Damon's return center of attention
Center fielder's return to Boston as a Yankee is event in itself
BOSTON -- Johnny Damon has always used his good looks, smile and charm to disarm fans and teammates alike. Those skills came in handy Monday night at Fenway Park.
Despite playing a major role in ending Boston's 86-year World Series title drought in 2004, Red Sox fans reminded him in no uncertain terms that he is playing for their archrival.
Fans booed him nearly non-stop every time he made an appearance, beginning with Yankees batting practice 90 minutes before the game and culminating in his first plate appearance leading off the game at 7:13 p.m. ET.
Before watching the first pitch from former teammate Tim Wakefield miss inside for a ball, Damon heard a loud round of boos, mixed in with scattered cheers.
But instead of going into a shell or simply ignoring them, the Yankees center fielder responded by stepping out and tipping his hat, prompting more cheers from the sellout crowd. Unfortunately for Damon, his class didn't translate into offense as he went hitless in four at-bats in a 7-3 Boston win.
"I felt like I had to salute the fans because they were always great to me here and I know now they're just booing the uniform. They appreciated everything I did and how I played the game," Damon said. "I'm just disappointed we didn't come out swinging the bats better."
Like his star outfielder, Yankees skipper Joe Torre came into Monday with his eyes and ears wide open, anticipating the reaction from the sellout crowd of 36, 339.
"I was a little disappointed at the reaction by the fans," Torre said. "I guess we should feel proud, because evidently wearing a Yankees uniform overrides winning the World Series and busting your tail for four years. Without Johnny here, they may have been working on 89 or 90 years. It's too bad they don't appreciate that more than the fact that he's wearing our uniform.
"I don't think it affected anything, but you'd have to be a robot not to have emotion from that. He's a class act. He sensed what was going to happen when he got here."
His manager and teammates weren't the only ones impressed.
"He handled it great," Red Sox slugger David Ortiz said after his three-run, eight-inning homer assured Damon's return would be in a loss to his former team. "Johnny's a great guy. He's a funny guy with a great personality. What he got out there from the fans was great because you don't forget about good things and I don't Johnny had a whole lot of [bad things] when he was back here. Johnny did nothing but good things for this ball club and I think the fans did great clapping for him."
Damon's first at-bat ended with a fly out to former teammate Trot Nixon in right on a 2-1 count.
After the Yankees went in order, it was Damon's turn to take the field and patrol center. Some fans were quick to greet him by throwing out dollar bills from the center field bleachers. He did not get a fielding chance in the opening inning.
About three hours earlier, Damon walked into the Red Sox interview room at Fenway Park. He was far from alone.
There were no fewer than 17 cameras, 60 reporters and photographers and one makeshift Yankees banner hanging in front of a brick wall with Red Sox sponsored advertisements. The highly anticipated return of the center fielder who helped the Red Sox to their first world title in 86 years was previewed in the form of a pregame news conference carried live by several sports and news networks.
For those who thought Johnny Damon returning to Fenway Park for the first time in a Yankee uniform would be a media event, Monday was living proof.
Damon sat patiently and answered questions for 17 minutes, with the topics ranging from his feelings for his old team, his thoughts on his new team and what it was like entering Fenway Park for the first time since signing a four-year, $52 million contract with Boston's archrival.
But the most common line of questioning revolved around his feelings for the Boston fans and what type of reception he expected once he stepped into the batter's box for the first time to lead off the first.
"I'm just really excited about taking the field," Damon said. "I believe this might be my 17-hundreth game or so I've played, so the butterflies have kind of stopped. Even my first game with the Yankees this year, there were no butterflies, just excitement."
"The boos aren't really what I'm thinking about right now," Damon told the audience. "I'm thinking about how I want the wind to change direction so Wakefield's knuckleball isn't all over the place. I'm used to being booed. I got booed so much in different ballparks just because I had long hair and just because that's in people's nature. I can't control that." hair and just because that's in people's nature. I can't control that."
Someone who did not make the trip and won't be subject to possible catcalls is Damon's wife, Michelle, who instead stayed back in New York.
"She wanted to be here to support me, but they can get carried away and she stands out," Damon said.
Red Sox skipper Terry Francona had only fond memories of managing Damon the last two seasons.
"I know how I feel about it," Francona said. "I know how I'll always feel about it. He's one of the most special guys I've ever been around. That will never change. Saying that, we have to face him 19 times this year and probably more. I hope he gets no hits against us. That's not going to happen. I don't want him to help a good team be better, but I'm very fond of him. I think he knows that. How fans react, I actually didn't waste much time thinking about it."
Damon can now look forward to another 18 games against the Red Sox this season.
"It's never going to be over," Damon said of his memories from 2002-05 in a Red Sox uniform. "I'm playing for the New York Yankees now and we play Boston 19 times a year now. It's never going to be over. They boo the Yankee team."
Mike Petraglia is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.