05/18/05 — OPINION: Love, Boston style

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OPINION: Love, Boston style

By Neil Fuller
Published in Sports on May 18, 2005 1:46 PM

Women swoon over his hair and good looks. Men admire his talent and hustle. Children love his easygoing demeanor and approachability.

By all accounts, Johnny Damon is basking in his charmed existence -- an emerging New England cult figure as the center fielder for the World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

"You've got to enjoy life," Damon said. "I know this isn't going to last forever. I know I'm not going to play forever."

Damon, who had a small following when he played for the Oakland A's in 2001, but it was nothing compared to his stature in baseball-crazed Boston.

Last February, Damon arrived in spring training with shoulder-length hair and a beard, a sharp contrast from his more conservative hairstyle of years past. Almost immediately, fans were intrigued, and Damon's profile rose.

To some, he resembled Jesus Christ. By the summer, there were a few unlicensed T-shirts suggesting the same. One read: "The Passion of Johnny." Another: "What Would Johnny Damon Do?"

As the Red Sox's 2004 season moved along, Damon's status grew. He called the Red Sox "idiots" for their fun-loving style. And a bunch of fans called "Damon's Disciples" sat in Fenway Park wearing fake beards and wigs.

Since the Red Sox won the World Series, Damon has been on a merry-go-round, soaking in everything he can. In New England, Damon appears in commercials promoting Dunkin' Donuts and Puma apparel. His wife, Michelle, has a weekly feature on the Red Sox pre-game television show, dealing with arts, fashion and entertainment.

Damon wrote an autobiography entitled "Idiot: Beating 'The Curse' and Enjoying the Game of Life," a best-seller among sports books.

In the book, Damon admitted he cheated on his first wife. His infidelity drew attention among gossip columnists and tarnished his good-guy public image a bit.

But his popularity didn't take much of a hit. Katie Fortin, a manager at the official Red Sox team store across from Fenway Park, said Damon's memorabilia is the second-best seller behind catcher Jason Varitek.

Damon said his personality transformation began in Oakland. After spending his first six major-league seasons with the Kansas City Royals, Damon was traded to the A's on Jan. 8, 2001.

He was immediately attracted to the fraternity-like, tight-knit clubhouse, exemplified by then-team leader Jason Giambi, who made sure the A's enjoyed themselves on and off the field.

"Guys would bring little race cars and race them around the field," Damon said. "They were buying $500 toy airplanes that would break after one time you use them. They were fun to be around.

"I learned how to relax and have fun (in Oakland). Everything over there I brought over here. We're nice and relaxed all the time. And then when we step between the lines, we're ready to go beat up on people."

Damon's new-found fame has caught some by surprise. With the A's, he hit a career-low .256, and he was overshadowed by Giambi and others.

In December 2001, Damon rejected the A's arbitration offer and signed with the Red Sox for a four-year deal worth $31 million. He gave the team a young and talented leadoff hitter and center fielder.

But initially he was again a support player on a team that included high-profile stars such as Pedro Martmnez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Rammrez.

"I never would have expected (Damon's popularity)," A's starter Barry Zito said. "He's so mellow. His persona publicly is a lot different than who he is when the media's not around. ...

"But being in a major market, you get more opportunities. And having the physical appearance he does, he's going to get attention. He's obviously a stud on the field, and off the field, he's making a name for himself."

Damon couldn't have picked a better city to excel. Fenway Park has been sold out for 161 consecutive games, and the always-popular Red Sox are riding a high from their first World Series championship in 86 years.

And Damon has been their best position player in 2005. His major-league-leading 18-game hitting streak ended Saturday night, and he's third in the American League with a .372 batting average. Still, this could be Damon's last year in Boston. He's eligible for free agency after this season.

Damon reportedly is looking for a five-or six-year deal, but the Red Sox are circumspect. Damon turns 32 in November.

Regardless, Damon will always have a prominent place in Boston sports history.

"He's got the best situation, that's for sure," A's third baseman Eric Chavez said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this column. News-Argus sports editor Neil Fuller can be reached at nfuller@newsargus.com.)