Manny, Dodgers closing in on deal

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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Manny Ramirez is set to meet Wednesday with Dodgers owner Frank McCourt in Los Angeles in what both sides hope will be the final, successful step after four months of difficult, often contentious negotiations.

Indications are the sides have tentatively agreed to terms similar to what the Dodgers offered a week ago -- a two-year, $45 million contract with an opt-out clause that would allow Ramirez to become a free agent after this season, and deferred payments that reduce the value of the deal by about $1 million or $2 million, depending on whether the star outfielder chooses to opt out after the first year.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre and GM Ned Colletti left camp in Glendale, Ariz., to return to L.A. for the meeting with Ramirez.

The deal isn't being considered done until after this meeting, and the success of this meeting isn't being considered quite a lock, not after the many difficulties in negotiations dragged talks past the start of spring training. Ramirez may need to show McCourt in their face-to-face confab that he can live and play with a deal that probably isn't what he envisioned after his performance in Los Angeles last season, when he hit .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in 53 games and was even better in two playoff rounds.

Ramirez also would have to pass a physical exam, which isn't expected to be a problem but could still delay any announcement of the deal until Thursday or Friday.

After many twists and turns, and a lot of negative feelings on both sides, Dodgers people are considering the deal something short of a fait accompli. However, it doesn't appear Ramirez hesitated in hopping on a plane from Florida, his state of residence, and it would still be a major surprise if the deal blows up now.

At different points over the past few days, it looked like it just might blow. McCourt suggested at times he wanted to "start from scratch'' as disagreements with agent Scott Boras became public and both sides issued publicity-generating e-mails aimed at getting out their message.

Citing the economy and his apparent belief Ramirez has no other serious offers, McCourt hinted to friends in recent days he might begin "negotiating backward,'' meaning he'd present an offer lower than the Dodgers' last one. It is believed that the ploy might have been the one thing to drive Ramirez away, presumably to the archrival Giants, who have showed continuing interest but never seemed ready to outbid the Dodgers.

This deal works for McCourt, as it appears to be the same one or very similar to what he offered a few days ago, and less than Ramirez's three requests in recent weeks. More significant, it should secure the very man the Dodgers need to re-establish themselves as an NL West favorite. Ramirez impressed the Dodgers not only with his stats but also with his hard work and impact on their bevy of fine young players.

Ramirez's influence wasn't as positive in Boston, as he forced the Red Sox to trade him by acting up last summer, and those antics might have discouraged more teams from seriously pursuing him. The free-falling economy hasn't helped his cause, either. But even though this deal doesn't look all that different on the surface from the two-year, $45 million contract he dismissed at the general managers' meetings in early November, a couple of key upgrades make this one more palatable for him. Though the November offer isn't believed to have contained deferrals, it called for Ramirez to be guaranteed the $45 million through a $7.5 million buyout on a third-year team option.

This deal also contains the coveted opt-out clause that could make him a free agent after the season, a major enticement for the 36-year-old Ramirez, who's still hoping to cash in with a long-term deal sooner rather than later. Opt-out clauses enabled two other Boras clients -- Alex Rodriguez and J.D. Drew -- to strike it really rich, with Drew's decision to opt out in 2006 upsetting the Dodgers after they felt he insinuated in an article in the Orange County Register that he planned to stay in L.A. Once he opted out, the Dodgers decided not to negotiate with him, and he wound up signing with Boston for $70 million, or $48 million more than what remained on his Dodgers deal.

Another year of great behavior and playoff heroics could put Ramirez in a much better negotiating position. However, there's no evidence the economy will turn around quickly, and the free-agent market could be stocked again with productive corner outfielders. Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Bobby Abreu and Jermaine Dye are all scheduled to be free agents next winter, barring any extensions.