- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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As Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti watches Manny Ramirez transform his team in a multitude of ways, he reflects on a conversation he had with Bill Mueller, one of his closest advisers, on a field in Peoria, Ariz., during the instructional league in the fall of 2006.
The two men were discussing the merits of baseball's best players when Mueller gave his take on Ramirez, his former teammate on Boston's 2004 world championship club. There was more to Ramirez, Mueller revealed, than the clueless soul who relieved himself behind Fenway Park's Green Monster and sprawled across the outfield grass to intercept a throw from Johnny Damon.
"Billy told me, 'This guy is great in a room. He loves to play, he's passionate about it, and he works at it,'" Colletti recalled. "I never forgot that."
So when Colletti had a chance to rent a future Hall of Famer for a bargain price in late July, he ignored the furor swirling around Ramirez in Boston and took the plunge. Six weeks later, Ramirez is the biggest thing to hit Los Angeles since the high-occupancy vehicle lane.
The Dodgers, 54-54 on July 31, have since gone 25-19 and gained 5½ games on Arizona to take charge in the National League West. They've received strong starting pitching from Chad Billingsley, Derek Lowe and Hiroki Kuroda, watched the bullpen hold up through the extended absence of closer Takashi Saito, weathered an eight-game losing streak, and benefited from a September fade by the Diamondbacks.
Still, nothing has changed the balance of power in the division like the arrival of Ramirez. Call him a mercenary, question his motivation, savage him for his pre-trade jog-a-thon in Boston, and wonder aloud whether he deserves more than a short-term deal on the free-agent market this winter. Just don't dispute his impact on Los Angeles' revival.
It all begins, of course, with Ramirez's specialty. With his .400 batting average and 1.223 OPS as a Dodger, he's making folks at the Elias Sports Bureau and Stats Inc. scramble for historical precedents.
Here are two: (1) Ramirez recently joined Hank Sauer of the 1949 Chicago Cubs as the second player to hit at least 14 homers and drive in 40 runs in his first 40 games following a midseason trade and (2) with one more long ball, he will join Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, David Justice and Carlos Beltran as the only players in history to hit 15 homers for each of two teams in the same season.
In a recent win over Arizona, Ramirez passed Reggie Jackson and Frank Thomas on baseball's career RBI list. Four days later in San Diego, he hit his 522nd homer to move past Ted Williams, Willie McCovey and Thomas. Most nights, he's dressed and gone so quickly after games that the beat writers are lucky to scrounge a comment. Some people wonder if he even showers on his way out the door.
But he sure is conspicuous in the batter's box, working deep counts, hitting balls to the right-center field gap and monopolizing the discussion when opponents try to devise ways to navigate the Los Angeles lineup.
"I lived in the other dugout for 12 years trying to figure out how to get around him," said manager Joe Torre, in reference to his stint in New York. "Now it's the other manager's turn."
Ramirez's other big contribution is harder to quantify: By assuming the role of leading man in the clubhouse, he has made the most startling Hollywood transformation since Bill Murray went from "Caddyshack" to "Lost in Translation."
It's no secret that the Dodgers have had trouble melding their youth movement with a desire to acquire veteran security blankets at several positions. The young guys -- Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, to name two -- carry themselves with a self-assurance that can come across as a swagger, or big league-itis. And the veterans have neither the time nor the inclination for community outreach.
The Dodgers have needed someone with the stature to bridge the gap, but all they've gotten is a bridge to nowhere. Luis Gonzalez wasn't the answer. Jeff Kent, while a pro in the sense of commitment to winning and playing hurt, is not exactly the nurturing type. Nomar Garciaparra prefers to keep to himself, and Juan Pierre tends to go into a shell when he's not contributing. Mark Sweeney and Gary Bennett have the personalities to be icebreakers, but as bench players, they're too low-profile for the job.
Ramirez has been influential not as a Kirk Gibson-type leader -- challenging his teammates and injecting a sense of urgency and purpose -- but by reducing the tension level in the room. He's Senor Congeniality.
