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Still a champion of the Sox

New Ray Damon sees Boston as team to beat

Johnny Damon regrets his decision to veto a trade back to the Red Sox last year. Johnny Damon regrets his decision to veto a trade back to the Red Sox last year. (Dave Martin/Associated Press)
By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 11, 2011

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Johnny Damon is 37 now but can still get away with wearing a modified Mohawk haircut. In his mind, you’re never too old to be a little goofy.

His willingness to share an honest opinion — a rarity among professional athletes — hasn’t changed, either.

Asked yesterday what kind of player he expected Carl Crawford to be for the Red Sox, Damon held himself up as an example of what is to come.

“Only time will tell,’’ he said. “We couldn’t really define my time in Boston until we won a championship; the same in New York. Championships are what people remember you for.

“Carl’s on a pretty good team, a pretty stacked team. I’m sure there’s going to be at least one [championship] somewhere in his stay there.’’

But Damon doesn’t expect the favored Red Sox to find an easy road this season.

“Their team definitely went in the right direction,’’ he said. “On paper, they’re the team to beat. Who knows how many games are going to win the East? Baltimore has gotten better. Maybe 90, and the wild card comes from somewhere else. That’s how stacked the division is.’’

The Rays shed payroll and talent from a team that won 96 games and the division last season. They are counting on Damon and fellow Red Sox expatriate Manny Ramirez to provide an inexpensive boost. The two have received glittering reviews in camp, Ramirez even showing a willingness to work on his defense and run out ground balls.

“Two professionals,’’ manager Joe Maddon said. “In our situation, those were the two guys we wanted.’’

Yesterday, Damon had an RBI double and scored two runs to help the Rays beat the Red Sox, 8-6. Ramirez was in the original lineup Maddon posted, but was scratched because of a wet field.

Far more attention was paid to Crawford returning to Charlotte Sports Park. The crowd of 7,322, which included a high percentage of Red Sox fans, greeted him warmly in the first inning.

“I’m glad that’s over with,’’ said Crawford, who enjoyed the chance to reconnect with his former teammates before going 1 for 3 and making a nice diving catch in left field.

For Damon, reunions are part of the business now. The Rays are the sixth team he has played for in 17 seasons, the third in three years.

“It’s great to me,’’ he said. “I actually love the fact that I’ve been able to now be on my sixth team. You get to see everything, how organizations are run, how important it is for teams to have signings that work.

“Tampa’s not a team that can afford to lock up a guy and have it not work out. It can set teams back. Probably just the Yankees and Boston can get away with something not working. Every other team would be hurt for a few years.

“It’s weird. When I was a younger player, I never thought I’d be on this many teams. I figured maybe three teams or so. Here I am now.’’

In retrospect, Damon wishes he had approved a trade to the Red Sox last August after he was claimed off waivers from Detroit. He decided against it, believing the Tigers wanted him to return for this season.

“If I would have known at the time that they weren’t going to bring me back, I would have showcased myself for the coming free agent year,’’ he said.

“I wanted to stay there for the right reasons. Those kids were very fond of me. They loved the experience factor. Boston was seven games out at the time.

“I knew the [Detroit] ownership loved me, the fans loved me there so I thought it was close to being a slam dunk.’’

Damon said he was surprised to learn on the last day of the season that he would be cut loose. That won’t earn him much sympathy from Red Sox fans when the Rays play at Fenway Park this season.

But don’t count manager Terry Francona in that group. He chooses to remember the impact Damon had on the Red Sox, particularly in 2004.

“One of my all-time favorites,’’ Francona said. “One of the best guys you could ever have playing. As a manager, you can’t appreciate him enough.

“There were days he got the [expletive] beat out of him, and he’d call me in the morning and say don’t not play me, and show up. He understood his obligation to play center field even if he went 0 for 4.

“I was impressed with him. He’s very dear to me. We loved him. Everybody who has been around him appreciates what he’s done.’’

Damon, who was born and still lives in Orlando, embraces the idea of playing for the Rays.

“Still getting after it,’’ he said. “Hopefully there will be another good year to make me want to come back next year.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @peteabe.

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