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Deemed a Traitor, Johnny Damon Returns

By HOWARD ULMAN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, May 2, 2006; 12:27 AM

BOSTON -- He left for the money, and he got even more when he returned.

Johnny Damon was greeted with a mixture of fake money and real bills on the warning track in center when he took the field in his return to Fenway Park on Monday night as a member of the New York Yankees.

It was his first game against the Red Sox since he left as a free agent four months ago for a four-year contract that was worth $12 million more than what Boston offered.

Before he took the field, Damon was greeted by 30 seconds of boos and a smattering of cheers when he stepped into the batter's box as the game's first hitter. The cheers increased when he took off his helmet and waved it to the crowd.

"I heard a lot more cheers than jeers," Damon said after going 0-for-4 in Boston's 7-3 win. "Regardless, I wanted to do it because these fans meant so much to me."

Fans also displayed captious signs, notably "Benedict Damon" and "Judas Demon."

Damon popped out to right field in his first plate appearance. He was nearly at second base when the ball was caught and the fans cheered loudly as he turned and headed back to the dugout.

When he went to center field in the bottom of the first, fans in the bleachers threw the pieces of green paper onto the warning track. A member of the Red Sox grounds crew came out of Boston's bullpen, scooped it up then jumped back over the fence into the bullpen.

"They hate to see players leave here," Damon said. "People around here are born to like the Red Sox."

Before the game, one bearded, middle-aged man tossed the clean-cut Damon a ball from behind the visitors' dugout, a souvenir 2004 World Series ball.

"You remember that, don't you?" the fan asked. "You helped with that. Thank you."

Not everyone felt the same. One female fan wore a Red Sox shirt with tape over Damon's name on the back and the word "Traitor" put in its place.

Damon said he understands some fans are upset that he left but he didn't worry about how they'd react to his first at-bat.

"The fans have been all right. They understand it. They know it's a business," Damon said. "They know I wasn't the first to leave and I'm not going to be the last."

He left last Dec. 23 to accept the Yankees' four-year, $52 million offer. The fact the Red Sox didn't change their four-year, $40 million bid made his decision easier, Damon said.

"I think most people would have done the same thing," he said.

But he retains fond memories of his time at Fenway.

"This place is magical and the team that we had here was very special," said Damon, the center fielder on the team that won the Red Sox first World Series in 86 years. But, "I know that with my personality I can pretty much be happy anywhere."

His current manager isn't surprised.

"Once you get to know his personality, you know he's proud of what he's done here, especially with the World Series," Joe Torre said.

Damon had to shave his beard and cut his hair to comply with the Yankees' grooming code, but that hasn't affected his hitting. He entered the two-game series with a .312 batting average after getting seven hits in his last 12 at-bats. On Saturday, he even matched his single-game high by scoring five runs.

"It's been a great first month," Damon said.

It was a bit unusual entering Fenway Park and having to pass the Red Sox clubhouse to reach the visitors room.

"I started getting tireder and tireder because it's a little further," he said.

Damon was his usual smiling, cheerful, cooperative self before the game. Boston general manager Theo Epstein paid tribute to what he accomplished in his four years in a Red Sox uniform.

"I just appreciate all that he did while he was here and how much he helped us win and wish him the best going forward," Epstein said. "All that goes away the moment the first pitch is thrown but, before then, I think it would be great if he was recognized by the fans."

Damon put a positive spin on his whole journey from Boston icon to New York newcomer and said the transition has been very easy. He even praised Coco Crisp, his replacement with the Red Sox in center field and the leadoff spot.

"You guys are going to love seeing that kid play here, the way he hustles," Damon said. "He's thrown in the spotlight so it helps him out and it helps me out by going to New York.

"So, when it's all said and done, I think everyone's going to be happy."

© 2006 The Associated Press