- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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Yankees' executives had said all along that they would not go crazy to sign Johnny Damon. They would talk about three or four years, nothing more.
Scott Boras, the player's agent, initially asked for seven years, and the Yankees said no way. Six years? Nope. Five years and a vesting option for a sixth year? No.
As recently as Monday, some Yankees' officials were convinced that they really didn't have a shot at Damon, that eventually, the Boston Red Sox would take control of the bidding; Damon had become such an important player to the Red Sox, particularly in a winter in which slugger Manny Ramirez had indicated he wanted to be traded.
But as Boston maintained its stance of a four-year offer, the contract term asked for by Boras gradually came within range of the Yankees. Boras indicated Damon would talk about four years.
"It was like we were hunting duck," said a New York official Tuesday night. "We were not going to go to five years or beyond, but if he wanted to talk about four years, we were going to be aggressive and take our shot."
On Tuesday, Yankees officials told Boras they needed an answer by midnight, because there was a possibility that another center fielder would become available -- maybe someone like Corey Patterson of the Cubs. If Damon wouldn't take their four-year, $52 million offer, they were going to go in another direction.
For the Damon camp, this was crucial: If the Yankees had gone out and made a deal for Patterson or some other center fielder, Damon's leverage in dealing with Boston, and getting the Red Sox to move off of their four-year offer, would have been gone. Without any indication that Boston was going to budge to a fifth-year, Damon and Boras bit on the Yankees' offer, immediately shifting the balance of power in the American League East.
Damon is, for now, exactly what the Yankees needed: A center fielder who could hit leadoff. Last year, Damon had 197 hits and 53 walks, including 51 extra-base hits, and now he will bat ahead of three players who might be Hall of Famers, eventually -- Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. He'll hit ahead of Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui and Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano, and give the Yankees improved athleticism at a time when the team is starved for speed.
At the same time, the Damon deal is devastating for the Red Sox. They've seen other parts of their lineup undergo change, with the departure of Bill Mueller, the change at shortstop with the departure of Edgar Renteria. They had added proven veterans in Mike Lowell and Mark Loretta, but the lineup that had begun to take shape was filled with a lot of guys who can't run. As long as Damon was re-signed, to hit in front of David Ortiz and Ramirez, the key components of an offense that averaged six runs per game would remain in place.
Now, however, the Red Sox are left to scramble, having seen one of their best players defect to their hated rival. Now it's Boston that will be left to sift through imperfect solutions -- perhaps a deal for Seattle center fielder Jeremy Reed, a talented but unproven player, or the acquisition of Patterson. Now it is the Red Sox who don't have a center fielder.
The loss of Damon will be cast against the backdrop of Boston's front office alterations this offseason. Whoever was calling the shots in the last week -- John Henry, or Larry Lucchino, or co-general managers with an advisor whispering in their ears -- the failure to re-sign Damon can't be viewed, within the current market, as anything other than a colossal mistake. Boston had the power and the resources to control these negotiations, in the end, to take the Damon bidding out of range of the Yankees, and the Red Sox needed to keep Damon. In a winter in which Rafael Furcal got three years and $39 million, and in the first winter after J.D. Drew signed a five-year, $55 million deal with the Dodgers, a five-year contract for Damon would have been reasonable -- and that's about where the Yankees thought Boston would take the bidding, and win it.
But one of the game's best leadoff hitters fell into their laps, and they are happy to take him.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.