PORT CHARLOTTE — Johnny Damon was in pinstripes when the Rays got good in 2008 and turned what had been a one-sided comedy show against the Yankees into an intense rivalry, one Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon suggested is now on par with the classic competitiveness between the Yankees and Red Sox.
And now Damon can't wait to be part of it from the Rays' side of the field.
"It's going to be fun," Damon said. "My time in New York was nothing but great. I loved every minute of it. I love going back there. I love a bunch of the players over there, the coaching staff, the way the organization is. It's going to be four years I'm always going to remember.
"But now it's time for me to help my home team win a championship. It's been a long time coming for me to have this opportunity to come play for Tampa, so I'm excited about it."
Damon, 37, considered a return to the Yankees after spending last season in Detroit, but he wouldn't have had the opportunity he wanted to keep playing every day. That would have not only endangered his streak of 15 consecutive seasons of playing 140-plus games (only four others have as many), but his pursuit of 3,000 hits (he needs 429) as well as finishing with more than old-and-now-again teammate Manny Ramirez (who is two up at 2,573).
The Rays are giving Damon that chance as their everyday leftfielder, and Maddon said he expects him to relish the opportunity to face the Yankees 18 times a year.
"I think he kind of likes those kind of moments," Maddon said. "I think he's going to have no problem going back to the new Yankee Stadium and playing there. I think he's going to kind of enjoy it. I think it's going to bring out the best in him. I do."
Yankees manager Joe Girardi, after a quick pregame visit, said Damon appears to be in a good place.
"It was good to see him," Girardi said. "He seems happy. Johnny is a good player, and we know that. Johnny can hit, he can do a lot of different things for a lineup."
The Rays expect that, along with good-enough defense, but also for Damon to provide leadership in a clubhouse that saw veterans Carlos Peña, Carl Crawford and Jason Bartlett leave.
Maddon has already been impressed by the subtleness and widespread effectiveness he has seen.
"He leads by communication," Maddon said. "He talks to people. He interacts. He gives up his time. He's encouraging. He does all those little things, and furthermore he does it in a real happy way. He's just a good guy to be around. He attracts people because of his disposition.
" … I've been watching it from a distance, and I know what he's doing and I can see it. You read about him every place he's been, he's done it in those clubhouses, so I'm just watching it because I know he's going to have a great impact."
Damon said he welcomes the responsibility, joking he also would serve as occasional spokesman for the less gregarious Ramirez.
"I know I've got to be more of a leader at this point in my career, and I have no problem doing that," said Damon, the team's highest-paid player at $5.25 million. "I feel like my reputation around the league has been pretty solid (with), I would say, all my former teammates. And hopefully when this year is over, these guys will feel the same way."
Even the guys still in pinstripes can see that.
"He's great in the clubhouse," Girardi said. "He keeps it fun, he keeps it alive, he keeps it energetic."
And in the case of the burgeoning Rays-Yankees rivalry, he'll keep it going.
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.