He's the Mane Man
11/15/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
It's not often that a beard-trimming draws a crowd. But less than 10 hours after leading Boston to its historic World Series sweep of St. Louis, free spirit-in-chief Johnny Damon sat in a stylist's chair in Lowell, Mass., getting his famous whiskers clipped, while dozens of delirious members of Red Sox Nation chanted his name outside. "It was hysterical—somebody from the Chamber of Commerce saw him get out of his car," spa owner Maria Czyzewski says of the early morning visit by the star center fielder and his fiancée. "Lowell is a small town, so news travels quickly."
So has the buzz about Damon, the shaggy curse-reverser who puts sex in the Sox. Overcoming a difficult divorce and physical injuries, the 31-year-old became a clubhouse spark plug this year and played a major role in leading Boston to its first World Series crown since 1918, a year before they traded Babe Ruth to the hated New York Yankees. Damon not only racked up the best season of his nine in the majors (20 home runs, .304 batting average), but created a following, Damon's Disciples, who showed up at Fenway throughout the year sporting long wigs and fake beards. "He's a terrific ballplayer," says FOX Sports announcer Tim McCarver. "It was the year of the Rapture."
Damon's gospel is to keep his teammates loose and in winning form. Early in the year he affectionately christened the Sox "a bunch of idiots." As he explains, "We try not to think when we play, because when we do, we only hurt ourselves." The "idiots" handle was needed. "When I first got here, it was a bore in the clubhouse," says Damon, who was traded three seasons ago from Oakland, where he used to skateboard a mile to the subway en route to the stadium. "It was like, whoa, no music, no Playstation, no nothing." But this year, under new manager Terry Francona, it was a different story. "We got the music going. And I got the guys going with—I have this thing I do—I do naked pull-ups," über-idiot Damon says. "It's that kind of free style that's propelled us to the next level."
Going his own way has certainly worked for this military brat who grew up in locations including Okinawa, Germany and Orlando, and whose father would pay him $20 to keep his hair short. (Damon is the younger of two sons of Jimmy, now 65, a retired Army staff sergeant, and Thai native Yome, 63.) After Damon graduated with a straight-A average from Orlando's Dr. Phillips High School in 1992 as the country's top schoolboy baseball prospect, he turned down a baseball scholarship at University of Florida to sign with the Kansas City Royals for $300,000 a year. By the time he reported to spring training he'd married his high school sweetheart Angie Vannice, now 31. The two divorce in the summer of 2002.
Last year the questions Damon faced about when he could visit their twins Madelyn and Jackson, now 5, sapped his energy, he says—as did debilitating migraines and blurred vision triggered by a concussion from crashing into teammate Damian Jackson last October. It was the concussion, he says, that spawned this season's shagginess. "It takes me 20 minutes to shave," he says. "I was just too lazy."
The look works just fine for Michelle Mangan, 29, who accepted an 8-carat canary-yellow diamond from Damon after a romantic proposal on Martha's Vineyard this past Easter Sunday. (The couple plan to marry in Florida before the end of the year.) "When I first saw him, I thought he was really cute," says Mangan of the night they met two years ago in Houston, where she ran a talent agency. "And he was quiet. His brother tells me I created a monster because he knows he can be himself and act silly."
Damon seems to have found a kindred spirit in Mangan. "She knew more about cars than I did," says Damon, who gave her a dirt bike for her birthday. (She presented Damon with a red electric guitar.) The pair, who share a 34th-floor two-bedroom apartment in Boston's Ritz-Carlton, as well as a waterfront home in Orlando, both enjoy golf, riding four-wheelers and boating. As for next year, Damon predicts the idiots will be back and in contention. And the trademark beard? "It'll stay a little longer," he says. Why mess with success?
Pam Lambert. Anne Driscoll and Tom Duffy in Boston and Kate Klise in St. Louis