By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006
TAMPA, Feb. 22 -- Center fielder Johnny Damon, the once-shaggy and bearded soul of the Boston Red Sox who traded his wild locks to join the rival New York Yankees, participated in the club's first official workout Wednesday only to be upstaged by George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' 75-year-old principal owner.
Agitated that the Yankees have not won the World Series since 2000 but buoyed because the team cleared another hurdle in its pursuit of an $800 million ballpark to replace 83-year-old Yankee Stadium, Steinbrenner told the rest of Major League Baseball not to bother competing with the Yankees this year.
"We haven't won it for a while," he said. "We are going to win it this year. We are getting after it this year."
Though just the first full day of spring training at Legends Field, it was a day of flexing muscles, rhetorically and physically. The Yankees are formidable. With the exception of second baseman Robinson Cano, each position player earns at least $10 million annually, including third baseman Alex Rodriguez, the game's highest-paid player and reigning American League most valuable player, and Damon, who signed a four-year, $52 million contract to leave Boston. The Yankees will spend more than $200 million on player salaries, which is nearly double the payrolls of the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals combined.
Buttressing Steinbrenner's proclamation, Yankees Manager Joe Torre held a closed-door meeting with his team, telling them that winning the World Series will be the only acceptable goal this season.
"Every time the Yankees go to spring training, you have to think World Series," Torre said, before an oddly good-natured Steinbrenner crashed Torre's media briefing and sat on the couch. "I don't think that's disrespectful to other clubs, but that speaks to the pressure of playing here."
Right fielder Gary Sheffield said Torre's stirring remarks were reminiscent of the words of his former manager Jim Leyland, with whom Sheffield won a World Series championship with Florida in 1997.
"When he talks, you know what time it is. When he says it, it's clear," Sheffield said of Torre. "This one was a little more intense. I felt the conviction. Today, it was different. It was 'We're going to do it this time.' "
And at the center of the afternoon Wednesday was Damon. Once the embodiment of the Red Sox' transformation from snake-bitten underachievers to irreverent World Series champions -- his wild hair and thick beard, as well as his grand slam against the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS, created something of a cult following among Red Sox fans -- Damon is now clean-shaven, shorn of locks and sounds immediately indoctrinated to the Yankee Way. He took a few swings at batting practice and received a raucous ovation from fans.
"It was a big change, but one that needed to be done," Damon said of swapping sides in the sport's best rivalry. "I definitely gave them every opportunity, until the last 20 minutes. So it was something that all season long as a fan looking in you'd never think that it would get to this point. But it did and I jumped on the opportunity, knowing that this team is going to go out and get the best players."
It was the latest episode in the private soap opera that has defined the recent history of the Yankees and Red Sox, who, for the last four years have lived within their own self-contained baseball universe.
Since 2002, they have played each other 90 times, with each team winning 45 games. In consecutive American League Championship Series in 2003 and 2004, each stunned the other with remarkable seven-game, pennant-clinching victories.
Since 2000, the Yankees and Red Sox have led the major leagues in player spending, last year combining for $328 million in team payroll. They have coveted the same marquee players too rich for the rest of the baseball world, from Cuban defector Jose Contreras to Rodriguez.
But Damon's arrival didn't signify another escalation in the ongoing feud between Boston and New York, as there was little discussion of the Red Sox. Damon is reunited with Jason Giambi, the Yankees first baseman who was his teammate in Oakland in 2001. Giambi, embattled in New York by injury, a steroid scandal and a discomfort with the cold impersonality of the Yankees, is ecstatic about Damon's arrival. Their lockers are inches apart.
"My time in Boston was great and that's why I did give them every opportunity," Damon said. "But now, I'm here, playing for the greatest franchise in the world, the team with the most championships."