By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 2, 2006
BOSTON, May 1 -- In the months and weeks and days leading up to Johnny Damon's return to Fenway Park on Monday night, every Boston Red Sox fan had to compute a complex mathematical equation in his or her own mind -- weighing the opposite forces of good and evil. For four years, Damon was their beloved Idiot. He won a World Series for them. They loved him. He loved them back. This was a considerable quantity of good.
But at 7:13 p.m., when Damon stepped into the batter's box at Fenway wearing NEW YORK across his chest, it was clear how that mathematical equation had been resolved in the majority of minds and hearts. No force of good, not even the accumulated good of Damon's time in Boston, could equal the hatred of the Yankees and, by extension, Damon's choice this winter to join them.
Love of Johnny has a limit. Hatred of the Yankees is infinite.
So of the 36,339 fans who crammed into the old bandbox on Yawkey Way to witness Damon's return, the vast majority of them turned against him. They rose to their feet, cupped their hands to their mouths and booed, overwhelming a smattering of cheers. When Damon answered by stepping back and doffing his batting helmet, the gesture seemed forced, a case of selective hearing.
"The fans aren't booing me," Damon said. "They're booing the uniform I'm in."
Damon's return to Boston was the focal point of the buildup to the first of 19 games this season in the storied rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees. However, by game time, the glow of Damon's return was nearly eclipsed by that of backup catcher Doug Mirabelli, whom the Red Sox reacquired Monday morning then hustled across the country just in time to catch Monday night's game.
And by the end of the game, as Damon was going hitless in four at-bats, the night belonged to Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, whose three-run homer off Yankees lefty Mike Myers broke open a tight game in the bottom of the eighth inning and lifted the Red Sox to a 7-3 win.
Damon could have gone to any one of the 28 other teams in baseball and his reception at Fenway Park upon his return would have been perfectly fine, even poignant. But because he chose the Yankees, with whom he signed a four-year, $52 million deal over the winter after the Red Sox held firm to an offer for $12 million less, he was deemed undeserving of a hero's welcome back.
Fans showed up early and booed Damon during batting practice. They booed his name during the PA announcement of the starting lineups. They tossed fake money at him. And because Damon bats leadoff for the Yankees, the night's big moment came right away.
For every fan cheering, it sounded like there were a hundred booing, but Damon only heard the former, and he stepped out of the batter's box to doff his helmet in all directions -- including toward the Red Sox' bench, where several ex-teammates leaning on the railing stood and joined the minority contingent of applauders.
"I heard more cheers than jeers," Damon said, explaining his gesture, "so I was going to do it regardless."
As Damon patrolled center field for the Yankees, the crowd taunted him with a chant of "Trai-tor! Trai-tor!"
Still, such is the culture of Red Sox Nation that the majority of the pregame buzz was not about the return of Damon, but about the return of Mirabelli, who reprised his role as the personal catcher for knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who, it just so happened, was starting Monday night.
Nothing that would occur in the actual game, besides perhaps Ortiz's homer, could have been half as dramatic as the race to get Mirabelli from San Diego to Fenway Park in time to catch. If that race failed, Wakefield would have to be paired -- horrors! -- with starting catcher Jason Varitek, who had not attempted to catch Wakefield since committing three passed balls in a single inning in the 2004 AL Championship Series.
The Red Sox chartered a jet to carry their man home, but there was still the matter of dealing with the notorious Boston traffic at the tail end of the evening rush, a problem the Red Sox solved by arranging for a police escort -- perhaps the only one in history ever accorded to a .182 hitter.
"The whole time on the flight I'm thinking there's no possible way this is going to work out," Mirabelli said.
The drama, however, ended at 7:07 p.m., when the public address announcer, reciting the night's starting lineups, got to the eighth spot in the Red Sox' order and said, "Batting eighth, the catcher, Doug Mira -- "
The rest of the announcement was drowned out, as the crowd rose to its feet and roared its approval. A breathless Red Sox public relations employee announced in the press box that Mirabelli had touched down at 6:48 p.m. (this was later amended to indicate Mirabelli had, in fact, "disembarked" at that time) and arrived at Fenway Park at 7 p.m., changing into his uniform en route.
A few seconds after Mirabelli crouched behind the plate, Damon strode toward the batter's box and the fans' warm cheers turned to icy boos. But perhaps what Damon was hearing in his mind was the echo of Mirabelli's greeting and the memory of how that once felt, how it felt to be the darling of Fenway.