ONE OF the happiest consequences of Manny Ramirez's move to the Dodgers is that the dreadlocked outfielder's daily exploits, scandals and general Mannyisms will now be chronicled by broadcaster Vin Scully, baseball's 80-year-old dean of restraint, measured analysis and sly wit. The fun has already begun. In the first half-inning of Ramirez's Dodgers debut, after observing the ovation that Manny received just for bounding out to leftfield, and noting that the Dodgers had at that point sold some 11,000 tickets to the game since the Ramirez trade was announced, Scully said with typical understatement, "So, of course, tremendous interest to see the newcomer."
And no wonder. How often does a Hall of Fame--caliber, championship-winning athlete come to town, and then take his position wearing the gaudiest of numbers, 99?
It was 20 years ago this week that Wayne Gretzky, number 99 himself, arrived in L.A., also with extraordinary fanfare. Gretzky wound up reshaping hockey (his success in Los Angeles eventually put the NHL on the map, literally, in warm-weather cities from San Jose to Nashville) and more locally saved the moribund Kings, leading them to their only Stanley Cup finals, in 1993. The 36-year-old Ramirez is certainly off on the right foot, despite the, ahem, knee problems he complained about in Boston. On his first weekend he went 8 for 13, with two home runs and five RBIs, while helping to cut into the Diamondbacks' NL West lead. He could yet save the Dodgers' season—but this is not your father's 99.
Whereas Gretzky's reputation was rooted in his gorgeous and singular play, Manny is Manny partly for what he does beyond baseball. Or, on his worst days, to baseball. Early posttrade debate revolved around when and how far Ramirez would cut back his flapping locks as per manager Joe Torre's orders. Would he get bars on his cellphone in the outfield at Dodger Stadium? Would he ask a newspaper reporter for a $70,000 loan, as he once did in Cleveland? Clearly Manny did not lose his impulsiveness on the flight west. "I think I'll play here for the remainder of my career," he proclaimed 24 hours after touching down in Los Angeles.
Forgive L.A. if it feels a bit like a lady getting profusely complimented at last call. Manny, who'll be a free agent at season's end, may believe he's being sincere, and acquiring him for middling prospects while getting the Red Sox to pay his salary this season was a neat stroke by G.M. Ned Colletti, but Dodgers fans know from promises that don't pan out. Since signing a two-year, $18.5 million contract before the 2007 season, infielder Nomar Garciaparra has hit just 12 home runs and missed more than 100 games with injuries. Pitcher Jason Schmidt, also signed before '07, has returned exactly one win on his three-year, $47 million deal (he's been out since last June after shoulder surgery), and then there's Andruw Jones.
Sixteen months ago Jones was baseball's preeminent centerfielder, a 10-time Gold Glover who had Manny-esque statistics. With career totals of 1,023 RBIs and 342 home runs at age 29, he was by all appearances raking his way to Cooperstown. Jones slipped some in '07, but his power numbers (26 homers, 94 RBIs) were about what he'd put up in '04, so Colletti and the Dodgers viewed the slump more as an aberration than a cause for alarm. Jones—guided by Scott Boras, who is also Ramirez's agent—secured a two-year, $36.2 million contract from L.A., the richest per annum salary given out in last winter's free-agent class.
Now Jones is deep into what may be the worst season for an outfielder in baseball history: He was batting .161 with 73 strikeouts, two homers and 13 RBIs in 227 plate appearances through Sunday—a disappearance even more mystifying, and surely more damaging to his team, than Manny's mid-game vanishings into Fenway's Green Monster to relieve himself. Were Jones having even a mediocre season, the Dodgers would not have been 25th in runs scored on July 31, and the Manny trade might never have happened. Instead, Ramirez's arrival has cemented Jones's place on the bench, where he tries to stay upbeat while feeling frustrated and baffled. "I'm in good shape," he told SI. "I don't know how to explain it.... It's mental stuff." Dodgers fans, normally a forgiving lot, have been showering Jones with boos, even when he makes a routine catch in center.
Though Manny incurred the disdain of ownership in Boston, he has always had his supporters; it is hard not to enjoy someone who plays the game so well (lifetime .313 batting average, 512 homers, 1,677 RBIs) and who leaps up to high-five a fan in the middle of a play, as Manny did at Camden Yards in May. But of course Manny has a less-than-lovable side—he knocked over the Red Sox' 64-year-old traveling secretary last month when the man couldn't fulfill his ticket request; he has loafed to first base and he may have feigned injury to keep from playing. It is a measure of just how far Ramirez went astray that so many Red Sox fans were happy to see him, the Most Valuable Player of the curse-breaking 2004 World Series, get out of town.
While Gretzky brought his number 99 from Edmonton—and continued to wear it with such astonishing distinction that it has been retired by every NHL team—Ramirez took a more quixotic journey in landing his digits. In brief: After being denied his Red Sox number, 24 (it was Walter Alston's and has been retired by the Dodgers), he requested 34 ( Fernando Valenzuela's, not retired but sacred) and briefly considered then rejected (for unknown reasons) number 28. He pondered number 11, but settled on 66. Then he later changed his mind and said he wanted 99. Nobody, not even Manny, seems quite sure why.
Whether tales like that will be recalled as charming or bizarre will depend on how Manny performs in the 40-something games left on the schedule. People may talk a lot about his antics, but one of the enduring satisfactions of baseball is that the way you play defines your legacy. What makes Manny unique is that he does not seem to know the meaning of the word failure—or, most likely, Gretzky.