Thursday, March 5, 2009
Show back in town
By Jerry Crasnick
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Manny Ramirez has only a single locker in the corner of the Los Angeles Dodgers' spring training clubhouse. No second stall for his personal "stuff.'' No home entertainment center or Barcalounger, a la Barry Bonds. Just enough space for his uniform, baseball shoes, an outfielder's glove or two and a pair of sunglasses.
On a grander scale, there's not enough undeveloped acreage in the Valley of the Sun to house Manny's celebrated cachet. Love him or hate him, chuckle at his cartoon antics or scoff at his glacial speed to first base. You have to concede that the guy makes for great theater.
"He's bilingual, he's gregarious, he's comedic, he's witty,'' said Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras. "The bottom line is, Manny likes Mannywood.''
Ramirez arrived at the Dodgers' new complex Thursday on the most overcast day of the spring, and brought enough one-liners to warrant a laugh track. He made wisecracks about his Gold Glove defense and "cannon'' arm in left field, and took part in some healthy banter about his opt-out clause and his plans for that unruly patch of fuzz that adorns his chin.
Ramirez also made it clear that he's at peace with the way his contract negotiations unfolded this winter. The economy stinks, after all. And amid speculation that his self-induced work stoppage in Boston last summer scared off potential suitors, Ramirez said he believes his shaky ending with the Red Sox was not the reason that his four-year, $100 million dreams turned into a two-year, $45 million reality.
Regardless, he claims to be content.
"I won,'' Ramirez said. "I won getting out of there, because I'm in a great place. I'm in a place where I want to play and I'm gonna be happy. My teammates love me. The fans love me and the way I play. Sometimes you're better off to have a two-year deal in a place where you're going be happy than an eight-year deal in a place where you're going to suffer.''
While the Boston radio talk-show lines light up over that "suffer'' line, Ramirez will be busy on the fields here in Glendale getting in his hacks. As he prepares for his first Cactus League game next week, the Dodgers are gearing up for a rush in ticket sales and manager Joe Torre will be doodling lineup combinations on dinner napkins.
The acrimony and mutual fatigue from Ramirez's contract negotiations have faded, and it's time to take note of how drastically the Dodgers' lineup has changed since mid-February. General manager Ned Colletti filled one void by signing second baseman Orlando Hudson to a club-friendly deal for a guaranteed $3.4 million, and added Ramirez to the fold while keeping the club payroll in the $100 million range.
|Manny Ramirez is excited to play a full season for Joe Torre and the Dodgers.|
Hudson, who claims to be making excellent progress in his recovery from wrist surgery, will bat second in the Los Angeles order behind Rafael Furcal. That's two switch-hitters with enough speed and on-base potential to constitute a major upgrade from last summer, when the Dodgers posted a 31-33 record with Juan Pierre at leadoff and used everyone from Andre Ethier to Matt Kemp to Delwyn Young to Luis Maza in the No. 2 hole.
A little further down the lineup, things get interesting for Torre. He could bat Ramirez third in the order. Or he could hit Ethier third, Ramirez fourth and some combination of James Loney, Kemp and Russell Martin in the next three spots.
With no prompting, Torre raised the possibility that third baseman Casey Blake, who's averaged 21 homers and 73 RBIs since 2003, could bat eighth this season.
"One of my goals will be to make sure we protect Manny as best we can,'' Torre said. "With the lefty-righty balance we have, there shouldn't be any soft spots in that lineup.''
So how good is this group?
"It could be real scary,'' Hudson said. "This lineup kind of puts me in the mind of the Yankees' lineups in the late '90s.''
Upon further review, Hudson also mentioned the Seattle Mariners' lineup with Ken Griffey Jr.-Edgar Martinez-Jay Buhner or the Cleveland Indians' lineup of Albert Belle, Jim Thome and Ramirez.
That's probably a stretch, given that the Dodgers ranked 13th in the National League in runs and slugging percentage in 2008. While it will help to have Ramirez around all season, Manny is not going to hit .396 with a 1.232 OPS, the way he did in August and September of last season.
A lot will depend on the maturation of Los Angeles' young, homegrown hitters, and that's where the concept of Ramirez-as-veteran mentor takes root. As outrageous as that idea sounds, Ramirez made a huge difference for Ethier last season, and spent lots of time sharing his insights with Kemp in the batting cage.
"To be a young guy in this league and hit [Nos.] 3, 4, 5 or 6, it's not easy,'' said Dodgers first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz. "But you put Manny in the middle of that, and all of a sudden you let your young guys exhale a little bit. They don't have to do it all.''
Mientkiewicz, who's competing for a spot on the Dodgers' bench this spring, played with Ramirez on Boston's 2004 world championship club and absolutely loves Manny. He says fans and detractors who see Ramirez standing in left field before the game listening to his iPod have no idea of the time and energy that Ramirez invests in dissecting tape or studying pitchers when he's out of sight.
Certain truths are self-evident to hard-core Manny watchers. If Ramirez is sitting on a fastball, fouls it straight back to the screen and yells a particular vulgarity in Spanish out of frustration, it's time to exercise caution.
"When I was on the other side I used to tell our pitchers, 'Just walk him,' because he's going to knock a wall down with the next pitch,'' Mientkiewicz said. "Manny feeling as bad as Manny can feel is better than 90 percent of the league.''
Hudson and Ramirez once shared the same agent, former Boras rival Jeff Moorad, and that connection gave Hudson an opportunity to go to school on Manny's approach. He came to marvel at Ramirez's knack for devising a game plan, sticking with it, and setting up pitchers from the moment he steps in the batter's box.
Young players are conditioned to put veterans on a pedestal, but in Hudson's eyes, Ramirez deserved that reverence. When Hudson was in Arizona and the Diamondbacks encountered Boston in interleague play, he passed along some advice to his younger teammates.
"I remember telling the young guys, 'Take in what you see from Manny. Don't get caught up in the moment like I did. Trust me, watch this guy in batting practice and the games and watch his approach, and you'll learn something.' ''
Hudson and his fellow Dodgers decline to pass judgment on Ramirez's dog day afternoons in Boston, and they don't care about his contract talks, his deferred compensation or the length of his dreadlocks. They just know what a force he is in the middle of the batting order, and what a difference he can make if he's focused and motivated.
The race in the National League West begins in a month, and they're too happy he's here to care about anything else.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
I won. I won getting out of [Boston], because I'm in a great place. I'm in a place where I want to play and I'm gonna be happy. My teammates love me. The fans love me and the way I play. Sometimes you're better off to have a two-year deal in a place where you're going be happy than an eight-year deal in a place where you're going to suffer.
-- Manny Ramirez