Ramirez, Dodgers are getting swagger back

Here in the bowels of AT&T; Park sits Manny Ramirez's locker. It's nothing fancy: bare and Ikea-like. On Tuesday, it held a pair of designer jeans, a dress shirt, a brown purse, three bats and three bottles of cologne. It is also twice as wide as any other players' cubicle -- which is fitting given Ramirez's outsized importance to his team.

Emotionally, psychically, Ramirez probably cuts the widest swath of any single player on a contending major league team. He plows through, everyone else on the Dodgers follows. Along with that power bat, last year it was his vibe -- caught in a blissful bubble -- that transformed an oddly solemn clubhouse. During his suspension, this year the team kept moving forward, though not at the same pace, not with the same salsa-induced pep.

For a good stretch, Ramirez has seemed slightly shaken and even, to my view, a little unsure. That swath he cuts on the field and behind the view of the average fan? It felt quieter, tenser, a lot less wide.

But Dodgers fans can clearly take heart. After these first two key games here, Ramirez's old self appears to be back. He had an orbital homer and a slashing double Tuesday in the Dodgers' 9-1 win.

On the heels of two hits on Monday and the three against Atlanta on Sunday, the heavy bat has re-emerged. Almost as important has been the reemergence this week of that old Manny -- loopy, carefree and capable of lifting this team through the hot grind of August.

Observations: Four hours before Monday's game, Ramirez walks into this cramped visitors clubhouse. He proclaims, to anyone willing to listen: "I never leave San Francisco without a home run!"

He spends the rest of his prep time whistling, joking and sometimes poking teammates in the ear. Every so often, he walks up to the unsuspecting and applies a short burst of potent cologne to the back of a neck. You might think this is a little thing but remember what it was like before he arrived: when the Dodgers' clubhouse suffered from the sour grip Jeff Kent had on the place. It was often as solemn as a morgue. On the field, it showed.

So here's Ramirez, laughingly again, complaining that nobody from the media wants to talk to him because there's no new controversy. (Of course, when approached about all this, he turns us away, but that's another story.) Here he is, in the clubhouse Tuesday, salsa music thumping from a boom box atop his locker, the only boom box in the room, as he does a little jig.

Here he is, two hours before the first pitch, the time Major League Baseball traditionally closes its doors to reporters, wearing a big smile and announcing: "Hey all you press, 5 o'clock, time to go!"

Now we're on the field. Giants fans have waited for years for the chance to taunt a villain the way Barry Bonds was mercilessly taunted.

In the first two games, they've been more polite than I expected -- AT&T; is no Candlestick, no edgy Dodgers Stadium -- but they did a pretty decent job of giving the business to No. 99.

Ramirez's reaction to this crowd of trial lawyers and Googleheads and Marin moms-of-three? He smiled, he bowed, he laughed, he trudged to the outfield with that slow, heavy-legged mope -- and then politely tossed spare baseballs to his trying-really-hard-to-be-angry tormentors.

To all of this, of course, Joe Torre smiles. He gets a question about how nervous Ramirez had seemed when he returned last month from his suspension. The Dodgers' manager says it feels like, since then, and without doubt in recent days, a transformation is underway.

"You know, he puts that uniform on he has a place to hide," Torre says. "It really is a comfortable place for him. [More comfortable than] if he had to sit in front of a microphone, or during his suspension if he had to talk to somebody, or even when I talked to him during the suspension. The baseball side of it is where he finds his security."

It appears Ramirez is secure again. The old vibe is coming back: at the plate, in the clubhouse. "I never leave San Francisco without a home run!" he says, and then delivers Tuesday, just in time. Just as the Giants have been inching forward. Just as Colorado keeps edging closer.

Whether that vibe remains, whether it will keep away the teams nipping at the Dodgers' heels, will be this regular season's great remaining plot line.



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