Thursday, March 26, 2009
Ramirez brings his playful act back to 'Mannywood'
LOS ANGELES -- Crank up the music and unleash the laughter because Manny Ramirez is ready for his first full season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
There's a lot riding on his big bat.
Fans who adopted him upon his arrival last summer are eager to see if Ramirez can propel the young team deeper into the playoffs. The slugger's critics wonder if the good feelings he's generated in his new city will last.
After all, this is the same guy who Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon called a poisonous presence in the Red Sox clubhouse.
And already there's a cloud on the horizon.
Ramirez has nursed a tight left hamstring in the final weeks of spring training. The injury has limited his playing time, though he doesn't seem worried it will keep him from the lineup full time once the season opens April 6 at San Diego.
Ramirez pushed manager Joe Torre to let him play left field earlier in the spring when Torre only wanted to use him as the designated hitter, perhaps contributing to the problem.
It may all amount to no problem for the slugger. But a suspect hamstring within weeks of agreeing to a $45 million, two-year deal to return to the Dodgers only adds fuel to the still-burning fire stoked by Ramirez's critics in Boston.
"I'm sure he wished it had ended differently," Torre said of Ramirez's ugly departure from the Red Sox. "But just like when they show those videos where he's rolling around in the outfield, some people will think that's the kind of player he is. They will grab hold of something negative that is going to be part of his history."
Ramirez has written a much different chapter for himself with the Dodgers.
The 36-year-old slugger has been arriving at the team's spring training complex in Arizona around 6 a.m. daily -- one of the first players on the scene, if not the first. He mixed yoga with lifting weights and running the bases in his workouts.
Fans have taken note.
The Dodgers sold about 49,000 tickets on the first day single-game tickets were available in early March, three days after Ramirez's return was set. That's about 12,000 more than were sold on the same day a year ago.
"I think this is going to be the best phase of his career, better than Cleveland and Boston, but we'll see," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said.
Ramirez's contract includes a clause that allows him to opt out after this season. After months of wrangling, it wasn't the long-term deal he had sought and certainly not the $160 million, eight-year contract he had in Boston, where he forced his way out at the July 31 trade deadline.
Yet he says he's much happier in Los Angeles.
"Coming here was so much fun, like a vacation," he said recently. "A place where I can relax, play baseball and have fun. That's important to me. That's why I wanted to come back."
Ramirez is the rare player who captures attention on and off the playing field, putting him in a league with the city's other resident superstars, Kobe Bryant and David Beckham.
His ability to poke fun at himself and joke with everyone gives Los Angeles a charismatic athlete possessing the best sense of humor since Shaquille O'Neal entertained at Staples Center with the Lakers.
"What is life if you don't have fun? We are blessed to play the game and make so much money," Ramirez said.
Playing the goofball has endeared Ramirez to McCourt, who admits that as the team's owner he often needs to be reminded baseball is just a game.
"Manny really captivated this city in a very special way," the owner said. "He did amazing things in that clubhouse. He's someone who can come in and handle the focus of the media, take the pressure off the young kids. He's smart and funny."
Ramirez's arrival dramatically changed the atmosphere in a clubhouse rife with tension between the younger players and now-departed veterans like Jeff Kent and Nomar Garciaparra.
Instead of players sitting with their backs to the room and headphones clamped on, Ramirez has lightened everybody up with raucous music blaring from the speakers and a loose demeanor that's proven contagious.
"I don't know what went on in the other locker room, but here he's a great teammate and we're glad to have him," outfielder Matt Kemp said. "He reminds us to have fun out there on the field. He keeps us loose and ready to go."
Leaving Boston and the AL, Ramirez joined the Dodgers for the final 2½ months of the season, facing NL pitching he hadn't seen before. But his numbers show he was dialed in from the start.
Ramirez hit .396 with 17 homers, 53 RBIs, 36 runs scored, 74 hits and 35 walks in 53 regular-season games, leading the Dodgers to the NL West title.
He was even more potent in the postseason, hitting .520 with four homers, 10 RBIs, nine runs scored and 11 walks in eight games.
The Dodgers swept the Chicago Cubs in the first round before losing to Philadelphia in the NL championship series to conclude their most successful postseason in 20 years.
"What we were able to do last year was great, but it's in the past," Ramirez said. "We have to start over and take it day by day. We won a lot of games, but we didn't win in the playoffs and that's what the goal is."
The difference in perception between Los Angeles and Boston is stark.
Ramirez was MVP of the 2004 World Series -- Boston's first championship since 1918 -- and helped the Red Sox to another title in 2007. But he often failed to run hard to first base on grounders and repeatedly said he didn't want to play for the Red Sox.
Papelbon criticized Ramirez in the April issue of Esquire magazine, saying Boston made the right decision when it traded the slugger.
"That's what he was. Cancer. He had to go," Papelbon said. "It just takes one guy to bring an entire team down, and that's exactly what was happening."
Yet in what's been dubbed "Mannywood," life has been blissful for Ramirez.
McCourt noted Ramirez has a "willingness to go out and interact with fans, things he didn't do in Boston."
So far, he's said and done all the right things, including donating $1 million to the Dodgers Dream Foundation charity. McCourt requires players to donate, though Ramirez decided the amount.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Orlando Hudson, a new arrival, have become close with Ramirez.
"If you asked me who was one of the harder workers in the game, I'd say it's Manny," Furcal said. "Whatever problems there were in Boston, whoever's fault it was, it doesn't matter. He makes us a better team, he's a great guy and there isn't any problems."
Ramirez's resume over the final months of last season earned him a lot of goodwill from Torre and his teammates, and he seems determined to preserve it.
"It doesn't matter if you have all the pieces, the best team doesn't always win," Ramirez said. "You have to go out and compete every day and win the game and then win the next one. If you think you should just win because you are better, that can be dangerous."
Associated Press freelance writers Jerry Brown in Phoenix and Jim Richards in Tempe, Ariz., contributed to this report.