Heeeere's Johnny

Johnny Damon has very important hair, so let's deal with it right up top. It is lovely hair, granted, long and dark and reportedly quite soft, but that is beside the point. A good many people, a few of whom also play professional baseball, could be said to have nice hair, personal taste being what it is. Surely someone, somewhere, finds even Pedro's oily mop attractive.

But pretty is not the same as important. Pretty is a measure of fashion, and fashion is malleable, changeable. Johnny Damon's hair will not change, not now, not in this winter after The Miracle and before the first pitch of the new season, and probably not before the last pitch, either. Oh, a stylist might trim it and mousse it and streak it with fresh highlights, but there will be no drastic alterations. Johnny Damon's hair will continue to descend to his shoulders for the foreseeable future because he would be a different Johnny Damon if it did not.

Purists will cringe at such a notion because . . . well, because it seems so silly. If those locks were clipped back to their undistinguished, pre-2004 length, Damon would still be the same ballplayer he's always been. He would still be a late-season hitter with a respectable on-base percentage and tremen dous speed that really should be good for a couple more stolen bases every summer. Without the year-old locks, he would have the same legs and same arms, and he would be the same good — not great, but very good — lead-off centerfielder 10 years and three cities into a major league baseball career.

But he would not be the same Johnny Damon. Without the hair, for instance, he would not be on page 171 of People magazine, lounging on a chair over type proclaiming him to be “the sexiest hit man,” because apparently there is nothing particularly sexy about a short-haired man hitting a baseball. Nor would he have declined a postseason invitation to be on the cover of New York magazine, winking at all those once-smug Yankees fans, because he never would have been asked. He would not be on the cover of this magazine, for that matter. Middle-aged women in Cleveland and Dubuque would not swoon over him, because they would have no idea who he is.

Without the hair, more importantly, there would have been no references last year to messiahs and promised lands and, eventually and mercifully, to salvation. There would have been no playfully blasphemous narrative upon which to build the entire wondrous season, and thus there would have been no reason for Johnny Damon to ascend, Christ-like, to the role of affable savior. Of course, had the season gone to hell, he'd be remembered as the caveman with the Charles Manson hair, but it didn't, so now he's Jesus, or a reasonable facsimile, and Crown Publishing has hired him — Johnny Damon, among all the erudite Red Sox players — to tell the story of the 2004 season (Idiot . . . Or How I Stopped Thinking and Beat 'The Curse,' due out April 4).

True, he is glib and personable, two traits that benefit sports memoirs. But he also has that dark, marketable hair, a mane so valuable it has its own clause in his publishing contract. To wit, Johnny Damon is not allowed to cut his hair until the publicity tour is over. That's how important it is.

And it is pretty. Granted.

The famous beard, on the other hand, is not so important. Johnny Damon brought it to spring training along with the hair and an extra 15 pounds, back when the sportswriters were trying to decide between the Jesus and the Manson motifs, but it has proven to be expendable. He shaved it once, in May, for charity ($15,000 courtesy of Gillette), then grew it again and kept it through the World Series. He scraped it off once or twice after that, but it was back in full fur by late December.

The photographer wants him to shave it again. The photo stylists have brought a can of Barbasol and a gleaming red razor and bright lights to bounce off the white walls of his palatial new house in the Boston suburbs. They also have several shirts and a couple pairs of trousers, all of which they would like him to put on and button and then unbutton and then take off all together.

Johnny Damon doesn't really have time for any of this. At the moment, he is in the middle of moving into not one, but two new houses: this grand mansion — “my shack,” he says — and his even grander place near his hometown of Orlando. His wedding to his second wife, a five-day extravaganza of golf and spa treatments and rock concerts and, in the middle of it all, an actual exchange of vows, is now a week away. He still hasn't finished his book, he hasn't wrapped a single present for Christmas, which is five days away, and he's in danger of running late for an afternoon flight to Florida.

But he shaves anyway. Then he shaves again for the camera. “They wanted to do it for the shoot,” he says, shrugging like it was no thing at all. “And, hey, hopefully it'll sell a lot of magazines.” He puts on a shirt, takes off a shirt, changes pants. He crouches on a ledge like a Cro-Magnon until his knees cramp, and he does little twirly hops in his foyer to get his hair properly animated. There are no handlers, no agents or publicists who typically accompany millionaire athletes and budding cultural icons, telling them to move it along or to keep their damned shirts on, just Johnny bouncing around his big house like a goof, telling jokes and posing and trying to sell magazines.

This is another reason Johnny Damon's hair is important: It made him a star in a town that desperately needed a star like Johnny Damon. The Red Sox had long labored under a gloomy shadow, even late in seasons past when it seemed that year — pick a year, any year — might finally be the year, but when every true fan knew the Olde Towne Team would find a way to choke. The dugout seemed in perpetual turmoil, dominated by malcontents and misfits. There was The Curse and Bucky Fucking Dent and Pedro staying in too long, dammit. No wonder Fenway fans didn't cheer so much for the Red Sox as they bitched about how much the Yankees sucked (never badly enough, as it happened). The cause and effect hardly matter — it was an endless loop of mope.

“When I first got here,” Johnny says, “I couldn't believe how boring of a team it was. No music in the clubhouse, no PlayStation. No one wanted to go out to the clubs. And if I could drag anyone out, they'd want to pay the cover. And that's not how we roll.”

