The Dodgers should stop waltzing around and make their marriage to Manny Ramirez a proper one. I'm talking here about a real contract, not the truncated one they extracted during the off-season, which covers two years but allows baseball's sweetest swinger to leave after the last out of 2009.
It means a real commitment, from both sides, a deal probably stretching at least four years, enough time for Ramirez to leave a permanent legacy instead of possibly walking away next winter as nothing more than a beautiful footnote.
This makes perfect sense when you look not only at Ramirez's scintillating performance since landing in L.A., but also when you walk through the raucous Dodger Stadium stands that the team on Thursday christened "Mannywood."
You read right: There are stands now known as Mannywood.
Sure, this is yet another marketing prop from the Dodgers (who giddily announced before the Padres game that the stadium will soon have its own ZIP code). For $99, throughout the year, fans will get two blue T-shirts scribbled with "Mannywood" across the chest, and a pair of seats a short shadow from Ramirez's left-field perch. The old walk-up price for such seats? $120.
Might be a prop, but there's a deeper meaning here. "Mannywood," along with marketing efforts such as Ramirez's smiling mug affixed to billboards all over the megalopolis, show just how firmly the Dodgers have latched themselves onto the city's newest big thing. There's no hesitation, no holding back, no doubt about what they have. So why not take the next step and make this thing last a while?
Those concerns about how he'd act once he grew used to the traffic, his teammates and the smog? They're off in the faraway background now. After Thursday's 8-5 victory over the Padres, Ramirez isn't just the team leader in the clubhouse; he's again leading the Dodgers on the field with a .372 average and a .654 slugging percentage.
And his connection with fans? Sure, L.A. loves Kobe because of his skill, swagger and cold-blooded-killer 'tude. But Ramirez -- softer, goofier, wearing the befuddled look of a man who has just lost his keys while still an assassin with a bat -- is already right up there with Kobe. This was easy to see out in Mannywood.
"It's his pizazz," said Marisol Cabral, a college student from Pico Rivera who'd brought her father to the game for his 50th birthday. Manny promptly rewarded her by coming to the plate and smacking a double. "See, there's just nobody like him."
"It's his realness, his style, his 'Latin-ness,' " said Leo Ibarra, a teacher in East L.A. who was sitting in Mannywood with his wife, Cynthia. "But it's not just a Latino thing. He's the reason so many people are in the stands, not just here in Mannywood, but all around. Look around. You can feel an energy . . . they don't have this with the Angels."
Ibarra, by the way, agreed wholeheartedly with my idea that the Dodgers should go ahead, give Scott Boras a call and start laying ground toward a new deal. I spoke to more than a dozen fans out in the newly named seats. It's no surprise they all want Ramirez back; they all believe he'll remain content, all believe he can coax four more good years from his 36-year-old legs.
They love him, he loves them back, in his own spacey way. Before Thursday's game, when Ramirez and I walked down a hallway to the batting cage underneath the stands, he claimed not to know a thing about Mannywood.
"Mannywood? Uh, what's Mannywood?" he said.
I filled him in. He looked puzzled.
"I don't know anything about this," he continued, smiling deeply. "But you know what? It's cool. I'm really cool with it. No problem. Good for the fans. You know, the fans in Cleveland and Boston, they were great to me. But the fans here, the way they treat me, it's special. We have a special connection, I would say."
I told him my take: that the team should take the next step and open another round of contract talks -- now.
"I don't know, man," he said. "I just play. Honest, I'm happy they are happy with me. But right now, I just play and have fun." He quickly turned the conversation around, asking me about the virtues of living in Pasadena, restaurants in Glendale, and saying maybe we should grab some chow this weekend.
Manny being . . . no, not that terrible cliche again. Let's just say that the Dodgers' left fielder is locked into a blissful zone right now. In the locker room, on the field, there's lightness to his step, a Zen-mojo. Talk of fat contracts and big money is too distracting, just not his thing.
It's apparently not the Dodgers' thing either. General Manager Ned Colletti was only slightly more expansive when I approached him. I said the team should offer an extension. He said he'd need to think for a moment. Then he sent me an e-mail praising Manny before noting: "Let's keep it going and the future will take care of itself."
Sure, I know, negotiating again, negotiating now, it's just not done. I also know about the peril of Ramirez regularly playing the outfield at 40 and about the devilish economy. But he has never been injury-prone and has always kept in supreme condition. The economy? Sure, it's hideous, but it's not as if mega-deals will no longer be done. Moreover, this is L.A., can't anything happen here?
Listen to the fans in Mannywood, the ones who'll feel as if they've been knocked in the chops if Manny ends up playing in Cleveland next year.
That section, like the entire stadium, became electric when Manny hit an elliptical third-inning home run. Ibarra, the East L.A. schoolteacher, was still buzzing when I approached. "You see, that's just the connection this guy has with us," he said. "He's a part of us. I say sign him to a longer deal. Let him end his career here. It's what we all want."