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New York state of mind

Damon officially newest Yankee

NEW YORK -- Brian Cashman presented Michelle Damon with a box of 18 roses (a total chosen to match her husband's uniform number) and a kiss (just one).

A Yankee suit walked about the room holding aloft a T-shirt about to go on sale at Modell's for $16.99 that read: ''No Hair . . . No Beard . . . No Problem."

George Steinbrenner publicly rubber-stamped the signing in a concise and typed 15-word statement: ''He looks like a Yankee. Sounds like a Yankee. And he is a Yankee. Welcome."

Johnny Damon, looking both clean and cut but somewhat pensive standing before camera shutters that snapped at a semiautomatic pace, relaxed enough to say, ''Thank you, and obviously, keep on snapping away."

An impromptu press conference even broke out between Michelle and the local media, until a concerned-looking Scott Boras, her husband's agent, stepped in, telling her, ''Come over here."

There was, as expected, pomp aplenty yesterday at the Stadium, where the Yankees effectively handed Damon the deed to that hallowed parcel of land that once belonged to another JD (Joe DiMaggio), Mickey Mantle, and, for the last 15 seasons, Bernie Williams. But what mattered most yesterday was not the pomp but the circumstances that led to Damon signing with the Yankees, circumstances Damon, Yankees' GM Cashman, and Boras explained in detail.

And what became abundantly clear was this: Well before Tuesday night, when the Red Sox balked at upping their four-year, $40 million offer and promptly lost Damon to New York, both Damon and the Sox had come to accept that they'd be parting ways.

According to Damon, that realization hit in November, when Boston made its first offer, which Boras confirmed to be three years and $27 million.

''I knew I became a free agent after I got the three-year offer," Damon said.

Boras echoed that sentiment, saying, ''I don't think he ever considered leaving before receiving that offer."

Surely, Damon and Boras knew this would be a negotiation, and the Sox' first offer was highly unlikely to be their last. The Sox indeed made a second formal offer, for four years and $40 million, Dec. 6. But, in Boras's opinion, the fact that the Sox never sweetened that second offer implied what the team refused to acknowledge in its Wednesday press conference: The Sox pegged Damon's value at $40 million.

The only alternative possibility, given Boston's inaction, would be that the club felt Boras didn't have any other equal or greater offer. That he was bluffing. But, Boras said, given the ''baseball intellect" and ''experience" of the Sox' ownership and management, that ''would be almost impossible for me to believe."

The Sox' only apparent action on the matter this past week was to impose a deadline of Christmas Eve for Damon to accept their offer or watch it expire. Damon said he got that news at about 7 p.m. Tuesday, a few hours before committing to the Yankees, and ''it didn't sit well with me."

At that point, he knew $40 million ''was their last offer . . . I thought I was more important there. I know to the fans I was.

''I think there was, there could have been, division [within the front office]," Damon said. ''That's what brings me here today. These guys know what direction they're taking, [they] know exactly what's going on."

Cashman, indeed, was plotting. Early in this offseason he offered Damon four years and $46 million but soon realized that wouldn't be enough. Cashman waited, quietly and patiently, as Boras lessened his demands, all the while claiming publicly that New York was quite willing to go with Bubba Crosby as Williams's successor. But, Cashman acknowledged yesterday, ''we had big-time interest in [Damon]."

About nine days ago Cashman began to move in earnest. He called Boras and told him, ''I would like to talk to Johnny myself."

Cashman phoned Damon over the weekend.

''At that point," Cashman said, ''he was disgruntled with how the process had gone with the Red Sox negotiation for whatever reason, but he was also honest in the fact that he had a very strong bond with that fan base. Separating himself from that Red Sox Nation -- and I thought this from the very beginning -- was going to be more difficult than getting him away from the Red Sox team. That was the biggest hurdle.

''He gave me some honest answers. All things being equal, he would stay there. I knew we had to pay a separation."

In other words, Cashman believed the Yankees would have to exceed Boston's offer by a noticeable margin. And, herein lies one of the more interesting components of these negotiations: Just as the Sox didn't know for sure during the process if the Yankees had ever offered Damon a contract, Cashman didn't know for sure how much the Sox' standing offer was for.

Through reading the papers and doing his homework, Cashman said, ''I was estimating they were probably at $11.5 million for four years." Thus, if the Yankees were to offer $12 million a year for four seasons, Cashman felt ''we were going to lose him, because he was going to stay where he was comfortable." So, Cashman went to $13 million per year.

''I wasn't going to go higher," he said.

And he wanted an answer.

''I felt we had to . . . make him make a decision now," Cashman said. ''Over time, he was just going to wind up staying [in Boston], I thought, because they would maybe increase their offer."

The Yankee GM called Boras Tuesday and said, ''If it doesn't work out, we're pulling out and we'll announce [we're out of the running for Damon]."

Boras, who was in Texas meeting with the Rangers about Kevin Millwood, asked Cashman if he could have until 5 p.m. Wednesday, , Cashman said. Boras, tied up in business, called back and asked to have until Thursday, Cashman said. Initially, the Yankee GM agreed, before phoning Boras back Tuesday night, probably at about 10 p.m., to say, ''This is my offer. I need to close it out."

''He called me back an hour later," Cashman said, ''and said, 'Yes.' "

And so closed the chapter on Damon's four seasons in Boston. Damon, who was dressed in a brown suit that featured powder-blue pinstripes, was asked if he agreed with Cashman, in that it was harder to leave the Sox fans than the Sox organization.

''Without a doubt," Damon said. ''Those fans were very loyal to me. It took some thinking, but I realized the organization did not hold me at that level. I understood I needed to go elsewhere."

Yesterday was Day 1 elsewhere, and that was especially evident when a reporter asked: What did Jason say to you in your conversations with him before you decided to come here?

''I called him a couple days before the decision was made," Damon said, referring to Boston captain Jason Varitek. ''He was just in shock. And I'm sure he's pretty upset."

The reporter apologized and said, ''I meant Giambi."

''Giambi?" Damon said. ''[He said], 'Hell yeah, man. This is unbelievable man. This is awesome.' "

Damon went on to speak highly of his former manager, saying, ''Terry Francona told me the other day, 'I used to know who I was going to pencil in every day.' He was choked up about it. He said, 'I don't have that one player who wants to go to battle night in and night out.' "

His new manager couldn't have looked happier yesterday to have just that.

''He's great," Joe Torre said. ''It's really huge for me. I don't think you could have picked a better person to follow Bernie."

Torre, in an odd twist, didn't learn until midday Wednesday that Damon had agreed with the Yankees. The venerable skipper had been in Italy, helping to run the Olympic torch along its path toward Turin. He didn't touch down in Newark, N.J., until 1:50 Wednesday afternoon.

''I got off the plane," said Torre, ''and the first customs officer said, 'You got your center fielder.' "

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