LOS ANGELES -- The Dodgers could apparently handle only one freak show at a time, so Manny Ramirez had to go, ceding the stage to Frank and Jamie McCourt.
Ramirez spent two years in Los Angeles, led the Dodgers to consecutive appearances in the National League Championship Series, spawned a subdivision of Chavez Ravine known as Mannywood, tested positive for a female fertility drug, went on the disabled list three times in one season, and was ejected from his final game on the first pitch he saw. But all that excitement was no more than an opening act for the McCourts. Their divorce goes to trial today, and by the time they are finished bickering over the multi-million-dollar trivialities they consider "expenses," Ramirez will look down-to-earth by comparison.
With the Dodgers virtually eliminated from the playoff race, this divorce hearing is all their fans have left, a chance to watch those who brought down the franchise disintegrate along with it. Here is the rare opportunity for folks in the cheap seats to laugh at ones in the owners' box. Nobody will be talking about how many hits Andre Ethier got, or how many strikeouts Chad Billingsley had, but how many beach houses Jamie requires and how many country clubs Frank needs and how they possibly remember the addresses.
Ramirez needed to leave, lest he be upstaged by a bigger circus with more colorful clowns. Los Angeles is not a city easily offended, as Ramirez discovered two years ago, when he arrived as an exile from Boston, and was embraced as a refugee. But the McCourts are pushing the most relaxed boundaries of decency, arming themselves for one of the most expensive divorces in the history of California, a state that has seen plenty of splits involving actual celebrities. In those cases, the public picks sides. In this one, nobody seems to care whether Frank or Jamie wins, so long as they both head home to Boston as quickly as possible afterward, selling to the first bidder with a beating heart.
Assuming this divorce trial signals the end of the McCourt stewardship, the couple will be remembered for three reasons: 1) Hiring and firing an astronomical amount of staffers, handlers and assorted image-makers; 2) Somehow convincing Joe Torre that he should work for them; 3) Acquiring Ramirez for loose change.
Right now, Ramirez is a punch line, given how much time he has spent injured and suspended. But when he arrived in 2008, the Dodgers had not won a playoff series in 20 years, and he showed them how. He played 53 regular season games for the Dodgers in '08 and each one was a spectacle, not because the fans were wearing dreadlocks or No. 99 jerseys, but because he barely made an out. During that sublime stretch Ramirez batted .396 with a .489 on-base percentage and a .743 slugging percentage, sparking a craze that recalled Fernando-mania. Like any craze, it did not last long, fading with a contract dispute after the season, followed by the suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in '09 and leg injuries this season. But that doesn't mean Ramirez's stay wasn't worthwhile. He helped deliver two division titles, and NLCS berths, to an organization that could not be greedy. His decline was dizzying only because he started atop such a high perch.
At this time two years ago, Ramirez was the most captivating athlete in Los Angeles outside of Kobe Bryant. This summer he devolved into a mascot, an outsized character meant to distract from a disappointing team. This weekend, Torre benched Ramirez in Colorado, claiming he could not cover left field. On Sunday, Ramirez came up to pinch-hit, and was ejected for arguing the first strike. By nightfall, reports had him going to the White Sox, who are clearly hoping he can rekindle '08.
Ramirez is best in the smallest of doses, so the White Sox may see a little of the old magic, though they cannot count on it for long. The exodus from L.A. has begun and Ramirez is the first one out. Torre's contract expires after the season and he has given no indication he will be back. And then there is the owner, or owners, or whatever the court will decide they are.
The Dodgers lead the league in lawyers, and they will be out in force starting today, as Frank tries to keep the club for himself, and Jamie tries to keep a share, and fans root for both of them to lose. This was no place for Manny Ramirez. He was the normal one.
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