Dodgers prepare to embrace Ramirez's return

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

GLENDALE, Ariz. – By Wednesday morning, the locker without the name tag still was empty but had a designation. "RESERVED," it read across the top.

They knew he was coming.

By Wednesday afternoon, Joe Torre and Ned Colletti stood on a veranda outside the executive offices at Camelback Ranch and said nothing was signed, that they'd have no announcement yet. They'd just returned from Malibu, Calif., however.

They knew he was coming.

Another spring lineup had another guy in left field, but that was temporary. "Where's Manny?" the man cried from the sun-soaked bleachers along the third-base line.

They knew he was coming.

Four months of wrangling later, Manny Ramirez passed a physical and signed a two-year, $45 million contract Wednesday. He was expected in Dodgers camp by Thursday, 15 days after the other position players, and will hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m. ET.

The negotiations – and Manny himself – had survived a final few days in which it all got wobbly. Along the shores of the Pacific in owner Frank McCourt's Malibu home, however, the Dodgers looked into Manny's eyes during a morning meeting with him and saw commitment and reliability and, above all, 120 RBIs.

"We needed to put the personality back into it," Colletti said, "after four months of negotiating."

Fortunately for the Dodgers (other than Juan Pierre), McCourt chose not to abide by the gauntlet he laid down Sunday afternoon, when he promised negotiations with Scott Boras would start over and suggested Ramirez be prepared to considerably soften his demands.

Instead, and predictably, Ramirez's contract was only a few hours away, including the physical. So the deadline was not really a deadline and the start-from-scratch threat was – to use the word of the week – disingenuous. Next time, the red-faced bluff will be even more transparent.

McCourt and Boras hung out together Tuesday. By early evening, they were close enough in terms to have Ramirez (from Florida) and Colletti and Joe Torre (from Arizona) board jets bound for L.A. By Wednesday morning, McCourt was satisfied with the contract and Ramirez's attitude, and everybody shook hands and went off to fight a rainy morning on Pacific Coast Highway. Boras didn't get his $100 million. McCourt couldn't shake the feeling he'd driven up the price on himself. Neither covered himself in glory, but that was forgotten by brunch.

Eventually, Ramirez got to the doctor and Colletti and Torre got back to see the Dodgers play the Giants, and the Dodgers' season was that much closer to starting.

"We all wanted the same thing," Torre said. "Manny, I couldn't have been more pleased with how excited he was just to be getting back on the field."

At the end, Torre added, "I don't think there was any conversation in explaining things that had to be done. Everybody knew we had come together. … [Ramirez] basically said, 'All I want to do is play baseball.' "

In fact, Colletti said, in an hour-and-a-half in the McCourt living room, "There wasn't one uncomfortable moment."

Apparently, those were 90 minutes of toasts and backslapping.

"You want to make sure there's nothing underlying that's going to bother anybody," Torre said. "You want to make sure that it's all baseball."

In a winter marketplace that operated somewhere between budget-conscious and full-blown collusion, Ramirez was the last significant player to sign. He'd followed Mark Teixeira, Derek Lowe, Oliver Perez and Jason Varitek on Boras' client list, and Rafael Furcal, Mark Loretta, Casey Blake, Guillermo Mota, Brad Ausmus, Orlando Hudson and Randy Wolf on the Dodgers' shopping list.

That leaves the Dodgers with what should be a big offense, some very good times with Ramirez and a vulnerable pitching staff.

Torre's preference is to hit his purest hitter third; that's why Paul O'Neill batted third for his best Yankees teams. So that's probably where Ramirez goes, after Furcal and Hudson. Off the top of his head, he had one of his left-handed hitters – Andre Ethier or James Loney – follow Ramirez, then Russell Martin, and then whichever lefty didn't bat cleanup. That leaves Matt Kemp seventh and Casey Blake eighth, impressive depth.

"The most important thing," Torre said, "is to protect [Ramirez]. It's pretty good. It's pretty formidable, I think."

It still leaves a starting rotation that's an arm or two shy and a bullpen just as short on sure things. With a month left in spring training, Torre is formulating exactly what he has here, in a camp where the likes of Jeff Weaver, Eric Milton, Jason Schmidt and Shawn Estes might still be vying for jobs weeks from now.

"Obviously," Torre said, "we're putting a lot of pressure on [Chad] Billingsley and [Hiroki] Kuroda," who simply cannot fail if the Dodgers are to win the division again. Indeed, if Colletti cannot find another starter and some help for the bullpen by April, he almost surely will have to in July.

That's for another day, however. First, they would clear the way for Manny. For the first time in four months, they know he's coming.

"The division?" Loney said, smiling. "He affects the whole league, in my opinion. When he's on, he's on. And he was on for us pretty much the whole time."

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