NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Johnny Damon was beloved in Boston. He was the man who coined the phrase “the idiots,” and then became the consiglieri to Kevin Millar, the unquestioned don of that scruffy-looking and highly successful bunch.
Then, seemingly overnight, he became in the eyes of the Red Sox’s faithful a modern day Judas. He went from being a good fella to the ultimate rat because he joined the Yankees.
The similarities between Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury are eerie. Both were highly productive players for the Red Sox who bolted for the big dollars of the Bronx shortly after winning a World Series in Beantown.
Damon became the target of scorn and ridicule whenever he went back to Fenway in pinstripes, which is where Ellsbury will be Tuesday night when his Yankees arrive for the opener of a three-game series.
“It was definitely tough because I put my heart and soul on the field for them,” Damon told Bleacher Report recently. “And just to see how much the fans really hate Yankee players.”
Damon played an integral role in the Red Sox’s 2004 championship, which ended 86 years of futility and was highlighted by a historic rally from 3-0 down in the ALCS to beat the Yankees. The extremely popular outfielder hit a grand slam at Yankee Stadium in the deciding game to propel the Sox to the World Series for the first time since their infamous loss to the Mets in 1986.
The Red Sox went on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals for the title. Damon finished the 2004 regular season with a .304 average, 20 home runs and a career-high 94 RBI.
He hit .316 with 75 RBI the following season, but the Red Sox were swept in the Division Series by the Chicago White Sox.
Then, after four solid seasons with the Red Sox, including 461 runs scored, a .295 average and 299 RBI, Damon did the unthinkable, signing a four-year, $52 million deal with the Yankees.
And his Fenway nightmare began — never-ending boos, cursing, taunts, you name it.
“The toughest thing for me was the whole experience. That’s why I try not to even think about it anymore. You find out how vicious people are, and how a jersey can change people’s thoughts on you and on people and on society,” Damon said. “It felt like I was the most hated person on the planet, but I understood, and I dealt with it.”
Damon enjoyed four productive seasons with the Yankees, especially when it mattered. During the 2009 postseason, he hit .300 in the ALCS win over the Los Angeles Angels and .364 in the six-game win over the Philadelphia Phillies in the Fall Classic.
“I’m just glad I got another World Series ring in 2009 (with the Yankees). Made it all worthwhile,” Damon said.
As for Ellsbury, he signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees this past winter after helping the Red Sox to their third world title in the last 10 years last fall. He hit .297 during his seven years in Boston, but Ellsbury seemed resigned to the fact that that’s probably not going to matter much to Red Sox fans.
“I can’t compare it with other guys’ situations, but I’m definitely aware of it,” Ellsbury said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve seen how passionate they are. I think they’re all wondering what’s going to happen.”
“I’m sure it’s going to be tough on Ellsbury,” Damon added. “It was a little easier on me because Boston was my third team, and I understood the business side of the game. I believe he’s having a good year so far, which helps.”
Indeed. Ellsbury, who headed into Tuesday night’s opener hitting .338 with a .395 on-base percentage for the Yankees, said he’s got his mind on more important issues, like helping the Yankees improve on their 11-8 start.
“You can’t think about what they’re going to do,” Ellsbury said. “In this game, you can really only focus on what you can do, not worry about all that other stuff that you can’t control. We’ll see what happens. I gave the organization everything I had for a third of my life; nine years in an organization, drafted by them, came up and won two World Series. I left it all on the field.”
Damon said many fans simply don’t understand — or care to understand — the business side of baseball. They never weighed the fact that the Red Sox’s offer to him back in 2006 was $12 million less than what he accepted from the Yankees. He advised Ellsbury not to bother trying to explain himself, especially in Boston.
“The Red Sox own the newspapers, they own the radio station, they own NESN (New England Sports Network),” Damon said. “They were filling up the airwaves. I wasn’t surprised.
“God forbid somebody called in and said something good about me. I just don’t think it made the airwaves that night — or for the next four years,” he added.
Damon said the most important thing Ellsbury can do every time he visits Fenway is to remember the fans he currently represents, because at the end of the day that’s all that really matters.
“You know, just keep playing good,” Damon said. “Or keep playing hard. Because fans respect that more than someone who just puts up numbers and doesn’t care about games 100 percent of the time. Hard work and hustle can help you win some very important games.”
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