And, so, the relieved chorus of Dodgers blue bloods rises over Chavez Ravine, "Hey, hey, the gang's still all here." Los Angeles had sprinted to the 2008 wire with midseason acquisitions and a healed shortstop carrying the baton across the finish line. At the end of a halting offseason, they're all back for more.
Casey Blake, check. Rafael Furcal, check. Manny Ramirez, checkmate National League West?Ramirez returning to the Dodgers is about as surprising as the swallows returning to Capistrano. About four months after turning his back on the Dodgers' offer of two years at $45 million, he accepts essentially the same offer. What was up with that? Well, it could be a reflection of dropping gasoline prices; the $45 million looks better next to $2.09 a gallon, compared to the $4.09 when Ramirez had declared that "the price of gasoline is up, so I'm up." More likely, it was another orchestration by agent Scott Boras, doing his best to balance the NL West. Boras kept the Giants over the Dodgers' heads, even though all evidence pointed to the G-Men being unable to approach Los Angeles' money. This was Boras' Immaculate Deception, no apologies to Franco Harris. It's easy to see why the ploy worked. Some players are difference makers. Ramirez has proven to be a history maker, someone who could have easily shifted the NL West power base 450 miles north of Dodger Stadium. Of all of Ramirez's glowing statistics and accomplishments, nothing stands out as this: In 16 Major League seasons, he has played on one with a losing record, and his teams (Cleveland and Boston before Los Angeles) have gone a cumulative 368 games over .500. He could have easily turned around a post-Barry Bonds San Francisco team that was a fourth-place, 90-game loser in 2008 but had already added shortstop Edgar Renteria, relievers Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry, and 300th-win-seeking Randy Johnson. Instead, Ramirez remains with the Dodgers, who bagged the '08 division title on the OPM plan: Other People's Money, as the Indians and the Red Sox, respectively, picked up the remainder of Blake's and Ramirez's salaries. Now the Dodgers are laying their own cash on the table, $96 million worth for Manny, Blake, Furcal and his new double-play partner, Orlando Hudson. With nearly half of that committed to Ramirez, it's either a wise investment or a risky proposition, depending on whether you ask people who focus on his at-bats or on his behavior. The production bordered on frightening following his July 31 deal to Los Angeles: Projections to a full season adds up to 51 homers and 153 RBIs along with a .396 average. That's Triple Crown territory, something the NL has not seen since Joe Medwick in 1937. No wonder dreadlocks-wearing Los Angelenos showered him with love, which Ramirez credits with keeping him in their town. On the verge of finalizing the deal, he told the Los Angeles Times, "I'm happy in L.A. I like my teammates and had a great time. The fans were so good to me; they treated me the best anywhere in my career." Cocooned life in Southern California agreed with Ramirez, whose quest for privacy led to his rebellion out of Boston. The manner in which he forced his departure alarmed a lot of baseball people, doubtless contributing to his free-agent market not being wider. Consider the comments of two general mangers while he was in limbo: "Who knows what happens in this game, but any team guaranteeing Manny more than two years after what's he's pulled deserves what they get." "I'd be fired if I even attempted to sign Manny at more than $15 million for a couple of years." Dodgers GM Ned Colletti isn't in danger of being fired. He is merely fired up to have held onto a guy who finished fourth in NL voting for Most Valuable Player with his two months' work. With closure, the Dodgers asserted themselves as favorites in their division. The Giants have improved themselves to being the major challengers, ready to ride a top-notch rotation of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Jonathan Sanchez and the Big Unit. The D-backs' rotation stacks up, but they have offensive issues. And both the Padres and Rockies have regressed dramatically since meeting in a 163rd-game tie-breaker a mere 17 months ago. Ramirez's "early" signing surprised people around the game, people well aware of his aversion to Spring Training. Because of that, for instance, the over-under in the Padres' clubhouse for Manny's reporting date was March 24. He may not like the monotony of a long Spring Training, but he definitely likes putting up big numbers, which he will do for the Dodgers for at least two more seasons -- which will merely lead to his next free agency, and perhaps the last stage of a memorable career. "I know that if I play six more years, I could get to my 3,000th hit and, who knows, maybe my 700th home run," he said a couple of months ago. Los Angelenos love looking forward to that. That love, from Ramirez's perspective, is not unrequited.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.