"When we try to bring a seriousness to what we do with young players, we tell them that it's fun," Torre said. "But they're so locked into the serious part of it, they don't know how to blend it. Then Manny comes in with his personality and his work ethic, and they have a sense of, 'Oh, OK, that's why he's special.'
"Personality-wise, he might not be comfortable talking to the media, but he's very comfortable within the confines of this clubhouse, on the field and in the dugout. I think he's really given these players an opportunity to enjoy themselves and smile a little bit."
Some Ramirez stories have already made the rounds. Ramirez, who couldn't be troubled to sprint down the line in Boston, jokingly refers to himself as "Dave Roberts" in Los Angeles for his baserunning ability. His two steals as a Dodger match his total over the previous 3½ seasons in Boston.
And he's always good for a yuk. In San Diego, Dodgers outfielder Delwyn Young twisted strands of black medical tape into dreadlocks, and Ethier wore them to inspire the team. "Manny rally dreads," the Dodgers called them.
Some stories are more subtle. On one of Ramirez's first days with the team, he took a chair and moved it from one spot in the clubhouse to another every 15 minutes, initiating a new conversation with a circle of players around him.
Personality-wise, he might not be comfortable talking to the media, but he's very comfortable within the confines of this clubhouse, on the field and in the dugout. I think he's really given these players an opportunity to enjoy themselves and smile a little bit.
--Joe Torre on Manny Ramirez
Dodgers first-base coach Mariano Duncan took notice recently when Ramirez struck out with the bases loaded, then played head cheerleader when first baseman James Loney delivered a big hit.
"Manny's in the dugout jumping and pointing to Loney and saying, 'Yeah, you picked me up! You picked me up!'" Duncan said. "When you have a guy who's a future Hall of Famer who plays the game with enthusiasm and produces every day, you can't measure that. He really surprises me. What I heard about him before is totally different from what I'm seeing now."
Kemp, who hit .382 for the Dodgers last September, has taken his lumps this month. Before a recent game against Arizona, he spent time in the cage receiving a tutorial from Ramirez, who never tires of sharing tips or insights on hitting.
"Manny is a big believer in being patient and getting that good pitch to hit," Kemp said. "He thinks it helps to go deep in counts. He says the more pitches you see, the better chance the pitcher will make a mistake."
Of course, all this Manny love elicits scorn in Boston, where Ramirez is now regarded as persona non goofball for his antics. The Red Sox have ripped off a 28-15 record since Ramirez's departure and are living a headache-free existence with Jason Bay as their left fielder.
Torre has also had to tread lightly with Ramirez at times. He deftly averted a showdown over Manny's long hair and winked when Ramirez began playing music in the clubhouse in violation of team rules.
It remains to be seen whether Ramirez and the Dodgers have a future beyond Halloween. Los Angeles seems like a nice fit for Manny, with a less carnivorous media and more breathing room when he goes out in public. But the team has yet to talk contract with Ramirez or his agent, Scott Boras.
"This is not the time or place to get into that," Colletti said. "I think everybody is focused on trying to get this club as far as they can get it."
When asked to assess Ramirez's impact on the field, at the gate and the team's gift shop, where No. 99 jerseys are a hot item, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt opted for an enthusiastic but restrained, "He's been everything we hoped for."
Translation: The Dodgers love what they've seen. But they're hesitant to get overly gushy in their praise, given the likelihood that one of Boras' researchers is clipping quotes for use as negotiating leverage down the road.
History shows that Ramirez's attention span tends to wane and his moods are prone to swing, so this relationship is subject to fluctuation. For now, suffice it to say that Manny loves his new team, and the team and city love him back. He has brought hope to a franchise with a total of one postseason victory in the past 20 years.
Next up: A Manny Ramirez look-alike contest before Saturday's game against San Francisco, with contestants vying for a chance to meet their hero.
"Part of the culture of Los Angeles is the star presence," Colletti said. "The fan base here is drawn to people of charismatic character and production. Production first, I would think. It doesn't matter how charismatic somebody is if they're hitting .200."
No matter where Ramirez is playing in 2009, that's one neighborhood he'll never visit.