I attended the Dodgers’ game against the Washington Nationals on Sunday, July 27. It was one of the quietest, least supportive gatherings I’ve ever encountered at a professional sports event.
I was also in Dodger Stadium on Sunday, August 3. What a difference a week makes.
Welcome to Los Angeles, Manny Ramirez.
The controversial outfielder, who by most reports quit on the Boston Red Sox to force a trade, may be lacking in ethics but there’s no doubt the man can hit.
And there’s no doubt his arrival has electrified Dodger fans and given the lineup a significant boost.
“He makes our team better,” said catcher Russell Martin.
“We have a lot of weapons now and it’s not easy to pitch to us,” said infielder Nomar Garciaparra.
After losing the first two games of the series to the first place Arizona DiamondBacks the Dodgers won the last two to move back within one game of the division lead.
In contrast to a week ago, when fans couldn’t muster much enthusiasm for a 2-0 victory over one of baseball’s worst teams, the 9-3 conquest of the DiamondBacks was played in a festival environment. The fans were giddy.
In the past I’ve marveled at how the emergence of an athlete can energize a city. Magic Johnson and Fernando Valenzuela stand out in my mind. Fans of all nationalities suddenly are bonded by their appreciation of greatness on an athletic field.
And they are celebrities whose last name isn’t spoken often on newscasts. Just Magic, Fernando and Manny.
This is like that. Even when the Dodgers had the game in hand, few fans left because Ramirez was going to bat once more in the eighth inning. He had already hit a single, double and 436-foot home run. This time he singled again.
His presence in the lineup takes pressure away from teammates. Jeff Kent now bats fifth or sixth. James Loney isn’t counted on to be the destroyer of the opposing pitcher.
Andre Eithier doesn’t even play, but he’s taking it well and is likely to provide offense when he gets an opportunity.
The deal was a win-win for the Dodgers because they got Ramirez essentially for free. They gave up only Andy LaRoche, a young infielder yet to do much in the major leagues. In baseball’s strange economic times the Red Sox are paying the remaining $7 million on Ramirez’ 2008 contract.
Ramirez, who has hit 512 home runs in his 16-year major league career, had decided he wanted out of Boston even though the Red Sox had options on his services for 2009 and 2010 at $20 million per season.
That’s not a typo. That’s $20 million for each year.
Ramirez’s reaction was “how did I get into this?”
The Red Sox have paid him $168 million in the past and the team won the World Series twice, leaving the obvious question of “what’s the problem?”
The answer is so complex, I was told, that it couldn’t be simplified in a brief conversation.
But Ramirez caused so much grief in Boston that Manager Terry Francona eventually had enough. And when General Manager Theo Epstein asked some veteran Red Sox players what he should do at the trading deadline the consensus was to remove Ramirez from the team.
Pitcher Curt Schilling was outspoken in his support of that plan.
Until the situation became intolerable there recently, Ramirez’s antics (among them not hustling and occasionally not playing) were explained as “Manny being Manny.”
On Fox’s national telecast of another game Saturday some baseball people who weren’t identified were reported by broadcaster Ken Rosenthal as saying Manny’s behavior was worse than players identified as steroid users. The reasoning was that although they broke the law they were trying to help their teams. He was hurting his team.
But the Dodgers should benefit from Ramirez’s arrival because he became a 2009 free agent in the deal (the Red Sox cancelled out their two option years), so Ramirez will likely be on his best behavior trying to impress off-season suitors. Acting up here wouldn’t make any sense for him.
“I’m wanted in L.A,” said Ramirez. “Boston is in the past. Judge me by what I do with the Dodgers.”
Watching him carve up the DiamondBack’s pitching staff, I saw a professional hitter. It wasn’t just a couple of home runs, it was a single to lead off an inning and a masterful double to right-center, going with a pitch instead of trying to pull everything.
Garciaparra played on Red Sox teams with Ramirez. So did pitcher Derrick Lowe. Despite Ramirez’s quirky nature, he’s portrayed as a student of hitting, a guy who sometimes takes batting practice at 7 a.m. before a day game.
Keep in mind the Dodgers have Ramirez under contract for only the rest of the season. The early consensus on the next two years is that some team will probably require a $35 million offer to sign him.
This is how baseball works these days. For the Dodgers, who are winning and selling tickets at a dizzying pace, it’s so far, so good.
Win or lose the pennant and regardless of whether they succeed in the playoffs, the Dodgers are the talk of the town again, as they’ve been so many times in their history.