Monday, August 30, 2010
L.A. fell hard for Manny Ramirez
By Ramona Shelburne ESPNLosAngeles.com
He came to Los Angeles a dreadlocked revelation: baseball's jester who simply needed the right court to appreciate him.
With the Dodgers, Manny Ramirez seemed to finally find a team and city that could appreciate him.
L.A. has always had a short memory and a thing for good comeback stories. And for the first act of his time here, the city fell as hard for Manny Ramirez as it has for any professional athlete in recent memory.
He smiled at fans from the batter's box, danced in left field on Cinco de Mayo and turned the once-uptight Dodgers clubhouse into a party. October baseball became an expectation again, not a dream.
In the best of times, that is.
He leaves us now, not in the worst of times, but back where this all started: on the outside of baseball's inner circle of teams that matter, grasping at the waiver wire for help but claiming only salary relief.
Monday will be Manny Ramirez's last day as a Dodger. He leaves quietly, on injured, aged legs.
Here in Los Angeles, we are left with a question: Did we ever know him well?
In the beginning, there was almost too much to love. In two months, he transformed the Los Angeles Dodgers from National League West also-ran into a World Series contender. He taught young stars such as Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp how to smile after a strikeout. He made the Dodgers' beleaguered pitching staff feel as though giving up three runs in the top of the first inning wasn't the end of the night.
But mostly, he made Los Angeles feel like it was the town he'd always been waiting for. Boston was too uptight for him. Cleveland was too small. Los Angeles was just the right mix of flaky and flashy.
His numbers to finish 2008 were otherworldly. In 61 games, he hit .410 with 21 home runs and 63 RBIs. Every time Ramirez stepped to the plate, Chavez Ravine buzzed with electricity and flashing cameras.
When he walked out of the Dodgers' clubhouse for the final time that season, a free agent to be, he famously joked: "Gas is up, and so am I."
It was a lighthearted quip. But looking back, it might've been the beginning of the end. Not of the affair, but of Los Angeles' blinding love. The longer negotiations with Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras, took, the further out of love the city fell with its slugger.
In the next few months, the economy took a nosedive, unemployment skyrocketed and fans weren't in the mood for Ramirez's antics. Gas prices were up, and no one could afford to drive, let alone buy two tickets in Mannywood for $99.
The Dodgers themselves grew weary of the unnecessary stalemate, sending out an angry news release announcing that "Boras Rejects Dodgers Offer To Manny Ramirez" that included exasperated quotes from owner Frank McCourt.
When Ramirez finally re-signed with the club for two years and $45 million dollars, the Dodgers insisted he come to McCourt's house in Malibu so McCourt and general manager Ned Colletti could make sure he had the right look in his eyes.
Ramirez's time with L.A. fizzled fast, culminating with a pinch-hit ejection Sunday.
"We just felt it was worthwhile just to make sure we were all on the same page," Colletti said at the time. "We needed to put the personality back into it. We had four months of negotiating and there were so many different things in the press all the time. We wanted to have it one-on-one and more personal."
By then, it was clear that the Dodgers and their fans could never be sure which Ramirez they were getting for the next two years: the lighthearted spirit who had won them over with amazing months at the plate or the maddening malcontent who sulked his way out of Boston by arguing with teammates, failing to remember which knee he had hurt and shoving the team's traveling secretary.
At first, he tried his best to win everyone over again, flashing a mischievous grin for the cameras as he was reintroduced to the Dodgers in March 2009.
"I'm baaack," Ramirez said, in his best Arnold Schwarzenegger imitation. But it had taken so long to get the deal done that the news conference was from the Dodgers' spring training site in Arizona, with the intimacy and connection with Los Angeles hundreds of miles away.
A few months later, the other shoe dropped. Ramirez was banned 50 games for violating baseball's drug policy.
Nothing was ever the same.
There was no more joy in Mannywood. Only shame and longing for the best of times. He never apologized for letting the Dodgers or the city down. He let others talk for him.
"The thing that was toughest for Manny, in the feel I had from talking to him, is how he disappointed everybody," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said at the news conference after Ramirez's suspension.
"He loved how the fans just get turned on by him, when he plays games with them. His personality really matches up well from what's been going on from last year to this year."
We never saw that personality again. Or that bat.
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This past year, Ramirez has stopped smiling and started swinging too hard. He tried to focus all his energy on the game, but his body began to betray him.
This season, he never got untracked. He was on the disabled list more than he was in the lineup.
And now finally, he is gone. The city isn't angry at the news but indifferent.
I have always thought of Ramirez as a crystal, refracting light into an unpredictable array of colors. He has many angles and many moods, depending on how the light hits him on a particular day.
Only this year, he failed to sparkle much at all. His star power dulled with each trip to the disabled list and each weak ground ball to third base on an inside pitch he used to crush.
Although he leaves with barely a whimper, his time in Los Angeles won't soon be forgotten. The best of his time here was the best time anyone had at the ballpark since 1988.
The rest of the time, he let too many people down.
Ramona Shelburne is a writer and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.