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T.J. SIMERS

Sounds of spring are a joyful noise to Dodgers' Manny Ramirez

Outfielder can hardly go anywhere at Dodgers spring-training camp without hearing people shouting his name, but he says he enjoys it.

March 29, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM PHOENIX — Joe Torre goes to a Billy Joel/Elton John concert here the other night and wears earplugs because he can't handle the noise.

Manny Ramirez goes to work every day, from the moment he's spotted until the day is over, hearing "Manny, Manny," or "Manny, over here," or "Manny, please."

He takes a step here, and he hears it. There, and he hears it. "I hear it," he admits and without annoyance.

"I'm against the clock now," he says. "How much more can I play? God only knows. So why not enjoy it all?

"If only I had thought this way 10 years ago. Who knows how things might have gone?"

The fans line the walkway outside the Dodgers' clubhouse three hours before the game. They stand around a screen behind home plate, a number of them have Ramirez's name on their backs, most armed with cellphone cameras. "Over here, Manny."

He's doing the most mundane of things, picking up a weighted metal pipe, squatting, swinging the metal pipe like a bat, and everyone is watching as if this is the greatest thing they have ever seen.

"To me, he's like a throwback to old days when guys took batting practice," Torre, the Dodgers' manager, says. "The modern player is trying to groove his swing, but Manny is all about centering the bat on the ball.

"Today's players are sensitive about getting jammed, but Manny has so much confidence in what he's doing, he doesn't let that happen and gets out there before he gets jammed."

Manny enters the batting cage, bunting the first two pitches he sees, and I guess you never know when you might end up playing for Mike Scioscia and get the squeeze sign.

He takes the next two pitches, just part of his preparation for the regular season. "It's spring training, and I like working on seeing the ball," he explains later.

For the next 20 minutes or so, the biggest goof on the team walks around with a look on his face like he's just been called to the office of the Dodgers' new chief executive. There isn't a hint of a smile, grin or anything funny. He might as well be stranded on an island, everyone walking around him, but he takes no notice.

ESPN's Peter Gammons, whose baseball background is all Boston, is standing nearby, but either Ramirez is blinded by the sun or giving Gammons the cold shoulder. Does he have something against Gammons from their days in Boston?

"No, no," Ramirez says. "I'm fine with him, but he's doing his job, and I'm doing my job."

Andre Ethier walks up and takes the bat from Ramirez's hands, and Ramirez appears heartbroken. Ramirez has just finished kissing the bat, or smelling it. "I'm not kissing it," is all Manny will say.

Around the cage, Manny says nothing. "He won't even talk to his teammates," Torre says. "All that ESPN B-roll that people see has Manny rolling around on the ground and doing this and that, but people have no idea how serious he can be. He's got a plan."

He's so serious it's as if he's angry, on occasion muttering to himself. "Everything has its limits," he says later, "and there's a place to fool around and joke, but on the field, why not focus? I'm trying to get ready for the season."

The only thing missing is a flashing light above the cage: Professional hitter at work.

"I know this, it surprises the heck out of me when he strikes out," Torre says.

When he starts hitting, ball after ball comes off his bat seemingly aimed directly back to the guy throwing it, a man thrilled to be pitching and then ducking behind a screen. Shot after shot ricochets off the screen, on occasion one sailing over the screen to hit the screen just beyond second base.

"I'm just a singles hitter," he jokes, three hours later playing against the Royals and going three for three, all singles to center field. "They're pitching to me now -- scared of Andre Ethier [who is hitting behind him]. They know I'm nothing but a singles hitter. They're worried about Ethier."

A day later he adds two more singles to his spring-training resume. "I'm boring now," he says, hitting only .533.

The story for the last week has been Manny's hammy, the sore hamstring getting more attention than most of the players on the Dodgers' roster.

"I feel like I'm 25," he says, "but something like that happens after working hard all winter and you get mad."

He's better now, running the bases and almost getting caught too far off second, but diving back like, well, he's 25.

"I'm just trying to get on base because it's like Russell Martin says, they really don't need me," he jokes in reference to Martin's comment a few months back that the Dodgers could still win if the team were unsuccessful in bringing Ramirez back.

"I couldn't win," Martin explains off to the side. "We need Manny, but what if we didn't sign him? Do I say our season is over?"

It doesn't matter to Manny, because now he's got a new target to tease.

"Just having fun," he says, and when someone mentions Manny Pacquiao's name, he accepts his station in life as "No. 2 Manny."

But what about Manny Mota?

"A Punch-and-Judy hitter," Manny fires back, prompting James Loney to remind him he's only a singles hitter these days like Manny Mota.

That doubles Ramirez over in laughter, the Dodgers' clubhouse a much different place when Ramirez breezes by.

Eight more days and he will be batting third in the Dodgers lineup, playing left field and everything counting. As for season-long goals, he says, "If I wake up breathing, that's good.

"Oh, a Gold Glove," he adds. "That's what I want. You think I've got a chance of winning one?"

He takes the bad news very well.

"People who think I'm going to hit 30 or 40 home runs are crazy," he says with a grin. "I'm just Dave Roberts with no speed. A bad combination."

The day over, Manny leaves everyone laughing again, the serious work done so he can always have the last laugh.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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