When the Dodgers acquired Hanley Ramirez from the Florida Marlins on July 25, they had a precedent to believe the 28-year-old former batting champion would play hard and blend into the fabric of the team.
Four years earlier, another brash slugger with a history of personality clashes arrived in Los Angeles and turned around his image (for the time being), while changing the course of the franchise. That, of course, would be Manny Ramirez, who batted .396 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs in just 53 games in 2008.
There are other precedents that aren’t as encouraging, one of them within 30 miles of Dodger Stadium. When the Angels signed Jose Guillen before the 2004 season, they assured their fans that the steady leadership of Mike Scioscia and a change of scenery were all Guillen needed to overcome a history of clashes with authority figures.
Within eight months, Guillen had publicly pouted after Scioscia benched him (at the suggestion of owner Arte Moreno) for blowing off an on-field photo day with fans. Within weeks, Scioscia and Guillen had a blowup in the clubhouse that led to Guillen being suspended for the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs then shipped off to the Washington Nationals the next winter.
In other words, this Ramirez thing could go either way. If he remains happy and focused, he could be the extra middle-of-the-order bat that puts the Dodgers in the playoffs. But many baseball people wonder what will happen if the Dodgers fall into a long losing streak or if Ramirez becomes unhappy with the way manager Don Mattingly is handling him.
Things couldn’t have gone better to ease Ramirez into a new scene. The Dodgers swept an emotional series in San Francisco, with Ramirez hitting a game-winning home run in one of the games. When he got back to Los Angeles, he said it was refreshing to be in a winning environment. The Miami Marlins had sky-high expectations moving into a new stadium this season but have underperformed.
“They are winning, you know, and that’s the thing that I like. Everybody’s happy,” Ramirez said. “When you walk into a situation where everybody’s laughing and getting along, I’m happy to be part of that.”
In eight games, Ramirez is batting .226 with a home run and eight RBIs. Eventually, he will probably move back to his preferred position, shortstop. He played a few innings there Wednesday after a double switch.
So far, so good. But what happens when things turn south -- as they inevitably do for at least small stretches of a baseball season?
The Dodgers can’t possibly know that. They were desperate enough to add offense that they felt they had to take a shot on Ramirez. Teams don’t typically trade away high-performing hitters on long-term contracts who are model citizens.
“There’s only so much background checking you can do,” general manager Ned Colletti said. “Sometimes, you give people an opportunity, you give them a chance. I’ve had a couple good conversations with him. He seems genuinely happy to be here and glad to have a fresh start.
“I usually make my determinations about people based on how they respect the game in front of me and in front of Donny and how they interact with people, so we’ll start clean because you have no idea what the dynamics were before."
Ramirez clashed with more than one manager in Miami, starting with Fredi Gonzalez and including Edwin Rodriguez. When he was asked to move from shortstop to accommodate Jose Reyes, it became a major soap opera involving him and Ozzie Guillen. After a bad at-bat just before the All-Star game, he punched an electric fan in the Marlins' dugout, an injury that became infected, requiring him to miss more time.
On “The Franchise,” a Showtime program that has followed behind-the-scenes events in the Marlins' season, owner Jeffrey Loria, shortly before the trade, said of Ramirez, “He has been an interesting and spectacular athlete to be around. My baseball people have come to me several times to say we’ve got to do something. We can’t continue like this. I’m not sure what’s happened with the chemistry in the clubhouse.”
Perhaps moving 2,500 miles from Miami and being surrounded by an otherwise-stable and laidback group will be exactly what Ramirez needs to perform at the level his talents suggest. If that happens, he could be the piece that puts the Dodgers over the top. That’s why they’ve been willing to overlook all his baggage.
“It’s just kind of a clean slate with him,” Mattingly said. “Our relationship started the first night I was able to talk to him. I started to lay out our expectations and how we kind of go about things here. I know he’s had some stuff. I haven’t been under a rock my whole life.
“If we have an issue, then we’ll deal with it. But right now there’s none, so I’m not worried about it.”