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The man who was quite literally the face of the Boston Red Sox lives in a house that reminds him why he is a New York Yankee. From the basketball hoop in the driveway to the infinity edge of the backyard pool that seems to gurgle right into Lake Butler below in this gated slice of central Florida renowned for its jock aristocracy, it is all furnished and maintained and its tax payments subsidized by Yankee dollars. Johnny Damon moved in a year ago, fresh from helping Boston win its first world championship in 86 years, but from where he sits now--at the big, circular wooden kitchen table, his beard grown thick and his hair shaggy again a month after being famously cleaned up for his introduction as a Yankee in December--his grand home represents how much more New York wanted him than Boston did. "Three million a year over four years: $12 million," Damon, 32, says, spreading his arms wide to emphasize the gap between what the Red Sox ($40 million) and the Yankees ($52 million) thought he was worth over the next four seasons. "A $12 million difference, which means owning this house free and clear for the rest of my life." The beautiful home, which Damon shares with his wife, Michelle, and his six-year-old twins, Madelyn and Jackson, is tastefully decorated. The framed baseball jerseys, baseball-themed paintings and photos and various other game-related mementos that had filled the main living area of his previous house, about a mile away, are now confined to a conservatory in back with a postcard view of the lake. There are, however, two significant totems of his Red Sox past not consigned there.
The first hangs prominently in the dining room above an arched portal that leads to the kitchen. It is visible, if you look to your left, immediately upon setting foot through the front door. It is a carefully replicated, 40-by-20-inch canvas print of Da Vinci's Last Supper.
Except, wait. Wait just a minute. Is that...? It is. Where Jesus should be, that's ... that's Johnny in the middle of the table with his arms out, palms upward.
And that's not Bartholomew on the far left, it's Terry Francona, the Red Sox manager. And James the Younger is Curt Schilling, the Boston pitcher. The whole lot of them, in fact, are Red Sox. Or used to be, back in 2004 when they were the kind of world champions, like the '55 Dodgers, '85 Bears or '69-70 Knicks, who, no matter what else they do or where else they go, will forever define a civic happening, not just a season.
"Kind of sad. Six gone already," Damon says, gazing at the print and counting off himself, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Pedro Martinez, Doug Mirabelli and Manny Ramirez, who remains with the team despite sporadic trade requests. "Well, he's next. Manny was one of the guys who told me I should go. I asked him, 'Do you want me to tell people that?' He said, 'I don't care.'"
What would Johnny do? For two rollicking years in Boston, when the long-locked, bearded Damon looked the part of the Nazarene, the parishioners of Red Sox Nation joyfully co-opted that popular modern Christian guidepost for the conscience. That very question, which had come to represent the height of their belief, degenerated, however, into their worst fear in December as Damon, a free agent, pondered whether to re-sign with Boston or defect to the Yankees, the same team for which he had said last May he would "never" play.
"Yeah, but people always cut off what I said," Damon says. "The rest of it was that I'd never go to New York unless the Red Sox disrespected me. That's always left out. For them to think my best days are behind me, they've got to be kidding."
On his way out the door in Boston, Damon was praised by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino as "a team leader," "an offensive force," "a cult figure" and "the personification of the franchise." Shorn of his trademark locks and his symbiotic relationship with his teammates and fans, can Damon possibly have the same impact on the properly pinstriped Yankees? What will Johnny do? The answer may have something to do with what is tucked inside a plastic bag in a drawer in his bathroom. That is the other significant relic from his Red Sox career not in his conservatory.
damon became a cult figure--even a better player--precisely because he did not act like a Yankee. He showed up for spring training in 2004 in Fort Myers, Fla., with the Biblical look after a concussion suffered in the previous postseason left him in no mood to shave or trim his hair. He wasn't sure how the club would react, but general manager Theo Epstein took one look and told him to keep it, with this blessing: "We're not the Yankees."