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A more lucid Damon in ALCS10/11/2004 8:47 PM ET
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Johnny Damon figures he's way ahead of the game in this American League Championship Series.
For one thing, he'll be playing in the opener. For another, he might even remember it.
Neither of the above happened last year for Boston's center fielder. In Game 5 of last year's ALDS vs. Oakland, he was chasing a pop fly when he collided with teammate Damian Jackson.
While his teammates celebrated a stirring victory over the Athletics, it was lights out for Damon, who then missed the first two games of last year's classic showdown between the Red Sox and Yankees.
Damon returned to play the last five games against the Yankees, but he went just 4-for-20 and scored one run.
"I couldn't remember many of the games," he said. "I got back during the offseason and watched a couple of the games and I couldn't remember that happened or what happened. But I think I am definitely a better player for it now and definitely a better person."
The better Damon energized the Red Sox this year with a superb season. The leadoff batter scored 120 runs, had 187 hits, walked 76 times, drove in 91 runs and hammered 20 homers. Oh, and swiped 19 bases.
Wrapped in his wild long hair and his bushy beard, Damon has become the billboard image for this eccentric collection of what he calls "idiots." He's far from the clean-cut poster boy that made such a splash with the Royals in 1996, teaming up with George Brett in TV commercials.
"Thank God he grew that beard. It covers his face," cracked teammate Curtis Leskanic, who began this season with the Royals.
"From the beginning of the season, watching him hit as his hair grew out and the beard and everything, it kind of typifies what this team is all about. Scrappy and tough, a bunch of lumberjacks."
Damon, perched on the back of a clubhouse chair, dangled his bare feet and wore a T-shirt that read "Why Not Us?" before the Red Sox workout Monday at Yankee Stadium.
"We're a lot of cowboys and a bunch of idiots and people like that. Kids like it. We all have different hair, we all have different personalities. ... We're a great team for baseball and that's important. Baseball is definitely at its apex right now and we're going to continue to go out there and have fun," Damon said.
A .304 hitter in the regular season, Damon dashed through the ALDS with a .467 (7-for-15) average with four runs scored. His task won't be easy Tuesday night with right-hander Mike Mussina starting for the Yankees.
"Mussina has about eight or nine different pitches," Damon said. "He knows how to spot 'em. He has a great changeup, a great backdoor fastball and he's smart and he's getting smarter and smarter. Mussina is tough."
The fans at Yankee Stadium can be tough, too, but Damon spoke of them almost as pals or old buddies.
"That's part of their ritual. They get on everyone out there," he said. "They get on you for a reason -- that they like you or respect you. I think the people out there definitely respect our team."
He's actually looking forward to trotting out to center field.
"You think about all who have played out there and I enjoy it," he said. "And these fans out there enjoy me being out there. I mean, they've been trying to get on me for 10 years when I was in Kansas City and Oakland, but, I mean, it's all in fun."
This, of course, is the chance for Damon and the Red Sox to finally reach the World Series again.
"It's going to be emotional. It's upsetting we've already played them 19 times this year and there's a good chance we're going to play them 26 times," he said slyly.
"But I think our team is very prepared for it. We're calm, relaxed, we've been here before and they've been here. It's just going to be one great series. Unfortunately, we can't say it's the World Series. But it's just going to be exciting."
And, he hopes, more memorable that the last one was for him and the Red Sox. The seventh game was a nightmare.
"I think it's something that's going to stick with me the rest of my life. It's one of those games that we'll keep seeing on TV 30, 40 years from now," Damon said. "It was a pretty good game. It just didn't work out for us."
The collision he had with Jackson last year still causes Damon to have occasional migraine headaches and blurred vision.
"The migraines are gone for the time being. The chiropractor took care of me a couple of nights ago and I feel better," he said.
Damon has to watch videotapes to remember exactly what happened last year in the playoffs. The details still are fuzzy to him.
"I remember playing, but you would think your adrenaline would be at its very top and I really had none last year," Damon said.
"I was one of those guys who threw his glove on the field and hoped for the best. So this year is going to be different."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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