He laughs when he says that, which keeps such a thing — I don't pay covers — from sounding arrogant. Indeed, he seems a bit amused by it, the idea that club owners comp him because he's good for business, like a rock star or Paris Hilton. Not bad for a boy from Florida.

Damon grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Orlando, the youngest of two sons of a retired Army staff sergeant and his Thai wife who settled there after postings in Kansas and Germany and Japan. His brother, James, was a senior standout athlete — soccer and football and, to a lesser extent, baseball — when Johnny started his freshman year at Dr. Phillips High School. “People always said to Johnny, 'Hey, aren't you James's little brother?' Man, he hated that,” James says.

Yet it was a fine motivator. “He worked harder than I ever did, harder than most people I know,” James says. “He wanted to be known for his hustle. He saw a lot of players who lollygagged, who were just lazy, and he thought, 'I'm gonna hustle, and hopefully I can make it with my hustle if not my skills.'”

Not that his skills were anything to sniff at. In May 1992, at the end of his senior year, The Sporting News said he “probably is the best high school player available this year.” His coach raved about his power from the left side of the plate and his speed — 3.8 seconds to first. “A lot of guys have compared him to Ken Griffey Jr.,” Coach Danny Allie said then. “I don't know if he's that good yet, but he could be.”

The Kansas City Royals drafted Johnny a month later and sent him to the minors to season for a few years before calling him up on August 12, 1995. He went three for five that day against the Seattle Mariners and stayed for the rest of that season and five more until he was traded to Oakland. A year after that, the Red Sox agreed to pay him $31 million to spend four years in their boring clubhouse.

There were some bumps along the way. His first marriage, to the mother of his twins, disintegrated. There were, briefly, questions about exactly how much fun he was having in those nightclubs where he never paid the cover (not too much, he swears). He hit a mildly disappointing .273 in 2003, a season that ended with his vision blurred from a concussion he suffered in a collision with a teammate — and with the rest of Red Sox nation miserable and deflated after another amazing defeat.

A hundred years from now, of course, no one will remember what Johnny Damon hit in 2003. Hell, most people don't remember it now, barely 18 months later. No, they will remember a grand slam in Game Seven against the imperial New York Yankees, and they will remember an idiot who decreed his teammates to be fellow idiots and invited all of New England to join their confederacy of idiocy. A hundred years from now, when 2004 is a yellowed page in history, they will remember the guy who looked vaguely like a messiah leading his team, his new city, finally to the promised land. History will remember, in the end, that hair.

The same morning Johnny Damon is mug ging for the cover of this magazine, his picture and that of his fiancé, Michelle Mangan, is inked across the bottom of the Boston Herald, a page-one tease for the Inside Track gossip column. “It's all supposed to be hush-hush,” the Track girls write, “but word outta Florida is that the Red Sox Most Eligible Bachelor — hairy hottie Johnny Damon — will be off the market by the New Year.”

He seems bemused by this; Michelle, surprised. The two of them huddle over the paper, interrupting each other as they read. “How'd they know that?” Michelle says, pointing at one line. She puts her hand to her mouth, covering a chirpy giggle. “They found out where we're registered? ” (Neiman Marcus and Williams-Sonoma, for anyone who missed it.)

Behold, the power of the hair.

In his first two, short-haired seasons in Boston, the Inside Track — the closest thing the city has to a celebrity barometer — mentioned Johnny Damon a mere 23 times. In 2004, the Year of the Idiot Jesus, he popped up 64 times. Winning the World Series certainly contributed, what with the recounting of parades and parties and talk-show gigs (though Jason Varitek rated a paltry 18 mentions), and getting engaged didn't hurt, either (especially when he dropped an eight-carat rock on Michelle's finger). But still, 64 items in a gossip column, one every five days?

“You expect it, the first time you win a World Series in 86 years,” Damon says. He looks at the table in his big kitchen, looks up, and grins. “But even if we didn't, I still think it's been kind of crazy.”

“I kind of became,” he says, “the Beckham of baseball here.”

That would be David Beckham, of course, of soccer and Posh Spice fame. It's one of several curious celebrity comparisons Johnny Damon drops. Like to Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, a guy Damon met a couple years back. “He's like me in Seattle,” he says. “Everybody knows who he is.”

There's a downside to that, of course, everyone knowing who you are, those long locks and that heavy brow standing out in a crowd. He had to abandon his son's T-ball game in Florida just after the season ended because so many fans were crowding the sidelines. The game had to be stopped before Johnny trotted out to first base and told his boy, “I've gotta go.” And then he sprinted away, hopping two fences that got in his way, fans on his tail, a regular modern-day Beatle. He can't go to a mall or a movie or a grocery store, and when Michelle orders in food he hides behind the door. Strangers pester him in restaurants, and he asks them to wait until he's finished. And they do, taking precisely one step back, hovering over his shoulder, waiting.

Those are minor annoyances at best. Johnny Damon is living the dream, and he knows it. He gets paid millions of dollars to play a game. He lives in not one but two giant houses. He invited rock stars to his wedding. He has the swooning affection of an entire city that has compared him, favorably, to the Lord.

“It's incredible,” he says. “What more can you ask for? Even being mentioned in the same sentence as Jesus or God. . . . I mean, those guys are awesome. I'm just a knucklehead.”

Or an Idiot. Whatever.