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Manny in LA LA Land

Oct. 13, 2008
Oct. 13, 2008

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Oct. 13, 2008

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Manny in LA LA Land

A star-obsessed city that had lost its baseball sizzle is suddenly relevant again, thanks to Manny Ramirez—the new leading man who put the Dodgers one step closer to a possible made-for-Hollywood World Series matchup

WHENEVER MANNYRAMIREZ bats, his L.A. teammates and other Dodgers personnel, virtually to aman, migrate to the railing at the top step of their dugout. "You don'twant to miss anything with Manny," third baseman Casey Blake says of thehitting virtuoso who is unlike anyone they've ever seen, "because every atbat is the chance for something special." That Ramirez can rake is notnews. That the man can hit while carrying an entire franchise on his back, notto mention a city that is falling in love with baseball all over again, is oneof the great feats of his prolific career. ¶ The Dodgers, who hadn't won apostseason series in 20 years and were an unappealing .500 team this yearthrough 108 games without Ramirez, are transformed and transfixed by the newslugger's presence. With Manny, they bear no resemblance to the team thatplayed four months without him, as the Chicago Cubs brutally learned. LosAngeles dominated what had been the winningest and highest-scoring team in theNational League this year by wiping out the Cubs in three straight DivisionSeries games by an aggregate score of 20--6. Had it been a prizefight, theseries would have been stopped after two games. Ramirez took 14 must-see plateappearances in the series. The Cubs got him out only five times. He scored fivetimes, only one fewer than the entire Chicago team. He outhomered the Cubs2--1. In the signature at bat of the series, in Game 1, Ramirez swungflat-footed at a wicked shoe-top-high 0-and-2 curveball from reliever SeanMarshall and blasted it 420 feet into the Wrigley Field bleachers.

This is an article from the Oct. 13, 2008 issue

"Justsick," teammate Greg Maddux says. "Even we look at Manny and go,'That's just on another level.' It's like watching Tiger Woods hit aneight-iron a thousand feet in the air and knocking it stiff. Normal people justdon't do that. Guys like Tiger and Manny are out there in a class bythemselves."

Cubs manager LouPiniella was irate that Ramirez got a pitch to hit out, though had it been aninch or two lower, the pitch probably would have bounced.

"Manny sitson 0-and-2 breaking balls!" Piniella huffed in anger afterward.

Such reputedtelepathy is part of the wonderment of Ramirez. Think of him as the baseballequivalent of the computer hacker. Give him enough time with a pitcher andhe'll decode everything about him, from his pitch patterns to his socialsecurity number.

"I don'tthink you try to trick the man," Piniella says, "because you can't. Youhave to stay on his hands, with velocity."

"I swear hesets pitchers up," says Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer. "He'll lookbad on a pitch early in the count, knowing the pitcher is going to go back tothat pitch later in the at bat."

In Game 2 Cubspitcher Carlos Zambrano struck out Ramirez each of his first two times up."Watch this," Dodgers manager Joe Torre told Schaefer in the dugout."He thinks he's going to get Manny a third time." Zambrano tried a cutfastball on an 0-and-1 count. Ramirez walloped it above the dark batter's-eyebackdrop and shrubbery in centerfield at Wrigley, a place rarely visited bybatted balls.

Says L.A. generalmanager Ned Colletti, "Normally, as a pitcher gets strikes on a hitter, thehitter becomes more and more defensive. But with Manny it's different. It'slike the more pitches he sees, the more he knows about what the pitcher isdoing and where the pitcher wants to go, and the odds swing more to his favor.And the pitcher knows that.

"I've beenaround Maddux, [Barry] Bonds and Manny. Those three guys are the smartestbaseball players I've ever seen. They're in a class by themselves. They see andunderstand the game at a higher level than everybody else. The game slows downfor them. It's like they see everything in a frame-by-frame sequence. It'sdifferent from everybody else."

RAMIREZ, OFCOURSE, is the same savant who in the clubhouse before Game 2 happily munchedon chicken wings while wearing a light-blue T-shirt that said I LOVE MANNYBEING MANNY and later, in the dugout just prior to the first pitch, keptblurting out to his teammates, "Let's have a happy flight!"—a battlecry he repeated before Game 3 in Los Angeles last Saturday, though the Dodgerswere going nowhere after that game.

"I thinkManny is excited to be here, and he shows it," Blake says. "He's justlike a kid playing baseball in the backyard. And he knows he's the best kid onthe block. Absolutely nothing fazes him."

