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KURT STREETER

The latest chapter for Manny Ramirez

New book takes a close look a the slugger, and reveals a shy, yet driven, personality.

March 06, 2009|KURT STREETER

"How will Manny do this year? I think Manny will thrive."

So said a woman who should know, psychologist Jean Rhodes, speaking by phone from a restaurant near Fenway Park. "Los Angeles, the way it's relaxed out there, the way people give him space, the fans . . . perfect fit."

Here in L.A., where he has been charming and superlative and nothing less, we like to think we know Manny Ramirez, like to believe we have a fix on him. But honestly, we don't. A few months of contract-inspired best behavior can't quite put all those bad East Coast vibes in the dustbin.

We certainly don't know him as deeply as does Rhodes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts. Over the last several seasons, Ramirez granted her uncommon access to his life and inner circle. The result is a soon-to-be published book: "Becoming Manny, Inside the Life of Baseball's Most Enigmatic Slugger," co-written with journalist Shawn Boburg.

With No. 99 back among us, searching for insight and answers, I plowed through the book's manuscript, a quick, sharp read. Looking for a bit more, I dialed Rhodes.

"I'm not a big baseball fan," she said. "But as a psychologist, there are not many more interesting figures in sports than Manny Ramirez. He's a real riddle."

Rhodes said she described the loopy left fielder that way partly because, for all of his "Mannywood!" shouts, Ramirez is actually a deeply shy introvert who suffers from what clinically would be called "social anxiety."

As her book shows, this shyness is a natural tendency magnified by the way he was uprooted from the Dominican Republic and replanted, at 13, in New York City's hard-edged Washington Heights. He arrived not only an outsider, but a sensitive loner with a remote father. His family never came to his games. He spoke little English. Mostly, he kept quiet.

Rhodes said a good chunk of Ramirez' quirky persona is actually a defense mechanism. "A protective stance," she said. "An attempt to keep us at bay," and to distract us from knowing about his intelligence and dedication to baseball.

The book documents how even as a teenager, the then-thin, slow-footed outfielder had an obsessive work ethic. Example: Convinced he needed to make himself faster, Ramirez would wake well before dawn and, rain or snow, jog through the dark, drug-riddled streets near his home. Often, he'd drag along a 20-pound tire for extra resistance.

"It's a paradox," Rhodes said. "Because of his shyness, he doesn't want to have people up close. In some ways, unlike a lot of players, he is trying to repel, not attract."

While in Boston for much of last season, growing increasingly unhappy with his contract and the stifling, pressure-packed setting, Ramirez repelled many of the Red Sox faithful, and his teammates.

Rhodes noted that this wasn't a sudden thing. The book makes clear that almost from the moment he left the Cleveland Indians to sign an eight-year, $160-million contract with Boston in 2000, he pined for the relaxed atmosphere of his old team.

In the early Boston years, comfort came from having a small pack of what Rhodes described as "non-conformist" teammates -- feisty, iconoclastic Pedro Ramirez and long-haired Johnny Damon among them. But over the years, Boston's makeup changed, growing more button-down.

Ramirez grew isolated, suspicious and, the book speculates, perhaps more susceptible than ever to an agent like Scott Boras chirping in his ear about greener pastures. The result was a meltdown, with teammates speaking out against him for failing to give full effort and management shipping him to L.A.

Of course, he arrived mentally fresh, unburdened, ready to launch his new team into the playoffs with a long stretch of greatness at the plate.

But another aspect that hasn't received much attention is the way Ramirez has always had mentors, usually much older men who coach baseball.

Said Rhodes: "Manny has this combo of innocence and talent that has been an incredible draw to mentors. He didn't have that with Boston's manager, but we see that now in Joe Torre."

Rhodes called him a riddle. How true. He's a genius with a bat who can charm and disarm, only to end up acting like a spoiled child. This, she said, was an example of his being a "situational narcissist," someone whose self-obsessed rough edges haven't been smoothed out because he has always been coddled.

Add to the narcissism his intense shyness, uncommon drive and outsized powers of concentration and we have . . . well, what we have is "Mannywood!" -- a wonderful and intriguing place to be if you're a Dodgers fan in 2009.

"I think he is relieved," Rhodes said. "I think the reality of the economy really dawned on him. He's over the negotiations, he loves L.A. He can be himself. . . . My expectation is he is going to be the same Manny he was with the Dodgers last year."

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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