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T.J. SIMERS

There continue to be Manny surprises

August 21, 2008|T.J. SIMERS

Can't shake the guy.

Wherever I go, there's Manny.

I talk to Andruw Jones before he goes to Las Vegas, and Manny pulls up a chair. I chat with Casey Blake, and Manny interrupts, apologizing to Blake, but he needs to talk.

I take a few days off and he wants to know where I've been.

I'm expecting a malcontent, maybe a mope like Gary Matthews Jr. and at the very least someone distant and difficult to interview. Instead, I get an offer to sit on his lap.

I argue with Jeff Kent, and suddenly I feel this tug on my arm. It's Manny, pulling me away from Kent -- Manny the peacemaker, protecting Kent in the batting order and off the field as well when he thinks I'm upsetting Kent.

He says he will donate $1,000 to Mattel Children's Hospital at UCLA for every homer, $300 for every RBI, $100 for every single and while the bitter folks in Boston say he never makes good on his charitable pledges, he has the Dodgers take the donations directly out of his pay -- the first check already hitting the hospital.

He says he'd rather not make the donations known publicly, agreeing to do so only when told it might encourage others to help the kids.

He's nothing like the bitter folks describe him in Boston, the e-mail continuing to pour in, "just wait," they say -- the Red Sox apparently no longer as interesting to watch, so Boston fans needing to do something with their time.

Maybe he's on his best behavior and following a "how-to-win-a-big-contract" script written by agent Scott Boras. Maybe he's donating money to the children's hospital to curry favor with Page 2.

Maybe he's just a big phony, albeit a phony hitting more than .400 and fooling the other Dodgers into thinking they have what it takes to win the division.

"I guess the thing that surprises me," Dodgers coach Larry Bowa says, "is the way the younger players migrate to him. A lot of young guys are intimidated by a superstar, but his personality makes them so comfortable with him."

Or, as a young Matt Kemp puts it, "He's like us. He's like a kid playing the game for fun, and isn't it supposed to be fun?"

Manny takes it one step further. He wants everyone to see him as a big goof who just steps into the batter's box hacking.

"He picks up his wife, he hasn't seen her for a while, and he's on his iPhone looking at his at-bats," Boras says. "He's a hitting maniac."

But I bet he gives his wife a card on her birthday.

He talks hitting, studies it and works on it with a bat that still reads, "Boston Red Sox."

"He just doesn't want anyone to know it," Dodgers coach Mariano Duncan says.

Take a look at his locker, ankle deep in used batting gloves, and he works, all right, and can hit anything but the wastebasket.

HE'S NOTHING like the reputation. He's been approachable since day one, and remains so, most of the time poking fun at himself.

"You see me run to first base?" he says, his own self-effacing response to reports he doesn't always put out. "I'm running all the way down the right-field line."

A moment later. "I love this place," he says. "Just wish they had a different wall out there so I could go in there and [go to the bathroom]."

He's taken over the clubhouse, the mood different and upbeat, no one knowing when he's going to borrow something.

"These are Russell Martin's pants," he says, and maybe they are and maybe they aren't, but anything to keep folks loose.

So what about the reports from Boston that had him being moody and difficult?

"I don't like to say much; I just like to play the game," he says. "I talk, but when I talk in Spanish, I'm more comfortable."

He likes to be comfortable, and says he never really was in Boston. "I couldn't breathe there; it's a small city and all on top of you. Here it's spread out. I love it. I went out for sushi, sat back on a couch and no one cared. It's like there's 20 pounds less on my back here."

And yet, here he is carrying the Dodgers, an air of excitement in the stadium again, and while the bitter folks in Boston might consider it fool's gold, who are they kidding?

They've already seen the payoff.

TODAY'S LAST word comes in e-mail from Wendell Johnson:

"What kind of man would brag about not getting his wife a birthday card? Secondly, is Jeff Kent, who let everyone know his wife just turned 40, aware of the inherent danger of talking about a woman's age?"

Kent talks too much.

--

T.J. Simers can be reached at t.j.simers@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Simers, go to latimes.com/simers.

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