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Is Dodgers owner Frank McCourt souring on Manny?

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Despite seeming to be practically pennies apart in his negotiation with superstar free agent Manny Ramirez, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt suggested again here Sunday that the sides were "starting from scratch." Those are ominous words indeed, if he means them.

McCourt acknowledged that the sides were closer monetarily, and an e-mail from Ramirez's agent Scott Boras suggests they are even closer than believed, as Ramirez apparently has offered to split the difference between his last $45 million proposal and the Dodgers' most recent offer of a contract with a value of about $42 million. There is no good reason for this to fall apart now, not with both sides talking about $25 million for the first year and $20 million for the second on a player option, with the only difference being in the deferrals. However, the Dodgers haven't responded to Ramirez's last three proposals, according to Boras' mass e-mail Sunday. Plus, there are other indications McCourt isn't in the compromising mood.

A person close to McCourt suggested on Sunday there are internal rumblings the emotional owner may either stop negotiating for now, or more drastically, begin "negotiating backward," meaning he might submit a lower offer than his last one. That wouldn't be inconsistent at all with his cryptic and troubling "starting from scratch" remark.

Should McCourt actually lower his latest offer to the franchise-saving savant, that would be quite the gambit. McCourt's last e-mail to the media, which invited Boras to consider other "serious" offers (his quote marks, not mine), snippily suggested he didn't believe he had real competition for Ramirez, who undoubtedly did hurt himself with his abject misbehavior in Boston last summer. It's clear Ramirez is giving the Dodgers every opportunity to win him back, perhaps partly because outside interest remains thin. However, a person close to the Man-child said McCourt would be "playing with fire" should he start lowering bids.

The archrival Giants are the only other team known to have interest in Ramirez, but there are indications they might not have the remaining funds or inclination to try to outbid the Dodgers, especially after their new managing partner Bill Neukom got an earful from a top MLB person for the Giants' $18.5 million expenditure on Edgar Renteria despite perceived slippage by the free agent shortstop. Unlike McCourt, though, Giants people have an excellent relationship with Boras, and that could help them at least remain on the periphery and not disappear altogether. While an outfielder isn't the Giants' greatest need, their balance sheet is said to be in excellent shape and one monster hitter could make their imposing starting pitching look that much better.

One competing owner said, "The Giants should step in now. The Dodgers are giving them an opening."

That owner also questioned whether McCourt really has the money to fund his storied major-market team. Questions along those lines also surfaced late last week when it was revealed that McCourt's last $45 million offer to Ramirez was to be paid off over five years, at no interest, giving McCourt three extra years to foot the bill. However, McCourt denied to the Los Angeles Times that he was deferring money because he can't afford to pay, which seems to indicate that he is playing hardball for some other reason.

People close to McCourt indicate he is upset by the way negotiations have gone, although beyond Ramirez's continuing rejections of the Dodgers' offers, it's uncertain what's upsetting him. One person said McCourt even briefly considered jetting to confront the mercurial superstar in Florida, but McCourt may have less reason to do so. In Sunday's e-mail to the media from Boras, Ramirez is quoted saying he is being apprised of all talks by his agent (not only that, they've all been in the papers by now). "I have given Scott offers that he has given to the Dodgers and he has given me all offers from the team," Ramirez is quoted as saying.

In the last few days, Ramirez has been the one compromising. According to Boras' e-mail, Ramirez's latest offer to return for a two-year contract with deferrals to bring down the present-day value to $43.5 million is about $1.5 million less than the value of L.A.'s last offer.

While McCourt acknowledged the sides appear close during a press conference to mark the opening of the Dodgers' new Cactus League stadium at Camelback Ranch, he reused the foreboding "starting from scratch" line that first appeared on a midnight Dodgers e-mail last Thursday, perhaps suggesting it may not matter how close they are monetarily.

McCourt's dissatisfaction with the tenor of talks is well-known in Dodgers circles, and people close to the team say they believe GM Ned Colletti and manager Joe Torre are currently cast in a role to calm McCourt, which presumably means they will try to steer him from doing anything rash that might upset Ramirez and drive him to their chief rival.

The dueling e-mails suggest both sides have complaints about each other. In Boras' latest salvo, he wrote that he wanted to "make sure the value is stated accurately and appropriately," a reference to strategic Dodger leaks a week ago claiming they'd offered $45 million over two years without mentioning that the precise offer was to pay Manny $10 million each of the next four years and $5 million in the fifth year. "That's really $45 million over five years, not two," the competing owner said (of course Manny would only have to work for two).

The Dodgers' well-oiled publicity machine (they have to be the only team with a p.r. guru making more than the GM) seems intent on spinning the story their way, but that slightly misleading claim regarding their bid appeared to hurt their credibility, even with some L.A. outlets. Since then, the Dodgers have yet to make another offer, or respond to any made by Boras/Ramirez.

It didn't take a baseball insider on Sunday to see the team is missing some serious star power. The fans who came for their opener at Camelback Ranch (and they were about 2,000 short of a sellout in the 3-2 defeat to the White Sox) had to settle for Tommy Lasorda and American IdolJordin Sparks. Without the Man-child, left field was manned by the lovely but light-hitting Juan Pierre.

Torre politely declines to answer all Manny questions now but did say the team is currently working hard to become more aggressive on the base paths, apparently to compensate for missing its great threat. Torre also said, resignedly, "You play the players you're dealt," though surely he'd like to be dealt more than the current $77 million payroll, which smacks of small-to-mid market.

Ramirez's main leverage may be the Dodgers' glaring hole, or glaring need. He is a rare player with the power and patience to wait things out, a la Dodgers Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, who staged the most famous spring holdout nearly a half century ago. However, depending on McCourt's next move, he could also eventually be driven to try to work a comparable deal with the Giants or someone else.

• Three Mets people said they believe there's no way Johan Santana will miss Opening Day, painting a much more hopeful picture than the more circumspect pitcher. Mets people, who are notoriously optimistic (though no one knows exactly why), cited the fact that Santana has experienced similar elbow issues in the past and never missed any time. Mets people do say they will proceed cautiously with their most valuable commodity, however.

• Some owners are talking again about the possibility of contraction, and Bill Madden's column in the Daily News cited the Marlins and A's as the two prime candidates. Until further notice, this talk should probably be viewed in the context of those two teams' efforts to secure new stadiums. The A's just abandoned their plans to build in Fremont, significantly south of Oakland, while the Marlins have begun running into road blocks in their efforts to land a stadium at the Orange Bowl site. Sorry, but the citizens of South Florida (of which I am one) are being hit as hard as anyone by foreclosures, and the last thing they need to be subsidizing now is a new stadium. That project should be abandoned until South Florida starts to heal.

• The Nationals took their first and best step toward normalcy when they forced the resignation of GM Jim Bowden, who claimed he was leaving because he didn't want to become a distraction, as if he's ever been anything but. Assistant GM Mike Rizzo, who engineered great drafts in Arizona, looks like a logical replacement, at least on an interim basis.

• If the Dodgers don't get Manny, at least new second baseman Orlando Hudson is looking good here. And so is that contract of his, which is full of deferrals. Maybe that bargain deal, which guarantees Hudson less than his Diamondbacks replacement Felipe Lopez, has emboldened McCourt to play hardball with Manny.

• The Camelback Ranch is pleasant enough, though McCourt insisted to media members it's the best spring facility ever. Personally, I miss Dodgertown.

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