Baseball’s official opening day might take place in April, but in Boston and the Bronx, this season had to wait until the first day of May to begin in earnest.
Johnny Damon, the charismatic center fielder who helped lead the 2004 Boston Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years, returns to Fenway Park for the first time since signing with the New York Yankees as the teams resume their fierce rivalry Monday night.
Damon was a fixture at the top of Boston’s lineup for four seasons, batting .295 with 461 runs scored and 98 stolen bases in 597 games with the Red Sox. His shaggy hair and carefree attitude helped make him a fan favorite and a ringleader in Boston’s loose clubhouse, which he helped dub the “idiots.”
But Damon’s trademark Red Sox performance may have been in Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS at Yankee Stadium, when his two-homer effort led Boston to a 10-3 victory, capping the only postseason comeback from a 3-0 series deficit in major league history and propelling the Red Sox into the World Series.
As a free agent in December, Damon rejected contract offers from the Red Sox (14-11) to sign a four-year, $52 million deal with the archrival Yankees, causing a major stir among Boston’s rabid fan base.
“One person expressed concern that his young daughter wanted to get a Yankees shirt with Johnny’s name on it,” Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. “And he didn’t know what sort of crisis that would cause in the family.”
It won’t take long to gauge the fan reaction at Fenway Park. Damon is expected to step to the plate as Monday’s leadoff hitter against Boston starter Tim Wakefield (1-4, 3.90 ERA).
“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.”
New York’s new center fielder enters the first of 19 games this season against Boston swinging a hot bat. He went a combined 6-for-9 with two homers, three RBIs and six runs scored in wins Saturday and Sunday over Toronto.
The Yankees (13-10) lead the Red Sox by percentage points in the AL East. The clubs had already faced each other six times by this point in the 2005 season, but they seem to welcome this year’s later start to the rivalry.
“It’s good to kind of get your legs under you a little bit before the circus starts,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.
Including postseason, the Red Sox and Yankees have faced each other 71 times since the start of the 2003 season—the most meetings between two teams with Boston holding a 36-35 edge.
The teams appear to be heading in different directions entering this series. New York has won two straight games and six of eight after opening the season 7-8.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox have dropped seven of their last 10 games after an 11-4 start. Boston has found itself falling behind early in games recently, getting outscored 16-0 in the first two innings of the last five contests.
“The way we’re going right now, the starting pitching has to step up and it just didn’t happen,” said Curt Schilling, who allowed a two-run homer in the second inning of Boston’s 5-4 defeat to Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Wakefield will try to give the Red Sox rotation a lift. The 39-year-old knuckleballer is 8-12 with a 4.49 lifetime ERA versus the Yankees. He lost his last four starts against New York last season.
Wakefield also looks to stop a personal three-game losing streak. He has allowed three earned runs or fewer in each of the losses, but received just two runs support from Boston’s offense.
The Yankees counter with right-hander Chien-Ming Wang (1-1, 4.80). Wang lost his only career start against the Red Sox on Sept. 30 at Fenway Park, giving up five runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 5-3 defeat.
The Taiwan native pitched well against the Devil Rays on Wednesday, limiting Tampa Bay to two runs and three hits in seven innings, but did not receive a decision in New York’s 4-2, 10-inning loss.
The Yankees may be without right fielder Gary Sheffield, who is day-to-day with a bruised left hand suffered in a collision with Toronto first baseman Shea Hillenbrand in Saturday’s game.
Sheffield batted .393 (22-for-26) with five homers and 16 RBIs last season against the Red Sox.