Ramirez will play hard to get

LOS ANGELES – The boos had quieted at Dodger Stadium, the Philadelphia Phillies had repaired to their clubhouse for the champagne ritual and normally distinguished members of the L.A. media were all but begging Manny Ramirez to make Mannywood his permanent home.

It became almost embarrassing, like dorky kids pleading with the best-looking girl in school to go to the prom. The more reporters yearned for his return, the more Ramirez demurred.

The player who in three months singlehandedly made the Los Angeles Dodgers relevant for the first time in 20 years was flopped in a chair in front of his locker, dandruff flecking his dreadlocks, a red bruise prominent on his forehead, a bemused twinkle in his eyes. Microphones and tape recorders were pressed in his face.

Moments earlier, the Dodgers had been eliminated by the Phillies, 5-1, in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. The lone Dodger highlight had been a Ramirez home run.

From print reporters in jeans and wrinkled shirts to television personalities in pressed suits, those who sensed the best story in town was in danger of slipping away set aside any semblance of objectivity and tried to get Ramirez to say he'd be back.

But it was as if his new agent, Scott Boras, was standing behind him pulling puppet strings. Ramirez never hinted at a return, and in fact reveled in the notion that he is a mercenary whose guns are still smoking from his most magnificent shootout.

He didn't bat .520 with four home runs, 10 RBIs and an otherworldly 1.749 OPS in the postseason so he could give the Dodgers a hometown discount. He didn't finish the regular season with 37 home runs, a .337 average and 121 RBIs between his time with the Boston Red Sox and Dodgers to tip his hand moments after his team's season ended.

"I'm going to sit at home and wait and see what happens," he said. "I just want to go home and relax."

Reporters pressed. Each time, Ramirez deftly pushed back, either with humor ("Gas is up and so am I") or with a subtle indication that he likely won't be in a Dodgers uniform next spring.

"I want to thank the fans in L.A. for their support, it's a great place to play," he said. "Now I'm moving on. The sky's the limit. Let's see what happens."

On the other side of the room Dodgers owner Frank McCourt was equally noncommittal because he knows pursuing Ramirez means a protracted showdown with Boras. McCourt shook Ramirez's hand after the game, the first contact between the two since Aug. 1, the day Ramirez reported for Dodger duty.

"I can see what he means to the team and to the fans, but people have to realize I don't just sit in a chair and make those decisions," McCourt said. "It's up to the player as much as to the organization. That's a fact."

Earlier, Boras, who has front-row seats behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, shrugged and said, "I'm not the guy who signs the checks."

So this is how it will play out. Boras will send signals throughout baseball that it will take five years and $120 million to sign Ramirez. The response will be tepid because Ramirez is 36 with diminishing defensive skills and a history of being as manipulative as he can be charming.

Boras knows which teams have deep pockets. A few already can be counted out – the Angels and Red Sox, perhaps even the Mets, who have indicated that pitching is their priority. The Yankees will be in play, as always, leaving mostly below-average teams that Boras has long used as leverage for top-dollar players – the Tigers, Mariners and Rangers.

Ramirez had two club options at $20 million apiece stricken from his contract when he came to L.A., so there's no way he'll accept less. A reasonable contract would be three years and $70 million. He'll probably get four and close to $100 million.

It's a deal that would be wildly popular with Dodger fans who embraced Ramirez, outfitted themselves in his jersey and faux dreadlocks, and recognize that the thunder in his bat was the primary reason the team briefly crackled in October.

But the Dodgers have many holes. Derek Lowe is a free agent, and Brad Penny (who left the team in a huff in September) will be as well, unless the Dodgers mend fences and pick up his relatively cut-rate $8.75 option, leaving only the psychologically battered Chad Billingsley, tender-shouldered Hiroki Kuroda and 20-year-old Clayton Kershaw in the starting rotation. Shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Casey Blake also are free agents. Jeff Kent, Greg Maddux and Nomar Garciaparra likely will retire, and none would be a full-time contributor. The health of closer Takashi Saito is questionable.

Furthermore, the payroll is still saddled with the disastrous contracts of Andruw Jones ($18.1 million), Jason Schmidt ($16.7 million) and Juan Pierre ($28.5 million the next three years).

Look for the Dodgers to re-sign Furcal, who made it clear he wants to return. Blake, solid on the field, steady in the clubhouse, probably could be signed for two years at about $17 million, enabling young Blake DeWitt to become a full-time second baseman.

Lowe, the most consistent starter in baseball the last seven seasons, likes living in L.A., but the Dodgers never approached him about an extension. CC Sabathia is the most appealing pitcher on the market, but in the wake of his spectacular second half in Milwaukee, his asking price could dwarf that of Ramirez. Otherwise, the roster of free-agent starting pitchers includes mostly the old and infirm.

So it might circle back to Ramirez, and doesn't he know it. He started making huge money the first time he went through free agency, after the 2000 season and eight years with the Cleveland Indians. The Red Sox more than tripled his salary, and he's been paid over $160 million to play this game that keeps a smile on his face and normally self-respecting reporters pining for him to remain in their city, to continue to be their story.

"I have a great time wherever I go," Ramirez said. "It was the same thing in Cleveland. Everybody wanted me to stay."

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