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Who is Manny Ramirez now?

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

SAN DIEGO – In Joe Torre's view, the game has seen plenty of great hitters and then, just beyond them, there are a handful of men that swing a baseball bat like Manny Ramirez(notes).

Willie Mays, Barry Bonds(notes), Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Alex Rodriguez(notes), Ted Williams, Reggie Jackson. He didn't put them in order as much as he plucked them from the dugout ceiling, and he didn't presume it a complete list. They were the different hitters, though, better by enough to make them just more than great. Better in their heads, he said, better in their hands, and better in their wills.

Now, Torre said, he has no guess at what Manny might have ingested to improve that swing or maintain it over the years or carry it into his late 30s. That's Manny's to bear, or not.

Of greater interest to Torre and the Los Angeles Dodgers today is what Manny is from here, if he'll be the hitter he was before he went off to do his time. Is he still a physical brute? Is he still psychologically – if not artificially – bulletproof? Will he be tomorrow? In late August? Next year?

That's where Torre clings to those names, those hitters, and Manny's place among them.

"To me, those people are legitimate as far as their abilities are, what their confidence levels are," he said. "There's still just some basic stuff in there. If I'm in his shoes, I know I'm a good player.

"[Manny] is very confident in his ability. Whether the ball goes as far, I don't know. But just the act of hitting, I don't think there's going to be any change."

Torre was manager of the Yankees, of course, when Jason Giambi(notes) came off his BALCO grand jury testimony and humiliatingly public apologies to discover he had neither the stroke nor the stomach to be a middle-of-the-order hitter anymore, an affliction that lasted more than a year.

Teammates of Giambi's swear he was spent emotionally, that he lost his nerve before losing his swing. With help from hitting coach Don Mattingly, Giambi reinvented himself, but a process that began early in 2004 wasn't complete until halfway through the 2005 season, ending a very long, very trying period in which Giambi qualified as a big league player in salary and uniform only.

Manny, they're sure, is different. He is far more confident than Giambi ever was and a more complete hitter. Then, so is Alex Rodriguez, and between his ailing hip and a spring in which he copped to years of steroid use, Rodriguez has been slow to rediscover his stroke. Manny's agent contends Manny was not seeking performance enhancement (not baseball performance, anyway) when all this began and received none of those benefits and was not covering for any past steroid use, which the Dodgers would be only too happy to believe. Manny, you may have heard, has denied nothing, confirmed nothing.

"I think everybody is a separate case and we're going to have to wait and see," Torre said. "The only thing I do know is Manny is a legitimately good hitter. While Jason was more a power guy, Manny is probably a little more adept at using the whole field. He has his whole career."

Promisingly for the Dodgers, Manny had one good plate appearance Friday night and hit three balls hard Saturday afternoon.

A couple games into Manny AD (anno drug suspension), what we know about him is he can hit a waist-high changeup into the left-field bleachers. He did that in the first inning Saturday, when Padres starter Josh Geer(notes) must have figured Manny was hunting fastball. Regardless, Manny hit it a long way, and next, perhaps, he'll work his way to hanging sliders.

"Manny's stroke has always been pure," said Mattingly, who is now the Dodgers hitting coach. "It's not the same as Jason. When I got Jason, he was hooking everything. He'd hurt his knee the year before. He'd gotten long and round. With Manny, he doesn't seem any different at all. Mentally, emotionally, if there's stuff going on, I don't know how any of that's going to go. We won't know that until we see it. Manny's always just played. He's always just hit. He does his thing. He knows what he's doing."

Meantime, a vague Manny is more than a potential dilemma for the Dodgers alone. As he resumes a career that carries a slightly different tone than it did a couple months ago, there is the question: When does a team pitch to Manny the guy who just came off a two-month suspension and when does a team defer to Manny the guy who just tied Jimmie Foxx for 16th place on the all-time home-run list?

"I'm not sure they know what they want to do yet," Torre said. "I'm glad I don't have to make that decision."

The Padres pitched to him every time over two days, even in the dicey spots, but have not been pressed with a big moment late in a game. Manny has come out in the sixth inning of both starts.

"It's not black and white, because the game is not black and white," Padres manager Bud Black said before posing the quandary of the day. "Is Manny the real Manny?"