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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Hating him seems a bit idiotic

You can boo him, blow him kisses, offer him a Bronx cheer, your middle finger, or your undying devotion, and it won't much matter. Johnny Damon is neither motivated nor moved by such things.

When he stepped up to the plate at his old haunt, Fenway Park, last night at 7:12 p.m., a large contingent of Red Sox fans sucked in a considerable amount of hot air, then exhaled lustily. They were boos, but they were not particularly convincing. In fact, it appeared to be more of a conditioned response. Boston is required to collectively hate the Yankees. Anyone in pinstripes qualifies, particularly a player who had the audacity to switch allegiances over money. Surely that has never happened in sports.

As the few thousand loyalists who chose to stand and cheer their ex-center fielder struggled to drown out the negativity in this town, Damon turned, smiled, and removed his batting helmet.

It was a tip of the cap, and it was brilliant. It was such a graceful and dignified gesture, who would dare to boo after that? Not many. The grateful applause won out.

Maybe Johnny Damon isn't such an idiot after all.

''I was going to do it regardless," said Damon, in the aftermath of a 7-3 Yankees loss in which he went hitless. ''I heard more cheers than jeers.

''There were a lot of great fans who remember me during my time here. They just hate to see players go somewhere else. They go through it year after year. I'm not the first player to leave Boston for the Yankees, and I'm not the last."

Damon's popularity here centered on his ability to not allow the little things to gnaw at him. That's why he was the embodiment of the 2004 Boston Red Sox. A different kind of cult figure would have been distraught at a 3-0 deficit against the hated Yankees in the American League Championship Series, particularly one who was 1 for 13 at the plate at the time.

Damon merely shrugged, accepted blame for his performance, and predicted his team would win four straight.

''He and [Mark] Bellhorn were struggling so bad I couldn't sleep at night," recalled hitting coach Ron Jackson. ''I kept thinking to myself, 'If I can't get these two guys going, we don't have a chance.' But Johnny wasn't worried. He just kept putting in the time, working on the swing. He kept saying, 'It's going to come.' "

Damon was a horrific 3 for 29 (.103) with one measly RBI by the time the Red Sox forced Game 7 in 2004. Do you remember what the man they now call ''Johnny Demon" did? He went 3 for 6 with two home runs (one a grand slam) and 6 RBIs. The rest is history, and No. 18 played no small part in bringing this city its first baseball championship in 86 years.

No wonder New York manager Joe Torre questioned the reception Damon received last night.

''I'm a little disappointed in the reaction by the fans," Torre said. ''I guess we should feel proud. Evidently, wearing a Yankee uniform overrides winning a World Series and busting your tail for four years. Without Johnny here, they may have been working on 89 or 90 years."

You would have thought Damon's return last night was the Second Coming. For some, it was. They have not forgotten their long-haired idol, and they showered him with pregame waves and well wishes. For others, his return was blasphemous. There was a ''Judas Damon" sign hung menacingly over the balcony facing Yawkey Way, and nobody made a move to take it down.

How would the Fenway Faithful react? It was such a compelling question, Vegas considered establishing odds on the outcome. David Ortiz, who embraced his friend in the infield before the game, suggested, ''They should give him that first round of applause. Then they can do whatever they want."

That was how Damon felt. In a perfect world, he would be acknowledged for his toil and sweat here; if not, then, oh well.

For while Damon basked in the attention, he never lost perspective. He understood that 9-year old girls, grown women, and grandmothers swooned at the mention of his name, and he treated all of them with unfailing politeness and respect. But he knew that once he switched uniforms, the fallout would be inevitable.

He broke thousands of hearts when he left town -- and not all of them were female.

''People around here are born to hate the Yankees," he said. ''That's what they are booing -- the uniform."

Damon was a willing participant in the Red Sox-Yankees battles but tended to float above the fray. He refrained from piling on A-Rod, his former teammate in high school all-star games. He didn't charge the mound looking for a piece of Randy Johnson. He didn't toss Don Zimmer to the turf. He was Switzerland.

''I always looked at them as, 'Wow, this is a tough team that you really could not hate,' " he said. ''Because they hustled. They played the game the right way. They did everything a ball club should do."

The intensity of the rivalry was a curiosity to him, even when he was in the middle of it. Although he appreciated the passion, he remained amazed at its depth.

After all, he said, ''I grew up in Happy Land."

As he left his pregame interview, Damon paused, then raised his fingers in a victory salute, looking like Richard Nixon, who once insisted, ''I am not a crook."

Damon isn't, either. There's no crime in taking the money from a team that wants you, especially one that can win it all. It is what any businessman or woman would do. It's Johnny's right to make another stop in Happy Land.

So he was not given a hero's welcome last night. Oh well. That was reserved for backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, a career .240 hitter.

''Actually, I think Doug coming back is a bigger story," Damon said.

Go ahead. Hate him if you want. Charge him with treason and make fun of his throwing arm and his wife and his Cheshire cat smile. But when you are done, admit you feel that way because you wanted him here, in center field, running into walls for your team.

The center fielder wants you to know, in spite of the split, he still respects you.

But Johnny Damon has moved on, and you should, too.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

boston.com extras
Web Log EXTRA BASES: Recapping a wild night
Web Log BOSTON SPORTS BLOG: Passed isn't present
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