major overhaul to the roster. But they also decided that to break what they felt was a genuine bond between Damon and his fan base, they would have to overpay.

They were willing to do so. The Sox were not, which supports a suspicion held by more than a few that the baseball operations crew, and their shadow adviser, were not as committed to keeping Damon as others in the organization. Lucchino undoubtedly will take the hit for this one, though longtime adversary Boras said, ''Larry and I had very good meetings. I had no issue with negotiations with the Red Sox."

Damon, clearly, had his doubts about how much the Red Sox wanted him. ''The biggest thing for [the fans] to know is I tried," he said. ''I tried last offseason, during the first part of the season, past the All-Star break. I called them up yesterday."

But it is simplistic to believe that had the Sox acted more swiftly, they would have gotten the deal done. Do you really believe Boras would have allowed Damon to sign a new deal last spring? Is there any doubt that had the Sox jumped to a higher number earlier this winter, they would have succeeded only in raising the ceiling of Damon's market?

But it also is reasonable to conclude that with the clock ticking, the Sox were outmaneuvered by the Bombers. A little more love, and a few more bucks, may have been all that it would have taken to keep Damon where he belongs.

''He will be greatly missed," Henry said yesterday. ''He will be missed in the clubhouse as much as on the field. He is one of the finest gentlemen I have met in baseball."

It didn't have to end this way.

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