Friday March 6th, 2009

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- At precisely 9:50 a.m. Thursday morning, Manny Ramirez opened the door to the Dodgers clubhouse and was immediately greeted by a sound that has followed him, for better and for worse, throughout his Hall of Fame career: laughter.

Some of his teammates, which were seated at a table in the middle of the room for a meeting, even began applauding the arrival, at long last, of their superstar leftfielder. All of them were smiling.

For the moment, at least, any concerns about what type of impact Ramirez's long and sometimes strange contract negotiations, his late arrival in camp or his occasionally distracting but always dominant personality would have on the Dodgers clubhouse and their season were put to rest. Ramirez and his lethal bat are back and that is more than enough to brighten the mood around the team.

But when Ramirez opened his press conference by declaring "I'm ba-aack!" he said more than he knew. The Dodgers are back, too -- back to being the team to beat in the National League West. The circus that has accompanied Ramirez for much of his career is back. Seeing the larger-than-usual crowd of fans and media that had gathered outside the team complex this morning, first baseman James Loney said in mock horror, "What are all these people doing here, oh my God."

"Manny's one of the handful of players that can do this," said Dodgers manager Joe Torre. "With the Yankees, it was the whole team, but this is just Manny."

And the questions about how long Ramirez stays on his best behavior are back, as well. Controversy has been as much apart of Ramirez in recent seasons as a stellar batting line, but in 2008, the controversy threatened to derail an entire team, precipitating his deadline trade from Boston to Los Angeles. First, for getting into a dugout shoving match with teammate Kevin Youkilis, then for reportedly pushing the Boston's traveling secretary (interestingly, the first person Ramirez went to say hello to when he arrived on Thursday was the Dodgers' traveling secretary, whom he greeted with a big hug). Then for appearing to loaf in the field and refusing to play, a move that later reports said nearly got him suspended by the Red Sox.

But after a deadline trade from Boston to Los Angeles, all that friction and the bitterness it produced vanished. The only Ramirez anyone saw was the dedicated superstar with the otherworldly talent. He strapped the Dodgers to his back and dragged them to the NL West title on the strength of an absurd .396/.489/.793 stat line that included 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in just 53 games.

It was that performance, and the exemplary work ethic that produced it, that Ramirez's teammates have been focused on since learning of his return on television yesterday. Any concerns over the baggage that accompanies their star has been overlooked and, in some eyes, overblown.

"He gets a bum rap. Just because he's really good at what he does, he's overexposed," said Doug Mientkiewicz, a former Red Sox teammate who is trying to win a roster spot with the Dodgers. Mientkiewicz downplayed the brouhaha over Ramirez's transgressions, saying, "Those kinds of things happen everywhere and it doesn't make you a bad person or a bad teammate."

Casey Blake, who arrived in Los Angeles at roughly the same time as Ramirez last summer, said he spoke with Manny on multiple occasions about what happened in Boston and came away convinced it would not be a problem in L.A. "He wants to win and I think he genuinely cares about his teammates," Blake said. "He plays hard and that's all we ask of our teammates. I don't care what he does other than that."

Ramirez is unlikely to be playing much at all for the next week or so, according to Torre, but there is little doubt that he'll be ready by Opening Day. In the meantime, he spent the majority of his first day showing off, as Boras put it, his "gregarious, comedic, wit," rather than the skills that have made him one of the most productive -- and, once again, richest -- players in the game. In fact, when Boras referred to his client as a "stand-up left fielder," he didn't mean with his bat, his glove or his comportment, but rather his personality.

Here was Manny telling Dodgers owner Frank McCourt to "just be yourself" when he got up to speak at the press conference. There was Manny telling a reporter who asked when he would cut his goatee, "You don't make the rules here." Here was Manny following Torre's comment about not knowing whether he'd bat Ramirez third or fourth by saying, "You're not sure? You make the lineup, Joe. With my speed, I better stay third." There was Manny responding to the shouts of White Sox players on the field below with exuberant fist pumps and making a gesture as if signing his name.

Ramirez is, as McCourt noted, "sophisticated and bright, but he has a lot of boy in him." That echoes the famous quote of Hall of Fame Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella, who once said, "[Baseball] is a man's game, but you've got to have a lot of little boy in you to play it."

The times where Ramirez has caused the most headaches for others in his career have been when he's shown too much immaturity, too much Manny Being Manny, too much little boy and not enough of the man who, according to McCourt, is "much more serious than people think he is. He's very inquisitive. People confuse fun-loving as lack of commitment, and that's a mistake. I understand Manny better now because I understand his thinking better."

There was speculation that Ramirez's behavior with the Red Sox may have limited the interest he received on the free-agent market this winter. Both Boras and McCourt tap-danced around the issue. When McCourt was asked whether he had spoken to Ramirez about what happened in Boston, he said, "I'm very satisfied he was coming here for the right reasons. Other than that, those are private conversations."

"We're not trying to ignore the Boston thing, but that's ancient history as far as I'm concerned," said Torre.

Only Ramirez addressed the matter head-on. "I was looking for this place for eight years and now I'm here. What happened in Boston didn't hurt me. I won now. I won getting out of there. [Here] the fans love me, my teammates love me. I'm happy."

That goes for all those who bleed Dodger blue, from the fans who chanted his name when he took his first cuts in the batting cage, to the teammates who embraced him upon his arrival, to the management team that made his return a reality with a significant financial investment. Everyone is happy. Whether they stay that way remains to be seen.

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