Saturday August 2nd, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Manny Ramirez arrived at Dodger Stadium on Friday like a bad Hollywood cliché, another long-haired diva seeking reinvention, another high-maintenance character seeking acceptance, as well as a $20-million-a-year deal.

But for a megastar, Ramirez made a fairly modest entrance. During a private tour of the ballpark, led by Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and general manager Ned Colletti, Ramirez asked to see the top deck. He wanted to take in the view from the cheap seats.

As Ramirez stood on the highest level, looking out over the pavilion, the palm trees, and the hills in the distance, fans buying tickets at the general admission box office recognized him and nearly doubled over. Ramirez, for an instant, was one of them.

The gesture would have seemed calculated if it came from anyone else. But Ramirez is famous for calculating nothing. Of course, that is part of the reason he is here. The Red Sox became so weary of Ramirez's unpredictable behavior, his disdain for calculation, that they shipped him to Los Angeles on Thursday for less than market value.

"I'm just thinking blue right now," Ramirez said. "When people ask me about Boston, I put my brain on pause." Then he leapt forward and made a motion with his hand as if he were literally pressing a button on a remote control. "Pop," he yelped.

Ramirez did take a moment to thank Red Sox fans and express his love for them, before issuing the caveat: "I feel like I took 5,000 pounds off my back coming here."

He will also be taking a few pounds off his head. Dodgers manager Joe Torre proved throughout his time in New York that he does not mind oddballs, so long as they are clean cut. During a meeting in Torre's office Friday afternoon, Torre asked Ramirez how important his dreadlocks are to him. Ramirez then asked Torre what he wanted him to do. "Clean it up," Torre said. Considering how the Red Sox bent rules for Ramirez, it was a crucial moment -- Torre showing Ramirez that he will be held to the same standards as everyone else, and Ramirez showing that he will comply, at least for now.

"I don't want them to treat me differently than the other guys," Ramirez said. Asked about his plans for a new hairstyle, Ramirez said: "I'm going to look like a baby."

Ramirez will wear his wild side on the back of his jersey. He wanted to stick with No. 24, but the Dodgers retired it for Walter Alston. His second choice was No. 34, but that belonged to Fernando Valenzuela. In the end, Ramirez chose No. 99, a bizarre statement reminiscent of former Phillies closer Mitch Williams, known as "Wild Thing."

Ramirez came to No. 99 with a little help from his agent, Scott Boras, who included it on the list of possible digits he submitted to the Dodgers' equipment staff. Boras is trying to bill Ramirez as a modern-day Yogi Berra, capitalizing on his eccentric personality. Being in Los Angeles, of course, the marketing possibilities are endless.

In Ramirez's debut with the Dodgers on Friday night, he went 2-for-4, but grounded into a double play in the ninth inning of a 2-1 loss to the first-place Diamondbacks. Before every at-bat, the fans at Dodger Stadium chanted Ramirez's name, and he rewarded them by beating out an infield single, no everyday occurrence. Before the game, Ramirez complained of nerves and said he would not be hitting home runs anymore. Rather, he would just try for line drives to right field. Presumably, the Dodgers hope, he was joking.

Although Ramirez made no predictions, it is clear that the Dodgers believe his bat will make the difference in the NL West race, and possibly beyond. The Dodgers have not won a playoff series since 1988, but all of a sudden, locals are dreaming of an I-5 World Series, Dodgers against Angels, gridlock everywhere.

"This can get us over the top," said Tommy Lasorda, manager of the '88 team, who is now special advisor to McCourt. "This might be what we need. I think it is."

It might also be what Ramirez needs. He is an entertainer in an entertainer's town, a Latino icon in a city with a heavy Latino population. If the Dodgers fail to make the playoffs and advance, they will probably let Ramirez walk after the season as a free agent. But if the Dodgers make a run, they will be under severe pressure to re-sign him.

Oddly enough, the Dodgers do not necessarily need Ramirez. They are already loaded in the outfield, with Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Juan Pierre. Andruw Jones, who makes $18 million a year and is batting .163, has become a very pricey backup. How Torre manages all those Yankee-sized egos will be an intriguing subplot for the stretch.

The Dodgers have made some odd personnel decisions in the past few years, signing free agents like Jones and Pierre to massive contracts when they could have built around young players like Kemp and Ethier. But acquiring Ramirez, and giving up so little to get him, should buy Colletti and McCourt some forgiveness. The Dodgers, who rank second-to-last in the National League in slugging percentage, now have a slugger.

No matter where Ramirez goes, he can find the top deck.

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