Damon could get chilly reception in Fenway return


NEW YORK (AP) – Signs were posted in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse Sunday reminding players to pack a coat or jacket for the chilly weather in Boston this week.

Johnny Damon could get an especially cold reception from the fans at Fenway Park.

The speedy center fielder is the first big star to switch sides in baseball’s most bitter rivalry since Roger Clemens in 1999 – and he at least made a two-year stop in Toronto first.

Damon, on the other hand, jumped right from the Red Sox to New York for a $52 million, four-year contract. He returns to Boston with his new team for the first time Monday night, and folks in Beantown are gearing up with T-shirts that read:

“Looked Like Jesus.”

“Throws Like Mary.”

“LOYAL Like Judas.”

“Johnny B GONE!”

“I expect them to cheer what our team accomplished back then. Winning the World Series was pretty awesome,” Damon said. “I expect them to boo the fact that I’m here. That I went over and that I’m playing with a team that truly needed me, truly wanted me.”

A fan favorite all over New England from 2002-05, Damon sparked Boston’s high-powered offense from the leadoff spot and helped lead its band of “idiots” to a World Series championship two years ago – the first for the Red Sox since 1918.

With his long hair, quick smile and colorful quotes, he became one of the most famous people in a baseball-crazy city. Adoring girls and grateful fans followed him like a rock star.

But the love-fest likely ended the minute he left town to join the hated Yankees. George Steinbrenner’s $200 million team is still the Evil Empire as far as Boston fans (and one or two Red Sox executives) are concerned, and the rivalry has been around a lot longer than Damon was.

“Everybody is different on how they feel,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. “Some don’t care. Some care a lot. He spent a long time in Boston. You can’t throw that away. I’m sure it will be mixed … who knows?”

Or, as Boston slugger David Ortiz put it: “It’s going to be a little crazy out there tomorrow.”

Despite some occasional struggles, Damon is off to a strong start in the Big Apple, and he’s coming off a huge weekend against Toronto. He had three hits Sunday in a 4-1 victory over the Blue Jays, making him 6-for-9 in the past two games with two homers and six runs scored.

Batting leadoff in another power-packed lineup, Damon is hitting .312 overall with nine doubles, 22 runs, seven stolen bases and 13 RBIs.

Is he eager to prove the Red Sox made a mistake by letting him get away as a free agent?

“I’m not bitter at them at all. They made a decision. It was a business decision. I commend them for holding their ground and for believing what they believe in,” Damon said. “I would just like to thank the fans. They were awesome. They don’t deserve to have players keep leaving, but it’s been a trend that’s happened in Boston.”

The Yankees lead the AL East by percentage points over Boston heading into the two-game series, the first of 19 meetings between the teams this season. They play eight times in the next 24 days.

“We’ve been there so many times. It never gets boring,” New York third baseman Alex Rodriguez said. “We don’t know them very well. They have a new cast of characters up there except for three or four guys.”

Mike Mussina and Randy Johnson, New York’s two best starters, are not scheduled to pitch in the series. Right-hander Chien-Ming Wang (1-1, 4.80 ERA) takes the mound Monday night against Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield (1-4, 3.90). Shawn Chacon (3-1, 4.56) goes Tuesday night against Red Sox newcomer Josh Beckett (3-1, 4.50).

Boston just finished a 3-6 trip.

“Nobody’s happy around here right now,” Ortiz said Sunday in St. Petersburg, Fla., after a 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay. “We’re coming out of a really bad road trip. We’re better at home than on the road. Going home just puts you back on track.”

Damon will find out quickly Monday night whether going back to Boston will be any fun at all.

“I hope they remember all the great things he did and helped bring them a world championship after 86 years. I know I would if I were a Red Sox fan – but of course I’m not a Red Sox fan,” Rodriguez said. “Everyone in the game respects Johnny Damon and recognizes that he’s a great player and a leader. I just hope they remember that.”

For now, Damon is looking forward to the experience.

“I made a lot of great friends there, a lot of lifelong friends,” he said. “It’s going to be special.”

AP-ES-04-30-06 2037EDT