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Friday, December 23, 2005
Damon in N.Y. with shave, haircut, more than two bits

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- Having gone for his Yankee clipping, Johnny Damon appeared with his hair trimmed and beard shorn to inherit the job made famous by the Yankee Clipper.

Johnny Damon
Johnny Damon faced the media as a Yankee for the first time Friday.

New York's battles with Boston have been decided by a whisker in recent years, and Damon's whiskers were very much in the news Friday, when he finalized his $52 million, four-year contract to leave the Red Sox and put on the pinstripes for the first time.

His long locks and facial hair were shorn a day earlier at Salon Ishi on Manhattan's East Side by stylist Chantal Gouy. Damon's wife, Michelle, looked on along with a Yankees photographer as the 32-year-old complied with the code of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.

"First of all, what do you guys think about this?" Damon said, looking at the cameras and stroking his barren chin. "Obviously, keep on snapping away."

Damon's hair was slightly over the collar of his green-gray suit, which had light blue stripes. He wore a two-tone blue shirt but did not wear a tie, and his sideburns were perhaps slightly longer than the Boss would have preferred.

"I was thinking about cutting my hair right after the season," Damon said, going on to explain why he waited. "I knew if I came here it would be a big deal."

Steinbrenner, baseball's sartorial equivalent of Hammurabi, seemed pleased with his new center fielder.

"He looks like a Yankee, he sounds like a Yankee and he is a Yankee," Steinbrenner said in a statement.

Damon's decision to bolt Boston was stunning. Fans loved his hustle, which combined with his Jesus-like looks to spark cult-like devotion. In 2004, he helped the Red Sox win their first World Series title since 1918.

Now he is taking the position once held by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, a spot filled since 1993 by Bernie Williams, who remains on as a reserve. He was standing in front of a large Yankees logo, wearing pinstripes, having switched sides and disappointed New England.

"I'm sure it's going to be crushing. I meant a lot to those fans there," he said. "They didn't really deserve it. But that team is dismantling. That's the unfortunate thing of this sport."

Damon's voice filled with emotion at times and it got even softer than usual. He talked about what he perceived as indifference by Boston's front office and how pleased he was by New York's pursuit.

"This team really wanted me," he said. "And now I'm going to go out there and run through walls for them and hit and score lots of runs and bring another championship to New York."

Damon happily dubbed Boston's players "idiots" as they won their title last year. Now he was basically calling the Red Sox front office the same thing.

His agent, Scott Boras, said Boston didn't make its first proposal until early November, and it was for $27 million over three years.

"It was something that really changed his feelings about Boston," Boras said.

At the winter meetings, the Red Sox increased their offer to $40 million for four seasons. According to Damon, the Red Sox said it was their last offer and gave him until Christmas Eve to accept.

"Obviously I didn't really feel good about that," he said. "It didn't sit well with me."

When asked about his conversations with "Jason," he automatically assumed it was Boston's Varitek, whom he described as "just in shock," not New York's Giambi, a former Oakland teammate whose speech pattern Varitek mimicked to perfection. He sounded sad to leave the Fenway Park faithful.

"Those fans were very loyal to me," he said. "It took some thinking, but I realized that the organization did not hold me at that level. I understood that I needed to go elsewhere."

Yankees manager Joe Torre had made a recruiting call to Damon but didn't think he'd be lured from Boston.

"You can dream, anyway," he said.

On Tuesday night, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman called Boras and made the Yankees' four-year offer. According to Cashman, Damon accepted within an hour.

Torre didn't know New York had landed Damon until the following afternoon, when he got off a plane from Italy and was told by a U.S. customs officer at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey.

"He said, 'You've got your center fielder,'" Torre recounted. "Yeah, I believed him. It sounded like it was more than something that somebody was guessing about.

"But," Torre, added, "I called Cashman right away."

Yankees officials fawned over Damon at the news conference. Cashman presented Michelle with 18 roses, standing for her husband's uniform number.

"The new style looks great," Yankees president Randy Levine said. "You're on Broadway, and it fits a Broadway premiere."

A few dozen fans stood outside Yankee Stadium to await Damon's arrival and then his departure.

The 32-year-old, an All-Star in 2002 and 2005, takes over the leadoff spot in a lineup that was second to Boston in the major leagues last year in runs and batting average. Derek Jeter moves back down to No. 2 in the lineup, followed in some order by Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada.

"You want to separate the left-handers or not? I don't know," Torre said. "I have not thought about it."

Not realizing that three straight losses suffice to set off pinstriped panic, Damon predicted an easy transition.

"There's not going to be pressure on us because -- guess what? -- I'm going to get going," he said. "You know, if I don't, Jeter and A-Rod, it's a domino effect. These pitchers who have to face our team, they don't have breathing room."