All the sonnetsand love songs composed in honor of Ramirez the Dodger don't play well inBoston, where the final days of Ramirez the Red Sock degenerated intoirreconcilable differences. Ramirez, under the play-calling of his agent, ScottBoras, essentially wrote his own ticket out of Boston with such a lack ofhustle and interest that his teammates convinced general manager Theo Epsteinthat he had to go. Ramirez had two option years and $40 million remaining onhis contract with Boston, with the Red Sox controlling the options. WhatRamirez wanted was free agency after this season to provide the leverage tostrike a more lucrative deal elsewhere.

By July 30, theeve of the trade deadline, Epstein was committed to moving Ramirez. He engagedin discussions with the Florida Marlins, for instance, as part of a three-waydeal in which he also needed to satisfy the Pittsburgh Pirates in order to getJason Bay to replace Ramirez as Boston's leftfielder. Late on the night of July30, Epstein sent an e-mail to Colletti asking, "Would you trade AndyLaRoche for Craig Hansen?" Colletti replied that he wasn't interested intrading LaRoche, an L.A. third base prospect, for Hansen, a Boston pitchingprospect. It also occurred to Colletti that Epstein had no use for a youngthird baseman like LaRoche—the Red Sox already had Mike Lowell and KevinYoukilis—so he knew something was up. It meant Epstein was serious about movingRamirez.

At eight o'clockthe next morning, five hours before the trade deadline on the West Coast,Colletti called Torre and told him, "Hang loose. We may have a shot atManny." Then Epstein called Colletti and told him that it appeared Ramirezmight consider a trade to the Dodgers.

Colletti, who haddiscussed a Ramirez trade with Epstein two Novembers ago at the generalmanagers' meetings, only to have those talks go nowhere, detected some urgencyin Epstein's voice. Epstein sounded like a man ready to deal. Colletti thencalled Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. "Let's try to get it done," McCourtsaid.

Colletti had notime to start the usual vetting that goes on when it comes to possibleacquisitions. Truth is, it had been done already. Two years ago, Colletti wasstanding with one of his assistants, Bill Mueller, at an Instructional Leaguegame in Peoria, Ariz., when he asked Mueller, "If you could do one thing tomove this franchise forward, what would it be?" Replied Mueller withouthesitation, "Get Manny." Mueller had played with Ramirez for threeseasons in Boston.

Meanwhile,because Ramirez had veto power over any trade, Boras was convincing Ramirezthat Los Angeles was the perfect landing spot for him. "I told him, 'Manny,do you realize there are 11 million Spanish-speaking people in the area?'"Boras says. "I knew he could get set up in Pasadena and just be left alonein Los Angeles, which is all he wanted. It was perfect."

There was onemore kicker added by Boras, a Dodgers season-ticket holder. "Manny, theseyoung pitchers in the NL West are going to want to challenge you," Borastold him. "This won't be the AL East anymore. They'll want to see what theycan do against you, and you will love it."

Ramirez signedoff on the deal that sent LaRoche and Hansen to Pittsburgh and Bay to Boston(page 53)—with the proviso that L.A. would excise the option years from hiscontract and allow him to be a free agent at the end of the season. The Red Soxagreed to pick up the $7 million owed Ramirez for the remainder of this season,meaning the 54--54 Dodgers had a motivated Ramirez for free for two months,longer if they somehow made the playoffs. (Colletti was able to obtain Ramirez,Maddux, Blake and backup infielder Angel Berroa over the summer for less than$1 million in combined salaries.) The last piece of business to the trade waswhat to do about Ramirez's long dreadlocks, which he had grown past shoulderlength.

"It was thefirst time in my career I negotiated hair length," Boras says. "Theyasked for 10 inches off. We came back with four. We settled on five."

Soon afterRamirez reported to the Dodgers, he walked into Torre's office. "Skip,"Ramirez said, "all I want to do are two things: play baseball and go home.That's it."

"That's noproblem here," Torre said.

RAMIREZIMMEDIATELY loved L.A., an expansive city so full of stars that a dreadlockedhitting savant didn't merit extra attention when he went out for sushi, awelcome downshift for Ramirez from his fishbowl existence in baseball-madBoston. And L.A. loved Ramirez back. His number 99 jersey flew out of theteam's gift shops. Fans dressed in dreads and 'do-rags in homage to the firstgreat slugger the franchise had seen since Mike Piazza.

Most important,the Dodgers, already well armed with pitching, became a potent offensive team.With Ramirez, they hit 25 points higher (.281 posttrade, .256 pretrade) andimproved significantly in getting on base (.355 to .321) and slugging (.443 to.376). Ramirez drove in 53 runs in 53 games while hitting .396, the highestaverage in history for an in-season acquisition who played at least 30 gameswith his new team.

