- Jim Caple, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
CHICAGO -- The vibrant blue of the uniform is striking. And the 99 jersey number certainly stands out as different. But everything else is as familiar a part of October baseball as ultra-zoom closeups of Joe Torre's weathered face and those annoying promos for the "exciting" new TV season.
Manny Ramirez steps to the plate. Manny works the count. Manny draws a walk. Manny goes yard. Manny lifts the team to postseason glory. Manny acts so loose it's as if he doesn't care (or know) what month it is, let alone what day.
Regardless of the uniform, he's done this many times since 1995. Derek Jeter might be missing from this October, Torre might be riding a surfboard in commercials, but Manny's Baseball Land is up and running as usual.
"I'm just being Manny," Manny said after the Dodgers' 7-2, Wrigley Field-silencing Game 1 victory over the Cubs on Wednesday. "That's it. I've played great everywhere, and I'm just happy that I'm here in Los Angeles. It was a great move for me, just to go and show people that the other stuff that I left behind wasn't true, that I just want to come and get a new life and play the game, play hard and show people I can still do this."
The official Game 1 hero was Los Angeles first baseman James Loney, who hit the fifth-inning grand slam that turned a 2-0 deficit into an atmosphere-changing 4-2 lead. But it was Manny who set up that grand slam with a walk that probably is making Cubs fans twitch and curse as you read this, and it was Manny who added insurance with a home run that defied physics, and it was Manny who made the difference Wednesday, just as he has since joining the Dodgers at the trade deadline.
"Manny has changed everything," Dodgers batting coach Don Mattingly said. "You get a guy like Manny, and it's like a different level. You get guys out in front of him, and it puts pressure on the pitcher. I remember from the other side with New York, and it was him and 'Big Papi' [David Ortiz]. Every time you got to the eight or nine-hole, you felt like, 'We have to start getting guys out, because we don't want them coming up with runners on base.' It seemed like they were always coming up."
Despite his production (more than 500 home runs and 1,700 RBIs), the maddening rest of the Manny Being Manny sideshow -- the trade demands, the occasional suspicious absences, the "other stuff" as Manny put it -- finally drove the Red Sox crazy enough that they traded him to Los Angeles. He added a needed presence in the otherwise-thin Dodgers lineup, lifted them to the National League West title and made Mattingly's job a lot easier by allowing Mattingly to point to him and just say, "Watch him."
Manny hit .396 with an insane 1.232 OPS, 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 53 games for the Dodgers.
"Everybody acts like he's doing something different, like his second half has been unbelievable. This is what he does all the time. He would go entire years like this," Mattingly said. "People say he's hot. He's not hot; he's just doing what he always does."
What he does is frustrate opposing pitchers as much as he does his own general managers. The Dodgers trailed 2-0 in the fifth when Manny batted with two out and a runner on first. Chicago starter Ryan Dempster quickly got ahead of him 0-2 and was one pitch from getting out of the inning. He never got that pitch. Manny worked the count full -- how many times have we seen that during past postseasons? -- and drew a walk, and one batter later, Loney lined a ball over the ivy in center for a grand slam. Roughly 15 pitches later, the Dodgers led and Dempster was out of the game.
Manny again fell behind 0-2 in the seventh inning, which is a little like saying Michael Phelps was behind at the first turn. It doesn't really matter. Sean Marshall's next pitch was a curveball so low catcher Geovany Soto was getting ready to block it in the dirt when Manny reached down and golfed the ball many rows back in the left-center-field bleachers for his 25th career postseason home run.
"It was unbelievable to see Manny pick up a curveball off the ground and hit it the way he did," Cubs second baseman Mark DeRosa said. "We're going to have our work cut out for us with him."
Or maybe they won't. Manny, who opened his postgame comments by saying, "I'd like to thank Joe for cutting my hair," ended them by saying, "By the way, I'm changing my name to Dave Roberts."
Wait a minute. Manny Being Dave Roberts? It's an interesting scenario, but he probably was kidding. After all, he's so much better at circling the bases at a home run trot than running hard all the way around them.
Jim Caple is a senior baseball writer for ESPN.com.
23hInterview by Buster Olney
15hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com