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T.J. SIMERS

Manny's back, and everyone loves it

Ramirez's playful return puts the Dodgers in a great frame of mind.

March 06, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM PHOENIX — He changes everything, the clubhouse louder, GM Ned Colletti smarter, the crowd for practice bigger, expectations rising, owner Frank McCourt shaking Page 2's hand, the Dodgers' chances of making the playoffs greater.

"I sign [Wednesday]," Manny Ramirez says, "and the stock market goes up."

You could look it up, following five straight losing sessions, an increase of 149.82 points Wednesday, and then again Thursday another downer -- the folks on Wall Street obviously taking note of the Dodgers' pitching.

But it's hard to wipe the smiles off the faces of the Dodgers' ticket-selling staff here, the team once again relevant and interesting, and Manny putting the fun back in Dodgers baseball at an entertaining news conference. And there aren't many of those around here.

"I'm baaaack," he says, the charisma dominating the air.

When it comes time for McCourt to speak, and now I lay me down to sleep, Manny leans into him and says, "Relax, Frank. Just be yourself."

With McCourt at the microphone, Manny points to his "gold glove," for Page 2's benefit, his homemade gold glove because no one else will give him one. Then he acts as if he's hugging someone, while pointing to McCourt to show they've now bonded.

McCourt is telling everyone Manny is going to donate $1 million to the Dodgers Dream Foundation to build baseball fields for kids, the donation coming in the form of deferred payments if Manny is really being Manny.

When McCourt takes his seat, Manny puts an arm around his new best friend, and for $45 million, you would too.

A few minutes later when it is Manny's turn, he is asked about his new disheveled goatee and getting it cut.

"You don't make the rules here," he tells Page 2 after being nudged by Manager Joe Torre, the joke thief not letting on that Torre has given him the punch line. No matter, everyone laughs.

Later I ask if he's going to opt out of his contract, Manny quick to turn on the fastball right down the middle, this time without Torre's help.

"Not yet," he says with a straight face. "I'm going to play my first year." And everyone howls.

So much for the guy who was going to report here unhappy after accepting only a two-year deal, the guy whom nobody else seemingly wanted in the end and who might very well dog it.

"It was a bad economy, and I got a great contract. I won," he says. "I got out [of Boston] and I'm in a great place where I want to play. I'm happy, my teammates love me, the fans love me and sometimes it's better to have a two-year deal in a place you're happy than an eight-year deal in a place you suffer."

The nasty e-mail that continues to arrive from Boston suggests those folks really are suffering, hoping the worst for Ramirez, so they might feel better.

"They can continue to say what they want; I'm not going to waste my energy on them," he says. "If people think I'm going to dog it -- they must be crazy."

Steve Garvey is here for the festivities, and so is Steve Perry, once upon a time the lead singer for Journey, but now just a Giants fan -- his song, "Don't Stop Believing" the only thing the Giants have going for them after passing on Manny.

Everywhere in the Dodgers' clubhouse the mood is upbeat. Casey Blake says, "Manny is the most positive teammate I have ever played with."

Matt Kemp says, "Just being around him things rub off."

It's probably only a matter of hours now before we'll be hearing from Lil Wayne or MIA again, for some reason he/she or it not making it onto my own iPod -- should I ever get one and learn how to use it.

A year ago the Dodgers began listening to music with their headsets on, but then Manny arrived, the music "taking us all the way to playoffs," Kemp says, and now I find myself humming "S on My Chest" wherever I go.

Everything changes here, all right, or as Torre put it, "Manny is one of those handful of players that gets your attention," on the field as well as off.

Torre says it will be a week or so before he works Manny into a game, and Manny poking fun at himself as he does so often, says, "I've got to get my Gold Glove ready, I'm pretty sure, you know that."

And while stretching his right arm, he adds, "I've got to save my cannon for the season."

When he reports to the practice field, first for some defensive drills, then some hitting, including a monster home run on the field designed with the same dimensions as Dodger Stadium, and finally some running -- a large crowd follows his every movement while at times chanting his name.

When he's done, he begins signing autographs, someone running a marker from one end of his arm to the other in the incredible crush of fans, Manny finding it hilarious and shouting, "Someone's signing my arm."

It has been a very good off-season for the Dodgers, capped by Manny's arrival, Colletti maybe doing a better job than any GM in the game since the trading deadline last July.

"The resurrection," I call it when I bump into McCourt, who takes notice of my USC sweat shirt, and so later he has a Dodgers sweat shirt delivered to me.

The guys in the Angels' clubhouse will love that, maybe Page 2's way of finally giving McCourt his day -- bribery working, as you can see. Truth be told, who cares what McCourt said the other day about "starting from scratch," he closed the deal to keep Manny in Los Angeles, and that changes everything.

The phone rings. It's the end of the day, everyone gone home save the media. The voice is familiar -- the giggle unmistakable.

"You want to come over to my house at six tomorrow morning," Manny says. "We can watch the sun come up -- you know, just like Frank McCourt and I did the other day."

Yes sir, he's baaaack.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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