With offseason starting, Dodgers face the Manny question

LOS ANGELES -- Down the escalator rode members of the Dodgers' front office, dressed in dark suits, accessorized with scowls, past fans, security guards and stadium workers. When they reached the bottom of the escalator, they encountered a group of fans being kept at bay by security guards. Several of the fans recognized Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, who walked at the front of the assembled Dodgers cavalcade.

"Bring back Manny!" one fan yelled.

Many fans joined in, and by the time the Los Angeles front office reached the stairway leading to the clubhouse, all they heard was a serenade of, "Bring back Manny!"

Not even 10 minutes after the Phillies had ended Los Angeles' postseason via a 5-1 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS, Dodgers fans made it quite clear what their offseason priority would be. Will bringing back Manny Ramirez also be the Dodgers' priority?

"I don't sit there in a chair in my office and decide who is going where," Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said. "Players make decisions as to where they play."

What could be a tumultuous offseason for the Dodgers began thanks to a listless effort on Wednesday. L.A. kicked balls around in the infield, threw balls to the backstop, struck out in key situations and jawed at home plate umpire Mike Winters.

A pall was cast over Dodger Stadium even before the game began. The Los Angeles crowd, which had been so boisterous in Games 3 and 4, was remarkably muted, and that doesn't even account for all the empty seats at Dodger Stadium as Chad Billingsley threw his first pitch. Those who arrived late -- and there were plenty who arrived late -- probably missed Billingsley, who lasted just 2 2/3 innings and allowed a ghastly 10 earned runs in just five innings in two losses in this series.

"I just want to forget the last two starts," Billingsley said.

It may be that Los Angeles, and Dodger fans, never recovered from Monday's heartbreaking loss in which relievers Cory Wade and Jonathan Broxton surrendered a two-run lead by allowing two Philadelphia two-run home runs in the eighth. Dodgers manager Joe Torre sensed his team was so struck by the loss that he called off a scheduled workout on Tuesday.

"We may have been tight [Wednesday], which is understandable after the tough game the other night," Torre said. "We may have been a little over anxious. I don't think that's unusual."

By the fifth inning, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda so sensed the foul mood in the crowd that he grabbed a souvenir towel and waved it in the air to encourage some cheering. The crowd cheered for several moments as the Dodgers began a rally with singles from Casey Blake and Matt Kemp, but then sat back down as soon as Blake DeWitt grounded into his second double play of the night.

A mix of resignation, disappointment and unexpected finality hung over the Dodgers clubhouse within moments of the loss. Of course, that was cut when Manny Ramirez walked into the room wearing only a towel. It was only the latest instance in which Ramirez had taken the edge off the Dodgers. Wearing the towel he signed a "99" Ramirez jersey for Kemp.

"Let me put on my underwear," he jokingly told a group of reporters that had gathered at his locker. "I don't want to scare anybody."

After dressing, Ramirez sat comfortably in a black leather swivel chair in front of his locker, and it was not lost that he appeared to be a king. Surely he will soon receive a king's ransom. Ramirez, who batted .520 with four home runs and 10 RBIs and had an astounding 1.747 OPS this postseason, may be the most coveted offensive free agent this offseason.

"I guess you got to talk to my agent now," Ramirez said when asked how much he was worth. "I'm a five-tool player. That's me now."

Though Ramirez called his arrival in Los Angeles a "great trade" and said he enjoyed playing for the Dodgers, he never once indicated that the Dodgers were his first choice, nor that he would be disappointed if he did not return.

Surely Ramirez is a key component of the Dodgers' lineup, but he may prove too costly for them. With Scott Boras as his agent, Ramirez will likely land with the highest bidder, and it may not be Los Angeles, who has several key free agents to address this offseason. On that list are Rafael Furcal, Derek Lowe, Greg Maddux and Blake.

"There's no question that Manny had a tremendous impact on the organization and the city," Colletti said. "A lot depends on what the player desires; where he wants to play and where he wants to be."

Ramirez's .396 average with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs helped catapult the Dodgers into the playoffs in the first place, but it was his gregarious nature that won over teammates and brought together the clubhouse.

"He's an incredible person," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "He just jelled with this team. He added fun to the clubhouse. Now we realize that you can have fun playing baseball. We needed that."

Ultimately, though, Martin acknowledged, it will come down to money. Would Martin be willing to forgo some of his salary to help Manny stay?

"I don't have any money," Martin joked. "I'll give him my pocket change if he wants."

For the record, Ramirez's final at-bat of the season, and perhaps of his Dodgers' career, resulted in a single up the middle. He had already homered in the sixth inning. Dodger fans had cheered him loudly when he approached the plate before his at-bat in the eighth. As he ran to first base, his loose uniform flapping in the breeze, Los Angeles fans implored Manny to stay.

Fans here had instantly become attached to Ramirez. He was easily the team's most popular player during the playoffs, and his pregame introduction before Game 1 of both the NLDS and the NLCS received the loudest cheers.

"It was the same thing in Cleveland where everybody wanted me to stay," Ramirez said. "I'm going to enjoy my offseason and then see what happens."

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.