Commentary

Manny, Dodgers energized by fresh start

Originally Published: August 1, 2008
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

LOS ANGELES -- The newest Dodger stood in front of his locker and took a long, deep breath. He was working on three hours' sleep. He was fresh off an on-field news conference circus. He was soaking up the quiet.

"You need some pants?" asked first baseman James Loney. "I've got an extra pair. They're huge. I never wear 'em."

Manny Ramirez looked over and smiled like he was laying eyes on an old friend.

"Nah, man. I'm good. It's all good."

It wasn't the shirt off Loney's back, but it wasn't far off. There might be guys in the Boston clubhouse who were itching to see Ramirez get out of town, but in Los Angeles, the regulars were just looking to help the new kid feel at home.

Maybe it was Loney's largesse. Maybe it was the dozens of fans gathered in the upper deck of Dodger Stadium four hours before the first pitch calling out, "Maaaaannnny! We love you, Manny!" Maybe it was just that this was anywhere but Beantown. But Ramirez seemed comfortable Friday evening.

"I feel like I took 5,000 pounds off my back coming here," he said. "I feel great."

He joked with the assembled media at the afternoon presser, promising to "start stealing some bases." And he brushed off questions about potential lingering bad feelings in Boston by explaining that "Boston is in the past. If you ask me about Boston, I put my brain on pause … boop!"

He put the palms of his hands together and bowed to closer Takashi Saito in the clubhouse. He bounced in the dugout before batting practice, hugging teammates and giggling. "You got me covered out there tonight?" he teased right fielder Matt Kemp (thinking Kemp might be playing center). "I'm beat. You know I can't be running out there …"

There was some feeling here in L.A. that his devil-may-care attitude might be just what the doctor ordered.

"This can sometimes be a serious clubhouse," outfielder Andre Ethier said. "And we've had some struggles, some ups and downs, with injuries and things. Manny being here, enjoying things the way he does, may lighten things up for us."

Kemp, who has felt the pressure that comes with trying to establish himself in a veteran clubhouse these past two seasons, agreed: "Having fun is what he's about, and having fun is just what we need."

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez and Andruw Jones
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesManny Ramirez didn't take long to get acclimated with new Dodgers teammates such as fellow outfielder Andruw Jones, left.
For Nomar Garciaparra, what Ramirez does with a bat is much more to the point.

"He makes a difference in any lineup you put him in," he said. "He's going to have a positive impact here night in and night out."

"I don't care about any of the other stuff," hitting coach Don Mattingly concurred. "Here's what I know: He's one of those guys who just doesn't come along. He's on the short list of best right-handed hitters of all time."

There seems little doubt Ramirez will bolster a Dodgers lineup that ranked 14th in the National League in OPS coming into Friday's game against the Diamondbacks. But is Joe Torre's staff at all concerned about the toll Manny might take on a coach's psyche? Mattingly is Donnie Baseball. Third-base coach Larry Bowa is nails. Torre came to Los Angeles because he was done with the New York circus. And the organization made a deal for Ramirez because the powers that be think he can be the difference between a deep playoff run and being on the outside looking in come October.

General manager Ned Colletti said Thursday that the Dodgers have every expectation Ramirez will play hard for them and talked about the renewed energy that comes with a fresh start.

Longtime Dodgers coach Manny Mota, who knows Ramirez from several years of Dominican winter ball, insists there is nothing to worry about.

"He likes to cut loose, yes, but he is really focused on his business, too," Mota said. "They will love Manny here."

Mattingly is already enamored.

"I know the last few weeks have been tough, but this is a guy with a reputation as a big-time worker," Mattingly said. "My job, with a hitter of his caliber, is to ask him what his program is and to get to know the way he goes about his business. I'm trying to learn him, get to know him. I'm not telling Manny Ramirez how to hit the ball. He's got that covered."

In the dugout before the game, Torre empathized with what his new superstar has been through recently. They were adversaries 19 times a year when Joe was a Yankee and Manny was with the Red Sox, but they've long been brothers-in-arms when it comes to knowing what it's like to live and perform under constant media scrutiny.

