When Johnny Damon took a $52 million deal in December to join the New York Yankees, it cut through Red Sox Nation like a rusty knife. With his spirited play, devil-may-care demeanor, and messianic appearance — complete with scruffy locks and a beard worthy of a Russian revolutionary — the Red Sox center fielder was a cult figure who helped bury the team’s infamous 86-year curse. That the offense-igniting leadoff hitter was not just leaving, but going to the hated (and neatly groomed) archrival Yankees, added considerable sting. Some wondered whether the Sox, whose loose, overgrown frat-house mentality propelled their remarkable come-from-behind victory over New York in the 2004 American League Championship Series, had lost their soul.
Coming as it did just after the loss of popular GM and boy wonder Theo Epstein, Damon’s defection was enough to give agita to Messrs. Henry, Lucchino, and Werner. But this winter’s front-office tumult is now in the past. Epstein is back and the 2006 Sox seem to be shaping up as a lively mixture of pitching, hitting, and defense. Questions certainly remain, particularly about the ability of two 2004 stalwarts — Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke — to bounce back from subpar 2005 seasons. However, with a variety of changes, including the recent additions of Wily Mo Pena and Hee Seop Choi, Boston has built a younger, deeper, and more dynamic 2006 team. If the wheels don’t come off, these guys could compete into the post-season.
But what about those intangibles? While some cast Damon as a traitor, it’s clear that the Sox, for strategic reasons, were willing to go only so far to keep the head Idiot, and the team, not coincidentally, has emphasized the addition of experienced “character” players. As ESPN’s Peter Gammons told me during spring training, “They’re consciously trying to get to being a baseball team now, not a show-business team. I think it’s very important.” After all, says Gammons, the Yankees’ self-description as the American League’s “most professional team” isn’t without purpose. “They don’t tolerate any of the clowning around, and not running balls out, and the ‘Idiots’ stuff that the Red Sox loved,” he says. “I mean, it’s nice, but there’s a reason the Yankees have finished first [in the AL East] every single year now since ’98.” (Gammo, who considers slugger David Ortiz far more of an icon than Damon, also significantly downplays Johnny Jesus’s role as the onetime face of the Sox.)
Although it will take time for the 2006 Sox’ collective personality to emerge — though manager Terry Francona expects that the decibel level will be a little lower — the team seems unlikely to be a bland imitation of its former self. Here’s a look at three newcomers who could fill the charisma void created by Damon’s departure.
Cuckoo for Coco
As Coco Crisp etched a breakout year for the Cleveland Indians in 2004, baseball fans couldn’t help noticing that the guy’s name seemed too charming to be true. Crisp (6’, 180) went on to enjoy another strong season in 2005, exhibiting a Damon-like ability to hit for average (.300), show some pop (16 HRs, 42 doubles), and steal bases (15), while emerging as the Tribe’s most popular player.
Since being acquired by the Sox in an off-season trade, the 26-year-old California native has smoothly handled countless questions about succeeding Damon, patiently describing himself as his own man. Crisp, in fact, has the ability, easygoing personality, and hard-charging approach to the game that could win legions of admirers across Sox Nation. (As Francona has noted, “When he hits the ball, it’s like his pants are on fire.”) Little surprise, then, that cries of “Johnny Who?” resounded across City of Palms Park in Fort Myers as Crisp spent the spring routinely making impressive catches, stealing a bevy of bases, and hitting at close to a .425 clip.
While the switch-hitting Crisp is unlikely to grow out his hair à la Damon, he’s more than just a gamer. For Oh Say Can You Sing?, a collection of songs performed by major leaguers, Crisp wrote and sang a tune, “We Got That Thang.” He also owns his own music label, Big Money Connections, and is developing a reality-TV dating show. While newcomers often remain in the background, Crisp’s strong skills and engaging personality could make him a team leader.
What about that nickname? It grew out of one of Crisp’s grandmothers calling him “Co” — short for Covelli — as a little kid. “And then once my sister and my god brother got a whiff of the cereal Cocoa Krispies, they started calling me that and making fun of me,” Crisp wrote in a chat on www.mlb.com. “My nickname started as a big joke and I didn’t like it at first. But then it started catching on and everyone started calling me Coco, so I got used to it … and now I like it. I’ve just adopted it as my nickname. It helps me stick out in the crowd.”