LOS ANGELES – In a late-summer scene that has become as familiar in L.A. as swaying palms, Manny Ramirez slung an arm over a teammate's shoulders. That teammate did not flinch or squirm.
No one's eyes rolled, narrowed or otherwise revealed suspicions of ulterior motive.
Meanwhile, in a nation far away, there already had been persistent questions about and conclusions drawn as to whether:
Manny would play.
Manny would play hard.
Manny would just settle down and hit.
Manny would run out of town or be run out of town.
Manny would thrive in a strange place where he'd have to lug the lineup and shorten his mane.
After nine weeks in L.A., 53 games in which he batted .396 and hit 17 home runs and drove in 53 runs, we have an answer.
It's his word, really, first bellowed into the Dodger Stadium sky by Ramirez himself when the Dodgers secured their first NL West title in four years. Once, he was a newcomer with a reputation as a brooder who showed up when he wanted to show up and not a minute before, as a phenomenal talent whose head sometimes lagged behind, as a self-interested malcontent who'd bring down all of Red Sox Nation for his own thrills and a few million dollars.
"Forget about that," Ramirez said. "It's in the past already. I'm here with Casey Blake now."
And the man draped by Ramirez's arm grinned.
"You know something?" Ramirez said. "I moved on with my life. I don't think about that anymore. I just want to play the game."
He looked again at Blake.
Blake nodded dutifully.
The Los Angeles Dodgers enter a postseason marking the 20th anniversary of their last playoff series victory, where ownership changes and front-office turnover in that gravely dark period far outnumber the playoff games won (one). They hired a new manager with a glamorous past and a distinctive profile. As they caught Andruw Jones in an end-of-career spiral they apparently weren't expecting, they pushed at-bats on their future, young men such as Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier and Blake DeWitt, and innings on Clayton Kershaw, and the ninth inning on Jonathan Broxton.
When it wasn't near enough, the Red Sox and Scott Boras foisted Ramirez upon them, for a couple of prospects and no money down. While they were just so-so in August, Ramirez's first month west, the Dodgers won 18 of 23 games from late August to late September, when Ramirez had 10 home runs and 30 RBIs. That's what won them the division … that and a pitching staff forever underrated.
So here he stands, a day from October, a month from free agency, and it's not unusual to be in the clubhouse and have Manny saunter up, look you in the eye and say, "Where you think I'll be next year?" He doesn't really expect an answer, you know, just making conversation, something to do between the last at-bat and the next one. And if that's what drives him today, what do the Dodgers care about tomorrow?
"He's as good as he wants to be," said Dale Sveum, the Milwaukee Brewers' acting manager, who for a time was Ramirez's third-base coach in Boston. "The problem with Manny, as we all know: He'll take days off. I mean, he'll be in the lineup and take days off. But when he's focused, happy and secure, there's no better right-handed hitter in the game.
"When he was traded, I told people he's going to be the best hitter in baseball for the next two months. And he was."
Surely Ramirez is aware there's money to be made in a Mannywood October, even for a man of his credentials, a man who's batted .300 or better (some of them a lot better) in seven of his last eight playoff series, a man who looks like he'll hit until he's bored with it. And while he might not think of it this way, this postseason is going to be about what Manny does for the Dodgers, not the other way around.
He is laughing. He is motivated. He is loved. That's a pretty good Manny to have, hauling with him one of the few bats that could carry a series. The Dodgers open their division series Wednesday in Chicago, Mannywood does Wrigleyville.
"Just like the regular season," Ramirez said. "If I go out there and give what I got and it doesn't go the right way, I'm all right."
Whether every line drive, every clutch RBI, backs Dodgers owner Frank McCourt deeper into a corner with his playoff-starved fan base – Boras probably opens bidding at four years and $80 million for Ramirez – is a daily debate here, but not the current priority.
That would be Ramirez's impact right now on this team, which, even with him, is terribly flawed offensively, suspect defensively and about to take on the NL's best team with a pitching staff unproven beyond Derek Lowe.
Lately, Ramirez has gone to the postseason on big, powerful teams, Red Sox teams, teams that pitched first, teams that didn't ask him to lead and certainly didn't follow him. This one has, and will. In a career remarkably free of regular-season MVP awards, and that is sprinkled with one batting title, one home-run title and one RBI title, dragging the Dodgers through a round or two of the National League side of things would be a signature achievement.
"Because of his professional approach every day, he doesn't have to be any different in the playoffs," said Bill Mueller, who won a World Series beside Ramirez in 2004 and now serves as a consultant to Dodgers GM Ned Colletti. "He does that every day. He brings that from the first month to whenever he stops playing. You're seeing how special he is every day."
All he needs now is a pitch or two to hit. These Dodgers aren't those Red Sox.
"The situation has to have him able to get some at-bats," Mueller said. "You're going to see in the playoffs people probably pitching around him more."
Mueller smiled broadly.
"We hope," he said, "people don't believe."
The choice for Lou Piniella would seem to be to pitch to Ramirez or Jeff Kent, or Ramirez or Andre Ethier, or Ramirez or James Loney. Even then, said one NL coach, "You've got to pitch him in to have a chance. His initial thought is right-center field, but he's savvy enough to hunt zones."
None of this really penetrates Ramirez. It's just talk. He waves it away, makes jokes, says for the thousandth time, "I feel like I'm on vacation," and everybody giggles, and turns a single into a double (offensively, this time) and says, "They say in Boston I can't run. They lie to you."
Actually, they never said he couldn't run. They said he wouldn't run.
That's why he's here. Why he's in L.A. Why there are new people to impress, to romance.
"I just want to play the game," he said.
And that, again, is why he's here.
Because in Boston, Manny wouldn't.