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All's well that ends well -- Dodgers buzzing about Manny's return

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The mood brightened in sunny, balmy Dodgers camp with the news that Manny Ramirez was on his way into town to continue a Dodgers career that could not have begun more auspiciously. Quirky, funny Manny isn't due in until Thursday, after he completes a full physical Wednesday in L.A., but his peppy personality was already seen in some teammates who were just happy to hear they weren't going to have to fend for themselves.

The slugging savant's influence and impact on the team were as big as all Chavez Ravine, and Dodgers personnel understood that, which is why several of them were cringing as club owner Frank McCourt was openly talking a few days ago about "starting from scratch'' in negotiations and threatening behind the scenes about lowering his bid, which would have marked a sure death knell to the deal.

Dodger honchos Ned Colletti and Joe Torre rode back to the ranch, arriving around 12:30 p.m. local time, after a successful mission to Malibu to make sure Manny and the Dodgers still all liked each other enough to continue to work together after four months of negotiations that only looked like hell from here. The real issue at the Malibu meeting, of course, had nothing to do with Colletti and Torre, who long ago realized Ramirez was a necessity for the Dodgers, like food and air. The question was whether McCourt, who seemed perpetually ticked off for four straight months, was satisfied that Ramirez wasn't also ticked off, and that he'd been able to play with a clear mind, uncluttered by thoughts of lost dollars.

Manny was Manny, according to all meeting attendees. Which is to say he was excited to be back playing baseball, whether or not he had that $100 million contract in hand. "I think he's basically chomping at the bit to get on the field,'' Torre said.

The $45 million deal over two years, with an opt-out option for Ramirez, is much better than the Dodgers' original offer (which was also for $45 million over two years) in that this deal only keeps Ramirez under Dodgers control for one year while that one -- with a third-year player option -- kept him in their control for three. So even though Ramirez didn't get his four-year deal now, he's got a shot at one next winter, especially if he stays on good behavior for another full year and the freefalling economy starts to turn around.

Some folks in baseball were complimenting McCourt for standing up to Boras and not acceding to much bigger requests. However, no one wearing a uniform was counting dollars.

"We couldn't win without him,'' one Dodgers person said. "Everyone in here [the clubhouse] knows it.''

Most of Manny's Dodger teammates didn't go quite that far. Although, they didn't have to. The evidence was already in last season. The Dodgers were a blah .500 team when Manny arrived, and he took them into the NLCS (hard as it is to believe, Ramirez has now played as many LCS games as dynasty's Derek Jeter).

"We were prepared to give it a go without him, and I don't think we were lacking confidence,'' Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier said. "But I'd guess there's a little extra confidence knowing he's on our side.''

"You don't want him on another team helping them,'' outfielder Matt Kemp said.

As fate would have it, the Dodgers were playing their archrival Giants on this spring day, and Giants president Larry Baer was here to finally talk aloud about their involvement. The upshot is this: They were interested in Manny and talked a lot to Boras about him, but never believed they had a great shot to steal Manny from the Dodgers.

Baer likened it to when the Giants had Barry Bonds; while other teams would "poke around'' from time to time, few folks ever believed Bonds would leave the Giants. While Manny spent only a half year in L.A., it was a pretty special half year.

Manny played the negotiating game, not committing to where he most wanted to go. But it turns out he likes everything about L.A. that he didn't like about Boston. He lived in Pasadena last year and could walk around the village without being accosted. Even in the smoggy air, he felt he could breathe better than in Boston.

Baer said the Giants were willing to make offers but suggested they weren't about to blow L.A. away. "We have a full outfield, we have a situation where we wanted to be flexible in coming years, and I feel like we've significantly improved our team,'' Baer said.

The Dodgers did the same, but with one bold stroke (or shall I say four months of difficult, even contentious negotiations). Without him, they don't have anyone who scares opposing teams in their lineup. With him, they are a real threat. Without him, they are a.500 team, maybe. With him, they will be installed as favorites in the NL West.

Torre and Colletti made clear they couldn't talk about Ramirez's effect on the team until the deal is absolutely done (he just has the physical to go), but they practically waxed poetic about the hour-and-a-half meeting held at McCourt's Malibu abode.

"I felt very pleased with everyone's comfort level today,'' Torre said.

In other words, McCourt was not throwing any fits. He let everyone speak -- there were about eight attendees among Dodgers people and Manny people -- and not a discouraging words was said. This differentiated it from prior harsh negotiations, which became a public relations battle and threatened to send Ramirez to his second choice.

"We all wanted the same thing,'' Torre also said, meaning for Ramirez to be a Dodger.

That's true. And because Manny ultimately wanted to be a Dodger, probably more than anyone realized, he will be one today. That's great for him, better for them.

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