Despite new threads, Damon unchanged

Despite new threads, Damon unchanged

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was roughly 5:15 p.m. ET on Wednesday when the new center fielder of the Yankees sat in the dugout with a 5 o'clock shadow in the very spot where layers of a beard used to reside.

But that was back when Johnny Damon was a Red Sox cult figure. Now, he is a Yankee, which means that a date with his razor wouldn't be too far away after he got done speaking to the Boston reporters on hand to cover the evening contest between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

So how much can a guy change without long hair and loads of facial hair? Not much. Damon is still the same guy and the same player, which means he'll score 100-plus runs, work opposing starters into exhaustion and loosen up the clubhouse.

It's just that he's now doing it for the team he used to pride himself on beating, and the transformation is going to take everyone involved a while to get used to.

"I'm not angry. I'm actually happy. I've moved on," said Damon, who went 1-for-4 with a run scored in New York's 5-4 victory. "They wanted to move on and I'm moving on. It's something that I really don't think about. I wish them luck. I had four great years in Boston, and you can never take away the happiness and the joy that I did have. You know, things happen all the time, change happens. With this change, I'm definitely very happy."

Still though, it felt strange.

Just consider the first (unofficial) at-bat Damon took against his former team Wednesday night against Jonathan Papelbon. There were cheers and boos throughout the crowd of 10,334 at Legends Field.

It's just that those doing the clapping were the ones who used to boo Damon, never more so than when he silenced Yankee Stadium with two homers in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series. And those who used to roar his name were decked out in red Big Papi shirts and the like and giving him some "welcome to the other side of the rivalry" boos.

As odd as it was, Yankees manager Joe Torre thoroughly enjoyed putting Damon's name into the leadoff spot against the Red Sox.

"Nice and strange," said Torre. "Very nice. Johnny was certainly the face of that ballclub. I mean, they have a lot of great players over there. But Johnny Damon was the first guy you had to see every night. I respected Johnny Damon and certainly took notice of him long before he got to Boston. He's a special kid, I always felt that."

Red Sox manager Terry Francona still feels that way, even though Damon is sure to torment him in some of those 19 head-to-head encounters on tap for 2006.

"He's an awesome guy. He's one of the best players in the league," Francona said. "All the things we bragged about him the last couple of years, they don't just go away because he changed his uniform. He's a good player with short hair, long hair, it doesn't matter."

And about that hair, which can now only be recalled in old photos or in the drawer of a cabinet at Damon's Florida home, the new Yankees is over that, also.

"I've enjoyed not having to mess with it too much," said Damon. "I've enjoyed shaving. That's something I haven't really done much over the past couple of years, but, obviously, I have a shadow coming in right now. I actually feel a little bit younger with it. My mom's got her baby back."

Though emotions will undoubtedly swirl all over Fenway Park on May 1, the night Damon and the Yankees make their first visit of the season to Boston. This exhibition contest was a relatively routine Spring Training night for Damon.

"The biggest thing that's on my mind is to try and help the Yankees win another World Series," Damon said. "It's an exhibition game. A Spring Training game. A lot gets made out of these games, but for us, we're still trying to get our work in, trying to get good at-bats, trying to stay healthy through Spring Training."

Speaking of health, Damon saw his role at the World Baseball Classic diminished greatly because of tendinitis in his left shoulder, but he was healthy enough to DH against the Red Sox. He expects to be back in center field by Thursday, playing with the same abandon that marked his memorable time in Boston.

Can Damon truly be comfortable in pinstripes so soon after his departure from Boston?

"Well, obviously it took me a while to think about it," he said. "I knew the Yankees were going to be after me early into last season. Even before I signed with the Yankees, it was two weeks in the making before we agreed. Most of it was because I was thinking a lot about the fans back in Boston and understanding what it means to go from a world championship team in Boston to their hated rival. But I thought about it, talked to a lot of friends about it and about two weeks later, we were able to work out a deal. It was strange at first, but I knew this was going to be a great situation for me."

And the Red Sox have moved on also, inserting a blossoming center fielder in Coco Crisp, who could wind up reaching the level Damon, a two-time All-Star, is currently at.

It doesn't appear that Damon brought his rearview mirror with him to Spring Training.

"I definitely feel a part of this team," said Damon. "They came to me with open arms, all the players knew how important it was to call me and get me over here. They know how important I can be in the clubhouse and just the mood [of a team]. There's not really ever an unhappy day for me. I enjoy waking up every day and coming to the ballpark and giving it all that I have."

As for May 1, Damon, who took four years at $52 million from New York over $40 million over that same timeframe with Boston, will take that as it comes.

"I can't control how those fans think about me," said Damon. "The one thing I always did was go out and play hard every day and play hurt and played when most guys can't -- and I plan to do the same here for New York."

After all, a man doesn't change his stripes just because he goes to pinstripes.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.