Newcomer Damon works room in saying hello
TAMPA, Fla. -- Johnny Damon walked into the manager's office, surprising Joe Torre, then circled the clubhouse, greeting his new teammates with a smile, handshakes and pats on the back.
Damon is the new guy on the Yankees, taking over as center fielder and leadoff hitter. Even though the first workout for position players isn't until Wednesday, he showed up early at Legends Field, wanting to "get off to a good start and say hi and kind of get things rolling."
So wearing a baseball cap backward and a tank top that showed off his bulging arms, he introduced himself to players he didn't know and reacquainted himself with his former competitors.
"This is going to be my family for the season and for the next four seasons," he said. "It is definitely very important."
It was reminiscent of the scene exactly three years earlier, when Hideki Matsui met his Yankees teammates, going around the room and bowing to some. While Matsui was somewhat unknown, having come from Japan, the Yankees are quite familiar with Damon, who spent the past four seasons with the Boston Red Sox.
While no longer grungy -- the long locks have been trimmed to a length more pleasing to owner George Steinbrenner -- Damon remains the gregarious guy Boston fans grew to love.
"Everybody knows that I'm the type of guy that I am," he said. "I'd rather go around, say hi to players first, instead of getting my locker space ready or whatnot. I think it's very important, very important to be part of a team and I've always been able to mix well with every team I've been on."
New York hasn't had a top leadoff hitter since Chuck Knoblauch. Damon batted .316 for Boston last season with 117 runs, 10 homers, 75 RBI and 18 steals. The left-handed hitter's power numbers could rise because of Yankee Stadium's short right-field porch -- the one he hit a grand slam over in Game 7 of the AL Championship Series.
Torre is looking for energy both on and off the field.
"There's a certain element of toughness that's going to help any team," the manager said, likening Damon's style of play to that of Derek Jeter. "He can give you a dimension that you don't normally have."
Damon met with Steinbrenner on Feb. 2 but didn't come across the Yankees owner Saturday. Damon intends to play for the United States in next month's inaugural World Baseball Classic, a tournament Steinbrenner opposes.
As of now, Damon is "100 percent committed" to the tournament. But he was unaware of Steinbrenner's feelings until reporters informed him.
"I agreed to be on the team when I was a free agent. I'll definitely listen to what he has to say," he said, adding that the issue would be discussed "behind closed doors."
Speaking later with reporters, Steinbrenner said he was "very excited" Damon was with the Yankees and that Damon "has his right to choose what he wants to do" as far as the invitation to play in the tournament, which runs from March 3-20.
"It's a lot of time, but he's a good player. He'll be all right," Steinbrenner said.
For now, with spring training just under way and no losing streak possible for weeks, mutual praise was flowing.
"I always loved him as an owner because he always wants to win," Damon said.
Damon takes over in center from Bernie Williams, who had held the job since 1993. Williams won Gold Gloves from 1997-2000 but his defense deteriorated in recent seasons. While Damon has a poor arm, he can cover far more ground.
Williams remains with the Yankees, projected to see a lot of time at designated hitter and back up the starting outfielders.
"We're going to talk a lot," Damon said. "Bernie and I have gotten along great over the years. I'm not here to replace him. Bernie has a job that he's going to help contribute with the Yankees still."
At times last year, especially in the first half of the season, the Yankees appeared to lack energy on the field. They are an older team, with nearly all starters over 30.
While Damon is 32, he is looked at as a spark.
"The only thing I've said to him is: 'You've already established who you are. There's nothing for you to do that has to be any different from that,' " Torre said. "The way I judge people is not necessarily where they go eat dinner or where they build a house, it's just how they play between the lines. And the way he plays the game, it would be tough for him not to fit in anywhere."
Mariano Rivera pitched off a mound for the first time this year. "First day I don't think it will be all there, but I was happy with the results," he said.
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press
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