How the West was fun
Dodger Stadium has turned into the capital of Mannywood in two short months, the ballpark taken over by a cartoon character of a superstar who wears a loose-fitting uniform and helmet that always seems to fly off his head to expose a set of bouncing dreadlocks.
He has sold jerseys and he has sold tickets. He has made grown men wear wigs. And when he steps into the batter’s box, chants of “M-V-P!” are heard through the stands.
What Manny Ramirez said he thought would be a two-month vacation has turned into something far more significant, providing a face to a faceless franchise and delivering hope to the tortured fans of a club that has won only one playoff game in the last two decades.
“I never thought I was going to come here and have a big impact in L.A.,” the 36-year-old Ramirez said.
Acquired on July 31 in a three-way trade with the Boston Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates, the 12-time All-Star hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 runs batted in over his 53 games with the Dodgers, becoming only the second player to drive in 50 runs in both leagues in the same season. (Carlos Beltran was the first in 2004.)
The Dodgers were 54-55 without him in their otherwise power-deprived lineup and 30-23 with him.
Asked if the Dodgers would’ve won the NL West without Ramirez, Manager Joe Torre replied, “Probably not.”
“I used to think that one hitter couldn’t make such a profound impact on a team,” closer Takashi Saito said. “But watching him, I’ve changed my opinion. He’s changed the way I think about baseball.”
Ramirez’s new teammates said they had no idea what to expect when he moved into their clubhouse.
Andre Ethier said he knew Ramirez was a pleasant person and hard worker because they’d worked out together last winter at the Athletes’ Performance Institute in Arizona, but he also was aware of the reputation he’d developed in Boston as a strange-behaving malcontent. There were tales of his inexplicably cutting off a relay throw, disappearing into the Green Monster at Fenway Park during a pitching change and forcing the Red Sox to trade him.
Derek Lowe knew better, only because he and Ramirez were teammates in Boston. Of how Ramirez’s oddball antics became major news stories, Lowe said, “If he plays in a different market, I bet a lot of things go unnoticed. It’s such a media-crazed city that they know everything you do on and off the field.”
Other than Lowe and Nomar Garciaparra, another former teammate, everyone was in for a surprise.
“I learned that he’s one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around,” first baseman James Loney said of the way Ramirez sets up pitchers.
Loney said that even though Ramirez has a goofy demeanor and tells reporters that he doesn’t feel any different whether his team wins or loses, he’s extremely competitive.
“He loves to win,” Loney said. “You have to get to know him. Just because he says it like that doesn’t mean he’s not excited.”
And by constantly cracking jokes and playing music in a clubhouse where it was previously banned by Torre, he has livened up the atmosphere.
“I think the music helps,” Loney said. “If something bad happened to you that day, you forget about it.”
Saito said he had never met anyone like Ramirez.
“I never thought that anyone could play baseball and have that much fun,” Saito said. “It’s like he’s a one-man, baseball-playing festival.”
Third base coach Larry Bowa, who acknowledges being a nervous wreck during games, said Ramirez has helped lighten his mood as well.
In the seventh inning of almost every game, Bowa said, Ramirez turns to Torre and tells him to take him out of the game -- with a smile. Torre and Bowa laugh, remembering how in an Aug. 11 home game against Philadelphia, Ramirez misinterpreted a gesture from Torre and thought he was out of the game. Left field was empty with the ninth inning about to start until someone told Ramirez he was still in the game.
“It’s a game to him,” Bowa said. “He’s so successful because he’s so relaxed. I’ve never seen anyone take it to this level. I’ve never seen anyone do it for two months.”
Torre said the young players in particular have benefited from the change in the clubhouse atmosphere.
“Players, in showing respect, it was business, business, business,” Torre said. “When you’re thinking business every day, you don’t enjoy it until you’ve accomplished something.
“He’s taught a lot of young players that you can have fun.”
But this blissful union could be over when the Dodgers’ postseason ends, as this has been essentially a two-plus-month audition for Ramirez’s impending free agency.
Ramirez bullied his way back onto the market, demanding that Boston trade him and forcing the Red Sox to drop the two $20-million options on his contract as a condition of that trade. (Ramirez had the right to veto any deal.) The Red Sox were desperate enough to part ways with him that they agreed to pay the remaining $7 million owed to him this season.
Ramirez, who is represented by agent Scott Boras, probably will demand a contract that pays him more than the $20 million in annual salary he would’ve earned had he stayed in Boston and is for four to five years. He could be more tempting to teams in the American League because he would be able to be a designated hitter as he entered his late 30s.
Though Torre and General Manager Ned Colletti said the idea of re-signing Ramirez has to at least be seriously considered, owner Frank McCourt has offered no indication as to whether he’ll try to keep him. Ramirez has kept his thoughts about his future to himself, acknowledging that his time in Los Angeles surpassed his expectations but declining to say whether he has any intention of making this the place he ends his career.
“I’m happy everything worked out great,” he said. “But let’s see.”
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Comparing Manny Ramirez’s numbers after Aug. 1 (when he joined the Dodgers) with Vladimir Guerrero’s:
*--* RAMIREZ CATEGORY GUERRERO 53 G 43 187 AB 162 36 R 24 74 H 56 17 HR 9 53 RBI 33 396 AVG 346 489 OB% 406 743 SLG% 605 *--*