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T.J. SIMERS

Dodgers are different team with Manny Ramirez

September 13, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM SAN FRANCISCO — It's been a year since Manny Ramirez sat down in the Hotel Nikko here to explain himself, why he was nothing like the quitter described in Boston, the ideal free agent for teams looking to getting better.

He was using Page 2, and Page 2 was more than happy to be used.

It was 10 a.m., the big goof on time, serious, thoughtful and with a believable answer to every question, some might argue, whatever it took to earn another big contract.

It worked, the Dodgers the happy benefactors a year ago, almost everyone in L.A. swept away by the charisma and his remarkable hitting skills.

But what about this awkward season, and the next?

Why not get together Saturday again in the Nikko, it was suggested, and let folks know what to expect?

No way, says Ramirez, "I'm not a free agent," and in no need of selling himself, always the truth from him, like it or not.

He has an option allowing him to leave the Dodgers and seek a contract elsewhere after this season, but as I so often like to remind him, "Who would want you now?"

But Saturday I'm still there in the Nikko at 10 for a chat, and he's not. I text him, "You're such a disappointment."

When he arrives at the ballpark later he reacts as if angry.

"Get lost," he shouts. "I'm too old to play with you."

"Yeah, that's what everyone is saying," I reply, "you're getting too old and it's beginning to show."

A few minutes later he pulls another chair by his own, pats it and calls out. When he gets waved off, he comes looking for Page 2 to find out what's wrong.

He's so sensitive. "No, I'm not," Manny insists, declaring everything just fine and no matter what anyone has to say about him, "If we don't win the World Series, none of it matters."

There are all kinds of athletes out there, but this one is so fascinating, the contrast between how he is perceived and what he's really like so different.

As Manager Joe Torre says, "He's so respectful, he's not on time, he's early. Someone asks him to pose for a picture, and he's over there hugging them for the photo. He's never been a problem.

"He wants to be liked, and he gets along so well with his teammates because he doesn't say anything negative to them. It's as if he validates them, a player of his state saying only positive things to them, so they must belong here."

If the pennant race gets tight, Manny will not, and as a result the Dodgers will not. He remains the big goof, the loudest voice in the clubhouse and the most experienced hand the Dodgers will have in the playoffs.

But as good as everyone might feel, there's also no question Manny has slipped in popularity in L.A., some folks wanting more of Juan Pierre because he is good and Manny is evil, a cheater with long unruly hair who isn't hitting .400 as he did a year ago.

"Fans pay money; I can't control them, I can only control how hard I run to first base," he says with a grin.

But he just hasn't been as sharp since being suspended, and whether it's steroids or the mental toll from being publicly embarrassed, he won't discuss it. "It's over," he says.

"You know he feels the responsibility of what's expected from him," Torre says, "but he will never admit it."

It might be the most defining thing about Manny, tomorrow another day, everything else rolling off his back.

"It's what separates the great ones," says Mark Sweeney, former teammate of Barry Bonds, Manny and now working as a coach under Torre. "Manny's a lot like [Torre], only he's goofy. Nothing gets to either one of them. Manny's been on the big stage, and he will be ready when he goes on it again."

And he says he's ready, "slowing the game down" recently in his approach at the plate, the game coming to a standstill whenever he comes to the plate -- still one of the most exciting performers in the game with a bat in his hand.

On Friday night, the Dodgers burying the Giants again, he had his dugout going giddy with delight when he landed a Pete Rose-like belly flop slide to complete a triple off the right-field wall. Two more hits, and now he's hitting .400 on this trip.

With Manny in the lineup, no matter all that comes with it, there's no question the Dodgers are different as the last two years have demonstrated. But better for it.

Can't wait for our chat in the Nikko next year -- this time knowing Manny, the prospective free agent, will be there.

--

IT'S BEEN a disappointing Dodgers' season in some respects, no head cases in the clubhouse like the old days when Kevin Brown and Milton Bradley were here.

But fortunately the Dodgers brought in George Sherrill, a clubhouse loner who likes to come off like Jeff Kent, though lacking seriously in baseball resume and motorcycle magazines.

Lonesome George was upset because he thought I had "blasted" his Baltimore teammates when I said they had been eliminated from contention before the season started.

That's the kind of reaction I'd get from Kent, but only so he could hone his cantankerous skills. Lonesome George, though, was really mad, as if anyone here gives a hoot the Orioles stink.

"Those are my ex-teammates," Lonesome said, and even he wanted everyone to know they were his "ex" teammates.

Lonesome was also peeved because I hadn't "addressed" him properly, beginning with a direct question rather than swapping business cards.

As a result, he called me a very nasty name, and when I asked if that qualified as an obscenity, he said, "what?"

I had to explain to him what an obscenity was, a day earlier explaining "ain't" isn't really the correct word to use -- Kent going to Cal, so in many ways, I guess, these two guys really aren't alike.

I almost miss Kent.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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