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Johnny, you hardly know them...

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Somehow the Yankees arrange one of these sly tricks every winter. Usually, they need a foil; a role often gleefully played by your pets, the Red Sox. But this year they managed it all by themselves.

They succeeded in making one of their own the poster-boy of that most agonizing and tiresome of sporting melodramas; the hyperventilating, off the wall, and simply infuriating contract hassle, thus commanding center stage once again in the infernal free agent wars. They hog the limelight when they sign people and they hog the limelight when they don’t sign people. Only in the Bronx is this possible.

Last year it was Mark Teixeira, with an assist from C.C. Sabathia, and the year before it was A-Rod, for the second time, and in other years it has been a Mike Mussina or Jason Giambi or Bernie Williams or even a Jose Contreras which surely stretched the limits of this rolling insanity and it goes all the way back to the age of Reggie Jackson, Goose Gossage, and the late, great Catfish Hunter.

This year it’s about Johnny Damon who is not coming but going and it’s also his second turn in this dubious catbird seat. Only this time it’s looking like two strikes and you’re out, Johnny. Beware of demonstrating your schadenfreude too vigorously, my dear Nation. As a parable of where baseball is at in these times, the Johnny Damon story is priceless and it’s a devious tale, laden with sub-plots.

In the end, of course, Damon has no one to blame but himself. He misread the Yankees, misunderstood the market, and misjudged the persuasive powers of his own personal appeal and his agent’s alleged brilliance. Most of all he failed to grasp a fundamental reality and it is hardly a new baseball maxim. When a scrappy leg-hitter whose game is based on hustle, savvy, speed and endurance turns 36, doubts soar, no matter how respected he may be or how brilliantly he performed in the most recent World Series. Damon is a trooper and a pro. He should have known better. Much to his credit he is not now denying any of that.

Still the role of his Svengali of an agent, the increasingly infamous Scott Boras, master of countless wiles and stratagems, should not be underestimated. In the end, Boras entrapped Damon in his convoluted scheming. He made Damon the victim of his own boundless ego. It had to happen someday. It’s only a shame that it happened at the expense of one of the game’s better people, a distinction Damon retains if only because he’s taking this drubbing like a trooper and a pro. Damon deserved better. On the other hand, it was pretty dumb of him to swallow without a blink what one New York sage has called, “Scott Boras’ Kool-Aid.”

But it takes two to tango and the Yankees were only too willing. All’s fair in love, war and baseball contract hassles so you can’t get away with branding the Yankees “the bad guy” in this fiasco even if it is now clear they played Damon for a sucker. If they never had any intention of signing him, as many now suspect, they should have found a polite way to convey that as they apparently were able to do with the equally estimable Hideki Matsui, whom they also gave the bum’s rush in payment for heroics rendered in last season’s mighty triumph.

If they wanted to keep either or both of them they would have signed them without skipping a beat. But they didn’t want them and it is that simple. So why not just say so? These are still “the Goldman Sachs Yankees” -- as New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica likes to call them -- so GM Brian Cashman can spare us all the pious mishmash about “budgets.” If the Twins soon conclude they can’t sign Joe Mauer, the superb young catcher, and put him on the market it will take the Steinbrenner boys about 20 seconds to blow up their nice new budget.

The amazing thing is that Mr. Smarty Pants, the agent Boras, didn’t catch on to the Yankee’s game plan until it was too late and Damon was well on his way to being made to look the fool. With any luck the biggest loser in this mess will prove to be Boras, who might at last be seen as too smart for his own good.

It’s now clear that while the Yankees’ brass relished last year’s resurgence and will go on expressing their “gratitude” to cats like Damon and Matsui who so helped make it happen, they deeply resent all the snickering about how they have “bought” the championship, which persists. The charge chaffs the Steinbrenners who, after all, must not only meet a monstrous payroll but also pony up for the loathsome luxury tax that nobody else has to pay. Last year, they were assessed $25.7 million for the so-called “competitive balance tax.” Since 2003, the tab has totaled $174 million. When they sign a player for four million large it really costs them about five, etc., ad nauseam.

Even more chagrined by the charge, however, is Cashman who deeply resents being denied stature in his lodge because it is widely perceived that what he does best is merely say “yes” to outrageous contract demands while amassing a collection of bloated all-stars. The fact that said perception is both unfair and inaccurate hardly matters. It holds quite widely and for Cashman, normally a principled man, that stings.

So he’s determined not to cross the line he’s drawn in the sand even if, as in Damon’s case, he recognizes it’s neither the right thing nor the smart thing to do. Consider what he said about Damon the day he finally slammed the door shut by signing a journeyman has-been named Randy Winn to take his place.

“Johnny was awesome here. He was great in the clubhouse, great on the field. He is a great competitor, a great person, and a great player. We are going to miss him. We wanted him to stay. We looked forward to having him back. But not at all costs.” That’s quote, unquote from Brian Cashman.

Sure doesn’t sound like a player you’d want to let slip away when in the end the difference, by all reports, was only a couple of million bucks which is what you have to pay mop-up relievers nowadays. Consider that just days earlier Cashman had given a certain Chad Gaudin a $3 million contract for next season and in the entire post-season Gaudin was used a grand total of one half inning.

The exiling of Damon is not being well-received in New York, which is hardly the tough and unsentimental town those of us from the alleged “Athens of America” want to believe. Teammates are expressing sorrow. The talk shows whine with regret. The tone of vox populi is overwhelmingly sympathetic. Even the hardened cynics of the tabloids are weeping. Such respect is mighty rare, especially in such times as these when lamenting the loss of a millionaire is hardly in fashion. The only baseball man I ever recall ripping Damon was Joe Torre in his ill-advised book and no one has been able to figure out what that was all about.

If the Yankees roll-on next season with the replacements excelling, Cashman will take bows and the Steinbrenner’s will gloat. But if they falter and elsewhere Damon and Matsui make fresh and grand statements the recriminations will be dandy. The prospect is to be relished.

Damon and Matsui were not the most glittering of Yankee stars but they played a choice role every bit as important and it’s a role long cherished in the Bronx. They were “the Old Reliables” in the grand tradition of Tommy Henrich and Hank Bauer and Lou Piniella and Paul O’Neill; smart, resourceful and steadfast players of high style and character always at their best on the big stage, when the stakes were highest and the din was greatest.

They were the “Big Game Guys.” Such cats are rare ... in any dodge!

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