Through all the fun and games, there is always an edge about him. He's about as confident in his ability as anyone I've ever seen, but it's more than that. … This guy wants to win more than anything else, and he wants to prove himself every time up.

--Dodgers manager Joe Torre

"He's said to me that he just wants to play baseball [now]," Torre said. "I understand where he's coming from. The stress that goes on … it wears on you."

Beyond mentioning to Manny that he might "clean up" his hair a little bit when he gets a chance, Torre had no plans to lay down the law.

"There are certain rules we like to adhere to as far as getting here on time and playing the game the right way, and that's pretty much all I require," he said. "I never try to change a player's personality. I try not to have any preconceived notions. If there's something we need to talk about, we'll do that."

He doesn't look at Manny and see the guy who inspired frustration in Boston. Torre sees the guy who made his life miserable as manager of the Yankees.

"He's scary," Torre said. "That's Manny being Manny [to me]. It's nice to see him on my side, coming out of my dugout and going to hit against somebody else for a change."

He knows there will be Manny moments. He knows some balls in left won't be played perfectly (Ramirez played a Stephen Drew double into a triple in the top of the fifth inning Friday). He knows Ramirez will approach the game in his inimitable way. But as someone who has seen a lot of him in the past several years, Torre believes there is more to Manny than meets the eye.

"Through all the fun and games, there is always an edge about him. He's about as confident in his ability as anyone I've ever seen, but it's more than that," Torre said. "Whatever it is that drives him, it drives him. It is there all the time, no matter how much fun he seems to be having. I used to watch him from the opposite dugout, and you could see the intensity, the desire in his face. You watch him when he pops up or strikes out -- you'll see it. This guy wants to win more than anything else, and he wants to prove himself every time up."

Every time Ramirez came up Friday night, the Dodger Stadium crowd -- 55,239 strong (30,000 tickets were sold in the 24 hours before the game began) -- erupted, giving him a standing ovation for a ground ball to shortstop in the second inning and chanting his name each time he made his way from the on-deck circle to home plate. Beto Duran of ESPN Radio 710 said the atmosphere was like nothing he'd ever seen here: "Even the beach balls are bigger tonight!"

Los Angeles hasn't had a Hall of Fame-caliber slugger since Gary Sheffield was traded in 2002. The Dodgers haven't experienced the rush of a big-time player acquisition since the ill-fated Darryl Strawberry experiment from 1991 to 1994. The city and the organization are hungry, barely able to remember what the run to the 1988 World Series title felt like.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireManny Ramirez created excitement every time he came to the plate Friday and finished the night with two singles in four at-bats.
Friday was the second game of a big four-game series with division-leading Arizona. The room would have been jacked no matter what. But Ramirez's presence, wearing their colors (newly minted No. 99 Ramirez jerseys were in evidence all over the park Friday night), stepping out of their dugout to take a pregame bow, taking hacks in the 4-hole in their lineup, gave Dodgers fans something that's been missing for a long while now: not just hope, not just confidence, but swagger -- and lots of it.

Garciaparra cautioned against thinking Ramirez would carry this team on his back.

"Shame on us if we put it all on him," he said. "We all have to do our parts."

That's true enough. Perhaps the Red Sox made this deal thinking they couldn't win another World Series with Manny. But as Ramirez stepped in with nobody out and Russell Martin on first base in the bottom of the ninth inning, and his teammates lined the rail of the dugout, and the fans chanted "Let's go Dodgers!" and "Ma-nny! Ma-nny!" like they were part of a giant high school pep rally, you got the feeling, even though the big man grounded into a double play, that the Dodgers and their faithful, just a few hours into the Ramirez-in-L.A. era, already can't imagine winning without him.

"He's special," Torre said in a crowded office after the Diamondbacks' 2-1 victory. "He's going to do some things. And the energy he brings. It really rubs off."

As for the man of the hour? He was looking to the future.

"Tomorrow's another day," Ramirez said before heading out into the Los Angeles night. "We movin' on."

Eric Neel is a Page 2 columnist for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

Page 2 columnist
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.

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