Sox cuckoo for Coco

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Johnny Damon’s replacement is fitting in nicely with Boston.

FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) – Coco Crisp is very quick out of the box.

Whether speeding down the line after hitting the ball or joking with writers, Boston’s latest charismatic center fielder wastes little time – just as it hasn’t taken long for Johnny Damon’s image to become a seldom-mentioned memory in the Red Sox clubhouse.

Crisp has made a smooth transition as Damon’s replacement in the outfield, the leadoff spot and the light-hearted interview. One session began with a question about developing chemistry with the new No. 2 hitter, Mark Loretta.

“I’m pretty excited about our handshake that we made up,” Crisp said with a soft voice and a straight face. “You’ll see it as it comes, develops. But to start the year off by doing that handshake would be something special. But, on a serious note…”

About an hour later, he made another fast start when he led off the bottom of the first inning with a single and raced to third on a wild pickoff throw by former teammate Bronson Arroyo in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to Cincinnati.

Crisp, traded from Cleveland where he hit .300 with 16 homers and 69 RBIs last year, has been running hard all spring training.

In one game, he singled with two outs then ran so fast on Loretta’s fly to left that he had rounded third by the time it was caught. In his next at-bat, Crisp hustled on a double, a hurried relay throw flew into Boston’s dugout and he came around to score in a 3-1 win over Baltimore on March 19.

Crisp has a simple approach to base running.

“I’m thinking, run hard until I can’t run any more,” he said. “They’ll stop me, not the coaches but the (opposing) players. So if they fumble, slip, break a toenail, something out there, (you) never know what can happen, so just keep going.”

Manager Terry Francona has a more concise explanation.

“When he hits the ball,” Francona said. “he runs like his pants are on fire and I love that.”

Crisp led all Boston’s regulars with a .449 batting average going into the final two exhibition games today and Sunday in Philadelphia before Monday’s season opener in Texas. He stole eight bases and wasn’t caught once.

Like Damon, who signed as a free agent with the New York Yankees, Crisp is sure to bring excitement to Fenway Park. His main focus is baseball, but he doesn’t just sit on a couch and watch TV shows when he’s away from the field.

He creates them.

With his godbrother Marcus, Crisp is a 50-50 owner of a production company that’s working on five potential shows – four of the reality genre – and one movie.

“We’ve grown up together since we were two years old,” Crisp said of himself and Marcus. “When you don’t have money we’d go to Pick’n Save or 99 Cents store and buy something like a little ball and make a game out of it. So we were being creative at a young age and just end up bringing it to a bigger scale.”

Crisp’s first name is Covelli and his grandmother called him Co. Then his sister Sheileah and Marcus changed it to Coco to sound like Cocoa Krispies cereal.

His off-field priority is being with his wife and daughter, he said, but, “When I have time I can sit back, relax, talk on the phone” about developing the shows, he said, “instead of sitting back and playing PlayStation. I’ve actually grown up a little bit.”

Crisp also sang a rap song, “We Got That Thing” on an album with baseball players performing other songs. And he’s CEO of a record label, Big Money Connections, that just signed its first performer, Infra-Redd.

With Boston, he’s played well in centerfield and will team up with Loretta to set the stage for sluggers David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, who hit third and fourth. Loretta, traded from San Diego, has a .375 exhibition batting average with two homers and five RBIs.

“Coco will be running. He’ll be stealing some bases,” said Loretta, a good contact hitter who can execute the hit-and-run well, “but we don’t want to make any unnecessary outs in front of those guys. There’s a certain level of understanding we’ll have between ourselves.”

And plenty of confidence.

“The way he carries himself,” Francona said of Crisp, “you can tell he feels like we’re going to win.”

Damon, 32, was Boston’s leadoff hitter the past four years. Crisp, 26, said his transitions from batting second and playing left field in Cleveland have been smooth.

He says he’ll play his own game and not take on pressure of succeeding Damon. But might he appear in commercials in Boston like Damon did?

“Johnny definitely had the long hair, the rock star thing. I would cast him in one of my movies,” said Crisp, who has very short hair, “but I have my own off-field stuff.”

Crisp has had at least one endorsement. Or so he said.

“I had this one where it was dog food, where they wanted me to actually bite the dog food and say, “it’s so good even humans will eat it,’ ” he said.

Then a smile crept slowly across his face.

“I’m just joking,” Crisp said.

AP-ES-03-31-06 1852EST

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