For the Dodgers, this is a spring training unlike any other.
For every other team in baseball, spring is about hope and faith, about those few weeks when every team can dream of the World Series.
For the Dodgers, this spring is about Manny Ramirez, with the team losing faith in his agent and vice versa, where the one player not there overshadows the dozens who are, where tempers flare not only in person but via e-mail for all the fans to read.
Frank McCourt, the Dodgers’ owner, exploded in anger late Thursday night at Scott Boras, the agent for Ramirez. Boras shot back, engaging McCourt in an unusually public battle for the hearts and minds of Dodgers fans, the owner and the agent pointing a finger at each other in trying to explain why the player that electrified Los Angeles last summer is absent this spring.
“It’s hard to be sympathetic to either side,” David Carter, the executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said Friday.
On message boards and talk shows, in offices and in sports bars, a generation of fans informed as never before can passionately take sides in the Ramirez drama.
“I don’t recall a more public negotiation with an athlete in recent Los Angeles sports history, not one that’s caused this much of a reaction,” said Jeff Fellenzer, who teaches sports business and media at USC.
When Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale staged a joint holdout from the Dodgers’ training camp in 1966, ESPN and the Internet didn’t exist, so fans neither expected nor received breathless updates and wild rumors around the clock.
Kobe Bryant dominated headlines five years ago as he decided whether to stay with the Lakers, but fans did not debate the financial commitment of the team owner or the negotiating tactics of Bryant’s agent.
But, between sunset Thursday and sunrise Friday, McCourt called out Boras for his tactics, with Boras retaliating by raising anew the lingering suspicion that McCourt might be short on cash.
As the rebuttals flew, the tension grew, to the point where Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti snapped at a reporter from Major League Baseball’s website and Manager Joe Torre declared he would no longer entertain questions about Ramirez as long as the player remains unsigned.
It was in November that the Dodgers launched their public relations offensive, with Colletti taking the rare step of announcing a two-year offer that he said would make Ramirez the second-highest-paid player in baseball. Teams seldom confirm a contract offer, let alone the dollar value, but the Dodgers have made four offers to Ramirez and announced the value of each.
Boras countered with frequent reminders of how the Dodgers fared last season. Without Ramirez, the Dodgers had lost as many games as they had won. With him, they advanced to the National League Championship Series -- for the first time in 20 years.
“I can see the Dodger fans, who are caught up in the emotion of how Manny finished the year for them, wanting to see him signed no matter what,” Carter said. “At the same time, you’re watching a free-agent player and his agent playing hardball with so much money on the table, given what most people are going through financially.”
The Dodgers need a power hitter, Ramirez needs a job, and neither party appears to have another option.
Yet the Dodgers insist they would rather play Juan Pierre in left field than guarantee the 36-year-old Ramirez more than two years when no other team has guaranteed him even one.
But McCourt’s refusal to sweeten the length of the contract could open the door for another team to sign Ramirez to a short-term deal. Ramirez also could decide to sit out until May or June and sign a lucrative half-season contract, as pitcher Roger Clemens did in recent years.
On Wednesday, after McCourt and Boras met at Dodger Stadium, the Dodgers announced they had offered Ramirez $45 million for two years -- $25 million this year and $20 million next year -- and had given him the option to walk away from the second year of the deal.
At 8:30 Thursday night, the Dodgers e-mailed a statement, saying Boras had rejected the offer. In the statement, McCourt mocked Boras’ November remark that he’d solicit “serious offers” for his star client. “When his agent finds those ‘serious offers’ from other clubs, we’ll be happy to restart the negotiations,” McCourt said.
Within hours, Boras hit the send button on his own statement, saying he had rejected nothing but provided two counter-offers, “our most recent at two years, $45 million.”
The Times has learned that McCourt had asked to defer all but $10 million this year and $10 million next year, all without interest, which would make the actual value of the deal less than $45 million. McCourt then let it be known that Boras had asked for $55 million in his first counter-offer.
USC’s Fellenzer said the disclosure that McCourt would defer more money than he’d pay Ramirez this year could turn fans against the owner.
The Dodgers, after all, traded away top prospects rather than assume the contracts of the veteran standouts they acquired last season -- Ramirez from the Boston Red Sox, Casey Blake from the Cleveland Indians and Greg Maddux from the San Diego Padres. They also deferred the signing bonuses for Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson.
“They’re not even willing to make an exception for Manny Ramirez, who most people say was the heart and soul of the team?” Fellenzer asked. “Everyone knows they got Manny for free last year.”
Still, in this economic crisis, the Dodgers offered Ramirez a significant pay raise, even as many players took pay cuts and many fans lost their jobs.
“This was a PR battle they may have lost at one time,” Fellenzer said, “but, with the backdrop of this economy, I think most people will side with the McCourts and say this is fair.”
Carter at the Sports Business Institute agreed, saying that the economic backdrop leaves Boras in an awkward position.
“This is not to say the McCourts are not in a tough situation,” Carter said. “Nothing they have done over the years has resonated like Manny last fall, so now they’re in a bit of a damned-if-they-do, damned-if-they-don’t situation.”
Stephen Greyser, who teaches sports business at the Harvard Business School, said McCourt used the statement to speak directly to fans.
He said Boras appears less concerned about public perception. Greyser recalled how Boras overshadowed the final game of the 2007 World Series by announcing that another of his star clients, Alex Rodriguez, had decided to walk away from the New York Yankees.
“If Boras was sensitive to the reputation of his clients, you wouldn’t have had . . . A-Rod making an announcement he was leaving the Yankees in the midst of a deciding game and tromping on the Red Sox.”
Times staff writers Dylan Hernandez in Glendale, Ariz., and Diane Pucin in Los Angeles contributed to this report.