Ramirez alsobecame their clubhouse talisman, whose carefree joy became contagious. TheDodgers, for instance, dropped their longstanding ban on clubhouse music simplybecause Ramirez starting playing it. One day, after a game in which Ramirezlost a hit to an official scorer's decision to charge a fielder with an error,hitting coach Don Mattingly approached Ramirez and said, "That should havebeen a hit. Do you want me to talk to the guy?"

"Nah,"Ramirez said. "No big deal, papi. I'll just get three hitstomorrow."

The next day hegot three hits.

Every day,including during the Division Series, Ramirez hits off a tee, but he oftentakes only about 25 to 30 swings. Says Mattingly, "It would make LittleLeague coaches nervous, that he's not hitting enough. And sometimes he'll messwith his teammates. He'll take only about seven or eight swings, walk away andgo, 'That's it. I'm good, papi.'"

BY THE time theDodgers reached October, thanks to an 18--5 run that began on Aug. 30, theywere a changed team. Maturing young stars such as Andre Ethier, James Loney,Russell Martin and Matt Kemp prospered knowing Ramirez was the ballast to thelineup. Shortstop Rafael Furcal, who hit .381 in April before a back injuryknocked him out for nearly five months, returned to his leadoff spot. And theLos Angeles pitching staff, which had led the league in ERA, was enjoyingnearly half a run per game more support with Ramirez in the lineup.

The Cubs wereovermatched, especially with the Dodgers' righthanded-heavy pitching staffshackling Chicago's righthanded-heavy lineup. L.A. advance scouts VanceLovelace and Toney Howell, who had watched the Cubs for nearly three weeks,delivered the game plan before the series began: The Dodgers' pitchers wouldpound enough fastballs on the fists of the Chicago hitters—the Cubs generallydid not like the ball inside—to open up the outside part of the plate forsliders. Says Maddux, "Sliders and sliders. That was the key."

Chicago had nolefthanded hitting of consequence to stem Los Angeles's righthanded powerpitching. The Dodgers threw 1,419 pitches over 10 games this year against theCubs; every one of those pitches was thrown by a righthander. In the NLDivision Series, starters Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley and Hiroki Kuroda, inthat order, each beat Chicago while pitching through the sixth inning,guaranteeing the 100th consecutive season without a world championship for theCubs. Since the fan Steve Bartman touched a would-be foul-ball out with Chicagofive outs from reaching the 2003 World Series, the Cubs have lost eightstraight postseason games while being outscored 53--18.

While not quiteso accursed, the Dodgers had devolved into their own postseason irrelevance."It's like a piece of silver that's been sitting on a shelf," McCourtsays of his team's cachet. "Once you touch it again you know it's silver,and once you rub it a little the shine comes back. Eventually, you need to win.That's why this is a giant step forward for the organization."

Whether Ramirez,36, leaves as a free agent or gets his preferred four-year contract from LosAngeles, he has enhanced his own value too. Scouts have clocked him at 4.4seconds running to first base, a speed not seen from him in years. In the firstinning of the Division Series clincher, he sped home from first base on adouble by Loney, easily beating a clean relay by the Cubs. Then, of course,there is his hitting.

"He's thebest righthanded hitter I've ever seen," Mattingly says. "I said thatto Randy Johnson once, and he said, 'What about Edgar [Martinez]?' Edgar wasgreat, but this guy has more pop. It's not even close. What he's been doingthis year is something he's been doing for years."

RAMIREZ MADEpossible the Saturday-night party at Dodger Stadium that was 20 years in themaking. "Man, right now this is the place to be," he said on the fieldjust as the celebration began. "We're going to the second round. I did itbefore. I'll do it again. When you're relaxed and you're in a place you reallylike, this is what happens."

Ramirez,befitting the best kid on the block, then broke into a wide, happy grin. It wasnever more obvious than at that moment the Dodgers and Ramirez were a perfectfit. The franchise and the savant each had their shine back.

"He's like a kid playing ball in theBACKYARD," says Blake. "And he knows he's the best kid."
"THE BEST righthanded hitter I've ever seen,"Mattingly says.

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PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckJUMP STARTER Whether he was pounding homers (Games 1 and 2) or motoring around the bases (below, Game 3), Ramirez dominated the Dodgers' first playoff series win in 20 years.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckLOOK WHO'S HUSTLING NOW Scorned in Boston earlier in the season for not trying his hardest, Ramirez electrified the Dodger Stadium crowd in Game 3 with his first-to-home dash, scoring what proved to be the winning run and putting Martin on a flight to the NL Championship Series.FIVE PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert Beck[See caption above]PHOTOJOHN BIEVERI'M GOOD, PAPI Ramirez's homer off his shoe tops in Game 1, his first of two in the series, left teammates awed yet again.