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BILL PLASCHKE

Dodgers start Cactus League play without Manny Ramirez

The slugger plays it his way, and is the focus of attention despite his absence. He's home unsigned, despite being the Dodgers' first choice, making it clear they are his last choice.

February 25, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

Today in a Phoenix suburb, the Chicago Cubs' Jeff Samardzija will throw a first pitch with two lasting meanings.

The Dodgers will officially join the Cactus League.

Manny Ramirez will officially become a distraction.

Both occurrences are certain to be hot and prickly, buffeted by a breeze that will stir up enough stuff to make your eyes water.

Yeah, Manny is not even signed yet and already he owns their clubhouse, their dugout and their bleachers.

The Dodgers' players are nearly weeping for him, with Rafael Furcal telling The Times' Dylan Hernandez he wasn't sure they could make the playoffs without him.

"I don't know, I don't know," said Furcal, whose guaranteed $30 million apparently guarantees nothing.

The Dodgers' manager is pleading for him, with Joe Torre essentially telling everyone that they can't win without him, even saying a handful of acquired hitters couldn't replace him.

"In our situation, Manny fits better," he said. "We need him more than four or five other guys."

The fans, taking a cue from their heroes, are outright clamoring for him, as this recent text message from one of my buddies indicates.

"My friends asking about Manny! Did something happen? Is something happening? Help!"

Then there was the Dodgers' ticket salesman who became so excited this week, he basically claimed to have signed Manny himself. Did you see that item on our Fabulous Forum blog?

The salesman left a voice mail with a fan, who immediately slapped the recording on the Internet.

"I wanted to be the first to tell you the Dodgers are on the verge of signing Manny Ramirez! A little insider info!"

The Dodgers immediately said it was an unofficial statement, the salesman essentially apologized, and when I called Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti, he could only laugh and laugh.

"It's been like this since November," he said.

Get used to it. This is the flip side. This is the other shoe. After spending two months watching Manny be Babe Ruth, now Dodgers fans can finally watch Manny be Manny.

This is why the Dodgers are holding the line on a short-term deal. They know what they are getting on the field. They know what they are not getting everywhere else.

All winter long, Ramirez has been the Dodgers' first choice, while the Dodgers have been Ramirez's last choice.

That is why he is still sitting home unsigned even though he is a single nod from being in today's Dodgers lineup as this season's second-highest-paid player.

The $25-million annual salary is not enough for him. Going to spring training with his teammates is not enough for him.

He fled from Boston because he said nobody loved him there anymore. The Dodgers' fans have done nothing but love him, yet that's still not enough.

He wants more, and he wants less. More money, less exhibitions. More pay, less work.

He is, first, waiting for somebody to get hurt. A New York Mets or Yankees outfielder, preferably. Then, in desperation, somebody would give him his coveted four-year contract.

He is, second, waiting for the Dodgers' ego to hurt. More nasty letters, overzealous employees, players using his absence as an excuse.

Then, perhaps, they would relent and give him that third year guaranteed.

Other players who did not walk out on their teams in the middle of last year's pennant race haven't been so cavalier. Many have signed for less money and less years simply because they are baseball players who wanted to go back to work.

Manny Ramirez is a baseball player of the highest order, and when he's in uniform he works as hard as anyone.

But he's also Mannywood, which is where he is living right now, one of those stars who loves to make the underlings squirm.

The Dodgers will eventually cave. With all the other free-agent sluggers gone, with all their kids pleading desperately for the dreadlocks and drama, they are out of options.

They will offer Ramirez a two-year deal worth $45 million, and throw in a third year with lots of incentives. When he finally gets bored and realizes nobody else wants any part of him, he will take it.

That's fine. At least for this year, his bat is more important than his antics, even if that means he misses the start of his first spring training schedule with his still-new team.

"I'm OK with it right now, we have a longer spring training year because of the World Baseball Classic, we have six weeks left, it's fine," said Colletti. "And it's not like he's a signed player doing this."

Colletti said Ramirez probably needs a full spring training the way another great slugger once needed a full spring training.

"Barry Bonds would show up in the spring looking half-interested, then after his first couple of at-bats, it was like he had been there for a month," Colletti said. "I don't think Manny is very far from that."

Ramirez is not far from Bonds in many respects, exciting yet aggravating, present yet absent, smiling while sneering.

Get used to it. He's smart enough not to be here for the first spring training pitch, but he's too smart to miss the last one.

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