- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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TAMPA, Fla. -- It is early morning in the Yankees' clubhouse as Johnny Damon breezes through the door. He's wearing the spring's standard-issue shorts and sandals, but Damon's stress-free aura has more to do with his demeanor than his fashion choices.
It's the way he openly makes social plans with Jason Giambi, a former A's teammate and now his closest buddy in pinstripes. Even at 8:30 a.m., having made a 75-mile commute from his home in Orlando, Damon is in an impossibly good mood.
Damon doesn't chat with visitors to his locker, he bonds. He makes eye contact. He listens. He trusts you, breaking all the social rules for the modern-day ballplayer.
Alex Rodriguez spent only a few days observing Damon before deciding, "You won't find a more honest person anywhere."
In some ways, Damon is a billboard of corporate success: rich and famous, about to inherit the most glamorous position in professional sports, center field for the Yankees. That lineage goes all the way back to Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and, more recently, Bernie Williams.
But in many ways, Damon represents everything the Yankees are not, particularly in his self-deprecating humor and his appreciation of the fact that he was once The Enemy.
Now Damon has climbed over the walls into the empire. The beard is gone, the hair has been cut to Steinbrenner-regulation (or close enough). Instead of unpredictable Manny Ramirez and charismatic David Ortiz, Damon is now surrounded by the chillier Derek Jeter, the regal A-Rod and the volatile Gary Sheffield.
As different as he is from the other Yankees, though, Damon seems to be fitting in just fine -- careful to pay his respects to Jeter, the captain.
"This is still Derek's team, I've said that from the beginning," Damon said. "Even when he was a young player, Derek seemed to know how to handle New York. He was one guy you just knew was going to be a Yankee his whole career. It's his team, with a lot of machines in the room."
The Yankees appreciate the hint of nonconformity that Damon still exudes. He may not look and act like one of them, but the Bombers respect Damon's skill and history in his 12 years in the American League.
After all, it was Damon who single-handedly crushed them in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series with that monstrous grand slam off Javier Vazquez. Those wounds haven't entirely healed, but as much as losing that game (and series) traumatized the Yankees, they never forgot they were beaten by a player who, like a Hemingway hero, exhibited grace under pressure.
"Coming from Boston, one thing you know about Johnny is that he's not going to be intimidated in New York," said Giambi. "He knows what pressure is and he's not going to let it change him."
Said A-Rod: "Johnny is going to be the most straightforward guy in our clubhouse. We've needed someone like that because we've always been so cautious."
Rodriguez went on to say that Damon had a "perfect personality" to be a Yankee star -- no small endorsement, considering the recent out-of-towners have all struggled at the outset, including Giambi, Randy Johnson and A-Rod himself.
Giambi came to the Yankees a year after his MVP season in Oakland. Johnson had struck out almost 300 batters in his last summer in Arizona. A-Rod was the AL's Most Valuable Player in 2003. All three were ultimately choked by the tentacles of New York's expectations.
Damon, however, isn't being asked to carry the Yankees -- only get on base, steal bases, cover more ground than Williams. As A-Rod put it, "No one's going to be asking Johnny 'what's wrong?' if he has only six home runs in May. His game is more conducive to a smooth transition."
That burden has been eased by Williams, the very person Damon is replacing. After patrolling center field since 1991, Williams has given Damon his public blessing.
"To say you've played center field for the New York Yankees, that's probably the one or two most important positions in sports," Williams said.
"There's a lot of history there. Those are big shoes to fill. But I feel good about Johnny. I feel good knowing [center field] is going to be in good hands."
There's an unmistakable graciousness in Williams' assessment of Damon; an unspoken acknowledgement that everything Bernie can do, Damon now does better. Such friendliness doesn't go unnoticed by Damon, who says, "Everyone has gone out of their way to make me feel a part of the team.
"People thought it would be hard to change sides in this rivalry because the personalities are so different. But in some ways it's the same here as it was with the Red Sox -- there's a common goal, getting to the World Series. Everything I've seen the Yankees do, they do with class."
Of course, this spring training rhetoric will eventually morph into a wearier, day-by-day narrative. The Yankees should score plenty of runs this summer and win 60-65 percent of their games, but just like any other team, they'll suffer through bad games, losing streaks and periodic crises.
That's when Damon will carve his place in the Yankee universe, when he makes a choice between answering questions truthfully or melting into the background.
Will Damon follow the Yankee code and turn into another watch-what-you-say robot?
A telling, light laugh snuffed out the question.
"I don't know if I can ever watch what I say," said Damon, smiling but definitely not kidding.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
2dInterview by Buster Olney