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BOB RYAN

Remember, he was a free man

He'll be back here May 1, leading off and playing center field for the New York Yankees. Show some class. Give Johnny Damon a standing O.

Johnny did nothing wrong, and neither did the Yankees. They each played by the rules. Johnny was a free agent, fair and square, and he and his agent did what free agents and their representatives do. They shopped around for the best deal. And the Yankees offered the best deal. By far.

Johnny Damon did not owe the Red Sox or any of us anything. He signed a four-year contract to play baseball to the best of his ability, and that is what he did. No. 1, he showed up. Johnny Damon performed in 92 percent of the Red Sox regular-season games during his time here. Despite sustaining a succession of painful injuries, he spent no, as in zero, days on the disabled list. He was a trouper, a gamer, a pure professional.

No. 2, he performed at a high level. He was the best Red Sox leadoff man since Wade Boggs. Damon was not Boggs, who spoiled people by getting on base more than 300 times annually during his prime, but he got on base, and he hit with authority. Nomar Garciaparra? Well, yes, Nomah had that tremendous rookie season in 1997 (98 ribbies). But he only walked 35 times and we knew he was a three- or four-hole guy masquerading as a leadoff man. Anyway, Johnny knocked in 94 in 2004 and he also threw in 76 walks.

Damon broke into the big leagues at age 21 in 1995 and it took him three years to figure it out. But when he did, he was an instant great player. The ultimate measuring stick for a leadoff man is scoring runs, and beginning in 1998 Damon began a streak of scoring 100-plus runs that has no end in sight. For the record, his Boston totals were 118, 103, 123, and 117.

It doesn't matter to Johnny Damon who hits behind him. He scored his 100 in front of Mike Sweeney and Jermaine Dye in Kansas City. He scored his 100 in front of Jason Giambi and Eric Chávez in Oakland. He scored his 100 in front of David Ortiz and Manny Ramírez in Boston. And I think we can safely say he will score his 100 in front of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, and Hideki Matsui, among others, in the Bronx.

It's not just the batting average, the on-base percentage, and the basic pop in the bat that make him such a valuable man at the top of your batting order. Johnny Damon is a frustrating, annoying hitter who runs up pitch counts. If he's not No. 1 in the league in most pitches per at-bat, he's very high in the pecking order. He stood for everything the Red Sox were supposed to cherish in this regard. The man could go 0 for 4 and still have made an offensive contribution.

A seven-year contract was lunacy, (nice try, Scott Boras), but four sure makes sense. Damon will play all of next season at age 32. At the conclusion of the four-year, $52 million contract he will sign with the Yankees, he'll be 35. People somehow have it in their heads that he'll be 37, or more. Not so. And one thing Boras correctly pointed out in the massive negotiating manifesto he was schlepping around the baseball world the past month or so was that Damon's value to a team will not automatically cease the minute he is no longer viable as either a center fielder or leadoff man. The way he swings the bat, he can sail off into the sunset as a left fielder, first baseman, designated hitter, or all of the above. But that's all far down the road. A four-year deal is what he deserved, and a four-year deal is what he got.

No one has to be told that Johnny Damon can field. He's not afraid of walls and he will do just about anything to catch the ball. He was never really right after injuring his right shoulder making a great diving catch in June of last season. But he sucked it up and wound up missing a total of 14 games while still managing to bang out 197 hits.

What can we say about the arm? It's bad, all right? And yet, as Bob Neumeier pointed out to me yesterday, how many times has it really mattered? Anyway, he'll be in a long tradition of rag-arm Yankee center fielders. Johnny's funny little flipping motion actually calls to mind the legendary Mickey Rivers, whose rare assists generally rated press conferences. And Damon's not exactly following a tough act in Bernie Williams. Anyway, that's why God invented the relay man.

Not having Johnny Damon around is going to hurt. This is a serious loss. He was a vital part of the team chemistry the past four years. He was, after all, the No. 1 self-proclaimed ''idiot" and the team, even the quiet ones, rallied around him. Now, he didn't come up with that one until August 2004, but the fact is he had established his congenial locker room presence long before. I know many fans think all this locker room camaraderie business is a bunch of sportswriter drivel, and it's always true that winning can usually create a better atmosphere, but I am here to tell you that a baseball team, which is together more than any sports unit, can benefit tremendously from the presence of just two or three lightning rod players. Johnny Damon is such a person.

What Damon brings to the table, aside from talent, is a pure generosity of spirit. Simply put, he's just a nice guy. He's nice to teammates. He's nice to his manager and coaching staff. He's nice to the clubhouse attendants. And, yes, he's even unfailingly nice to the press. That weeping you hear is the massive Red Sox press contingent. Our loss is clearly New York's gain. That is, unless Damon gets Yankee-ized, which would really be a shame.

So what happened here? How did he get away? That's why we pay Messrs. Edes and Snow the big money. Can't wait to find out myself. What I do know is that I have enjoyed watching Damon perform here these past four years, I've enjoyed knowing him, and I'm going to miss him.

I understand why people around here are upset. I do feel the pain myself. But there is no denying he played by the rules. He gave you four great years. He gave you that Game 7 grand slam against the Yankees. He gave you that Game 4 leadoff homer against the Cardinals. He gave you precious memories.

It's the times. It's free agency. How do you think Manny Ramírez got here? He was a free agent.

Johnny Damon is moving on. Come May 1, give him his due. Give him his well-deserved standing O.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

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