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Yankees shock Red Sox by signing Damon to contract

Yankees shock Red Sox by signing Damon to contract

All summer, Johnny Damon assured Red Sox Nation he could never sleep with the enemy. Not him, not the bearded, wild-haired rebel who called the Yankees "too corporate."

All winter, the Bombers said they'd never give into Damon's outrageous demand for a seven-year, US$84 million contract.

All along, both sides were moving closer to each other.

In the most shocking development of the off-season, the Yankees came to terms with Damon, agreeing in principle late Tuesday night on a four-year, US$53 million contract that rocked not just Boston's baseball community, but the entire industry. The 31-year-old Damon, who was the face of the team that ended the Fenway curse, will now wear pinstripes and inherit the post-Bernie Williams era.

Naturally, both sides can claim victory: Damon's per-year salary is even higher than what he'd initially asked for, even if he never came close to the seven-year commitment Scott Boras had said was unshakable. But people close to Damon say he was becoming increasingly nervous at the pace and direction of the talks. Boras had attempted to involve at least four teams, but one of them, the Orioles, were never serious, and the Dodgers dropped out this week when they signed Kenny Lofton to a one-year deal.

That left the Yankees and Red Sox, and the belief among most baseball executives was that Yankee GM Brian Cashman was engaged only to force Boston to ultimately overpay for Damon. But the Red Sox stung Damon with their initial three-year, US$30 million offer, giving the Yankees an opportunity to negotiate in earnest.

Even though they got Damon down to four years, as they'd insisted, the Yankees indeed paid handsomely. Damon's US$13.25 million year average was at least US$1 million-$2 million more than Cashman had wanted to pay. But in the last 24 hours, the GM apparently changed direction, telling co-workers of a need for greater offense.

Indeed, Damon gives the Yankees a bona fide leadoff hitter who'll allow Derek Jeter to bat second - cloning the formula that made the lineup nearly uncontainable in 1998-1999, when Chuck Knoblauch was batting first. As Boras said not long ago, "You put Johnny and Jeter one-and-two, and now pitchers are going to have to deal with the middle of that Yankee lineup. This way, the Yankees don't get schooled the way they did by the Angels (in the Division Series) by pitching around A-Rod."

Not long ago, Alex Rodriguez called Damon and Ichiro Suzuki the best leadoff hitters in the game - a comment that caught Jeter's attention, and, according to mutual friends, irritated the shortstop. Jeter scored more runs and had a higher on-base percentage than Damon in 2005. And, even more to the point, Damon has only a .252 career average at Yankee Stadium.

Still, Damon is an upgrade over both Williams and Bubba Crosby in center and gives the Yankees nearly unmatched durability. He's played in 145 or more games for 10 straight seasons without being on the disabled list, a feat that only Cal Ripken can match. Damon has also scored 100-plus runs in eight straight seasons. He'll play the 2006 season at age 32, and although he did receive a cortisone shot in his left shoulder in 2005, there's no reason to believe he won't withstand another four summers.

His Achilles heel, though, is defense. Despite good first-step instincts and above-average speed, Damon has no antidote for a weak throwing arm. American League base runners who'd grown accustomed to going first-to-third on Williams will similarly exploit Damon - a handicap the Yankees will have to live with.

The Yankees' upside rests in having weakened the Red Sox, who are now scrambling for a replacement center fielder. Until they find one, the Yankees have instantly become the favorites again in the East, an on-paper title they'd lost after the Sox acquired Josh Beckett. The Bombers still have question marks in the starting rotation. Randy Johnson and Mike Mussina are a year older, not better. And Carl Pavano's shoulder are still a reason for concern. If the Yankees have any remaining deficits, it's knowing whom to trust in a big game, or big series. But they've taken care of their most immediate crises this winter - bolstering the bullpen and finding someone to patrol the hallowed ground that once belonged to Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.

Damon is everything those in-the-blood Yankees were not. Hair and beard, and right behind enemy lines. But the moment Damon slips on the pinstripes (as well as shaves and cuts his hair) this unlikely marriage will be complete. Talk about odd couples.