Thursday, February 11, 2010
Tracing the citizen rebellion in Mannywood
On the morning of July 24, Manny Ramirez's popularity in Los Angeles was so high that his biggest critic this side of Boston, Bill Plaschke of the Times, said he "got chills" after Ramirez hit his pinch-hit grand slam home run while nursing a sore hand. The Dodgers quickly rushed out a commemorative poster and a second Manny Bobblehead Night onto their calendar, and the fan base ate it all up.
Let me emphasize how recent this was. It was barely six months ago. It was with only 67 games left in the regular season. It was also more than two months after Ramirez had been suspended for violating baseball's drug policy and more than two weeks after he returned. The violation was in the past, and though some didn't want to forgive him and others never liked Ramirez in the first place, the overwhelming majority of Dodger fans basked in his presence.
After returning from his suspension, Ramirez had a .347 batting average, .439 on-base percentage and .755 slugging percentage with five homers and 17 RBI in his first 57 plate appearances. Anyone who tries to tell you that Ramirez wasn't on his game when he began his comeback is rewriting history. Ramirez was punishing the ball, and Dodger fans knew it. They felt it. They saw it.
And what was more exhilarating on the morning of July 24 was that it seemed not even age, not even an injury, could keep him down.
Flash forward, if you will, and now you can hardly walk anywhere Mannywood without finding a Ramirez skeptic, if not more and more fans who have completely turned against him.
It's not clear exactly when the shift happened. Ramirez did struggle some in the games following the Bobbleslam, but he didn't disappear. From July 24 through the end of the regular season, he failed to reach base in only nine starts. His on-base percentage was a healthy .378, and his batting average remained above .300 until September 23.
The fault lay more with his power. He had 12 doubles, eight homers and a .439 slugging percentage post-Bobbleslam, which is mortal by his standards, but not necessarily so far down that you'd expect many fans to notice.
However, the real turning point might not have been at the plate at all. On August 23, Ramirez overran a shot to the corner by Chicago's Aramis Ramirez and then was extremely sluggish in recovering, allowing Aramis to get a triple in what would be a 3-1 Cubs victory on a hot Sunday at Dodger Stadium. Boos rained down on Manny, who also went 0 for 4, and numerous observers wondered if Bad Manny had finally arrived.
Subsequently, the team's near-slide in the pennant race got people even more uptight, and as much grief as guys like Chad Billingsley received, it was Ramirez who in some ways became the biggest villain on the offensive end — especially from those who credited Juan Pierre with everything from the Dodgers' first-half surge to the polio vaccine.
After the Dodgers blew a potential division-clinching game in the ninth inning September 27 in Pittsburgh, Ramirez didn't start the next game, then went 0 for 10 (with two walks) as the Dodgers lost twice to San Diego and once to fast-charging Colorado, the team scoring four runs in the three games. By this point, the "Manny has lost it" mantra was in full swing — with few caring to remember that he began losing it following the hand injury, weeks after his return from the suspension.
Ramirez's slump extended to 0 for 13 before he singled in the fifth run of the Dodgers' 5-0 National League West clincher Oct. 3. But he was definitely on watchlists by this time. At times, he was chasing pitches and looked more desperate than dominant.
In the NL Division Series, Ramirez had a double and a walk in the Dodgers' wild Game 1 victory, then barely escaped goat horns with his 0-for-4 in the Game 2 miracle. But in St. Louis for Game 3, Ramirez went 3 for 5 with two doubles as the Dodgers advanced to the Championship Series. Not exactly a disappearing act.
If that last performance bought him any goodwill, it wasn't much. Even in the Dodgers' disappointing NLCS defeat, Ramirez hit in all but one of the five games, homering in Game 1. In the final three games in Philly, he was 4 for 10 with a walk.
But if Ramirez's job was to carry the Dodgers to the World Series, I guess enough people felt he didn't do his job. That has translated into a lot of people thinking that Ramirez won't be able to do his job in 2010, which could make for a vexing final season in Los Angeles.
I'm honestly not sure what to expect. It's silly not to foresee some decline from a player who turns 38 on May 30. On the other hand, I think the biggest fulminators are overreacting to what happened toward the end of 2009 — especially those who ignore what Ramirez did before he was hit by that pitch July 21.
In my mind, when the Dodgers re-signed Ramirez for two years, the plan was that by the second year, he wouldn't have to carry the team by itself. And with the flowering of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, that plan seems to be on target. Yes, Ramirez is earning an eight-figure salary, and with that comes certain responsibility. And more than anything, Ramirez is unpredictable. But finished? I'm not so sure.
Ramirez probably won't regain all the goodwill that slipped away from him after Bobbleslam Night, but I don't think there's nearly enough evidence to write Ramirez off as a productive player. If people somehow ratcheted down their expectations to those merited by a 38-year-old slugger, I'd say there's a very good chance they wouldn't be disappointed.
Of course, I'm not holding my breath that people will recalibrate their expectations. And I get the sense that there is more than one person out there quite eager to see Ramirez fail, no matter what it means for the Dodgers.