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Johnny just wants to be Johnny - minus hair

\'Affable\' star Damon just what Yanks need

Johnny just wants to be Johnny - minus hair

Going back to the winter of Mike Mussina, the Yankees have had at least one of these meet-the-new-star press conferences for each of the last six winters. This is the first one where the new star didn't wear a tie.

Take that as a good sign, because it's also the first one where the new star didn't seem at least a bit overwhelmed, uncomfortable, or in the case of an apologetic Randy Johnson last year, embarrassed by the magnitude of the event.

Johnny Damon may have cut his hair for the Yankees, but on his first day in pinstripes there was no sense that he will mute his colorful personality just because he has jumped from Red Sox Nation to baseball's version of corporate America.

"I have to be myself," Damon said. "The fun-loving, easy-going . . . "

Here Damon paused every so briefly, and all but winked at a roomful of media as he delivered the punch line:

" . . short-haired guy."

At that moment you couldn't help but think about the Jason Giambi press conference four years ago. Famous for being the let-it-all-hang-out leader of the A's (and teammate of Damon's at the time), Giambi cried upon being introduced as a Yankee, realizing he was living out his father's dream, and though it made for a touching moment, you knew right there the lovable rebel in him had died.

No rebel

Damon is no rebel, his old hairstyle notwithstanding, but as a ballplayer and teammate he is indeed lovable, and in a Yankee clubhouse full of superstars who often seem to live on their own islands, his new team could use a galvanizing social force.

Maybe a little bonding could be the intangible to get them over the championship hump again. On a team where the all-or-nothing expectations have weighed heavily in recent years, maybe Damon is the right guy to help lighten the load.

As he recalled on Friday, the Red Sox clubhouse was not a fun place to be when he showed up back in 2002.

"I remember my first day there," he said on Friday. "It was the lousiest clubhouse. It was quiet, everyone was so uptight about the media. But we turned that around pretty quick.

"We made it a fun place to be. It should be fun. We're playing baseball for a living."

That may sound simplistic, and as Damon, the self-proclaimed "idiot," is the first to admit, he is not a deep thinker. But as he pointed out indirectly, part of having fun as a team is coming to grips with the responsibility of dealing with the media - a task the Yankees liken to prison detail.

"We made everyone (in Boston) realize they had a responsibility," Damon said. "I made myself very accessible to the media."

There is a fine line in the clubhouse in that regard. Often players who give too much time to the media are judged and resented by teammates as self-promoters, but Damon has an innocence about him - in addition to a well-earned reputation as a gamer - that made him as popular with his Red Sox teammates as he was with the fans in Boston.

Yes, it seems that everybody likes Johnny Damon, and it wasn't hard to see why Friday, as he handled the big-event press conference with an ease and friendliness that clearly wasn't staged. He played to the media, rubbing his hairless chin while asking how everyone liked his new look. He responded to the blinding flash of cameras in his face by saying, "Thank you, and obviously, keep on snapping away."

He even threw his arms around the shoulders of Joe Torre and Brian Cashman as they stood on either side of him, posing for more pictures, turning what is usually an awkward moment at these events into something that looked more like a reunion of old friends.

None of this would matter much if Damon weren't also just the player the Yankees need to fill their hole in center field and give them the most imposing lineup in baseball.

But it does matter because Damon's personality, as well as his performance in the high-pressure atmosphere in Boston, make him one big-ticket free agent who should make a seamless transition to New York.

Full throttle

It matters because Damon's personality is what makes him so popular. On the field he's full-throttle at all times; off it he's peace, love, and let's go have a beer.

And while Cashman disputes the notion of the corporate Yankees, he told Damon while courting him that he doesn't want him to change a thing. Except the hair, of course.

"I told him I want the Johnny they had in Boston," Cashman said Friday. "I don't want him to conform to what the perception is here. When he shows up for work, he has an infectious impact on other guys, from what I understand.

"I want the real guy. There's a reason he's likeable. I want that."

It appears he got it. Good thing. The Yankees need it.