The Rise and Fall of Manny Ramirez

F. Scott Fitzgerald probably didn't have Manny Ramirez in mind when he wrote, "Show Me a Hero and I'll Write You a Tragedy," but then again had he known him, he might have dedicated it to him.

Manny Ramirez, the man-child with perhaps the most glorious, uncomplicated swing of any right-handed hitter in the history of the game, made the mistake of signing with the Dodgers a year too long.

With a $20 million contract, or at least the promise of $20 million in smaller quantities over the next few years, in an economy that has dropped off the table like a Koufax curveball, coupled with a batting average over the final games of the 2009 season that followed the same trajectory, has called down on himself the wrath of a goodly part of his once overwhelming fan base in Los Angeles.

His near-.400 average over the final months of 2008 electrified the Dodger crowd and was a bitter thing to swallow for the Red Sox fans who felt they were stiffed by Manny and predicted long and loudly that he would quickly turn back into Dr. Jeckyll.

But he didn't. He led the Dodgers to their first winning post-season series since the Gibson and Hershiser extravaganza of 1988.

A century or so ago, he would have been declared king of Southern California with all the privileges such a post was heir to.

He started the 2009 season in the same manner, although holding out in true Hollywood fashion so as not to return to spring training so soon and spoil a grand entrance.

At his introduction to the press in the gleaming, new Camelback Ranch complex, he stated, "I'm b-a-a-a-c-k" with his arm around both manager Joe Torre and owner Frank McCourt. And with his winning, boyish smile, who could fault his breach of etiquette?

He hit .500 in March and April, then .455 in May and believers had visions of .400 dancing in their heads. Then, like lightening on a clear day, he was suspended for using illegal drugs.

The shock wave reverberated about Chavez Ravine, so loudly that the derisive laughter in Boston was all but drowned out.

Suspended for 50 days, he disappeared without a trace. The notification came late in a game at Dodger Stadium and he was taken out of the game and had left before the media crush could reach him.

The parking lot was littered with discarded dreadnaughts and tickets to the MannyWood section of the stadium were devalued overnight.

Media talking-heads on almost every network predicted that the Dodgers would swiftly limp away into the night without his big bat in the lineup.

However in a weeks time, the names Manny Ramirez and Juan Pierre were juxtaposed.

Manny became the scorned and Juan became the man of the hour, with all the websites who made cheap jokes about trading him for a broken bat and a dozen balls swinging over to the "I always liked that Pierre" and "His speed at the top of the lineup is just what the team needed."

The Dodgers, who had been declared dead, miraculously not only survived but prospered. Well, they picked up one game. But be it noted, however, that there was no "Pierre's People" section roped off in his honor.

So then Manny returned, still silent for the most part about his suspension, although embarrassed by the revelation that his transgression was taking a female hormone. At least "steroid" has a manly sound about it.

And at first he didn't disappoint.

Ramirez sported a .347 batting average, .439 on-base percentage and .755 slugging percentage with five homers and 17 RBI in his first 57 plate appearances.

"It wasn't the drugs," cried his supporters. But there was a growing discontent that could be felt as more fans completely turned against him.

He was hit on the wrist by a pitch on July 21 and three days later he pinch-hit and slugged a game-winning grand slam home run despite a sore hand. His bandwagon re-loaded and everyone looked forward to the final 60+ games of the season.

From the time of the grand slam through the end of the regular season, he failed to reach base in only nine starts. His on-base percentage was a healthy .378, and his batting average remained above .300 until September 23.

But something was dreadfully wrong with his power. He had 12 doubles, eight homers and a .439 slugging percentage down the stretch. Not Hall of Fame caliber, but the kind of numbers that would have boosted an average outfielder well toward a multi-year contract in 2010.

His fielding, below average at best, didn't change much but the mistakes he did make -- overrunning balls into the corner, not running hard to cut off balls in the gap and just tossing the ball back toward the infield when he did run a ball down, drew down the thunder from the stands.

The Dodgers staggered to the pennant, getting their hat handed to them in both Washington and Pittsburgh as the Rockies came thundering up behind them.

Chad Billingsley drew his share of the fire for a sluggish second half but for the most part, the opinion was it was Ramirez fault, with Pierre becoming a subject of near-beatification as an afterthought.

Manny's mojo at the plate had abandoned him by this time. As the Dodgers struggled to clinch the division title he was 0-for-10 against the Padres, who took two from Los Angeles.

Manny somehow lost his swing and looked like a man who was desperately trying to ward off a bumblebee with a pool cue.

His slump reached 10-for-13 before knocking in a run with a single in the 5-0 win over Colorado that finally put the NL West title in the Dodgers pocket. For his final 33 at-bats of the regular season, Ramirez -- a .313 lifetime hitter -- batted .152 with no homers and four RBIs.

He hit a pedestrian .274 over the final 67 games of the season with 15 doubles, 13 home runs and 42 runs batted in. He finished with a .290 average, 19 home runs and 63 runs batted in over 104 games. Not exactly chopped liver but it was his lowest average since 1994.

Then he hit in all three games as the Dodgers swept the Cardinals in the division series. He followed that by hitting in four of the five games with Philadelphia as Los Angeles was eliminated.

He was not exactly a complete flop.

2010 may not be Mannywood's Farewell Tour but it will probably be his last in Los Angeles.

"If this is Manny's last year in L.A.," said outfielder Andre Ethier, "I hope it's a good one for him and for us and for the whole organization."

Ramirez will be 38 in May. He complained about his legs last season and will probably finish his career, and a glittering career it has been, in the American League.

"I expect he'll play a little less and give his legs a chance to stay strong," general manager Ned Colletti said. "He's been in contact with Joe Torre, who said he sounds great, is working hard, is in a good frame of mind."

Sort of reminds you what was said during his suspension.

So the question is, what can be expected out of him come April? Perhaps the proper rest will allow him to approach his usual power numbers over fewer games. Will the mostly-young club improve enough to make up for any possible decline?

"Any team with Manny is better than without him, but we all came together when we needed to, we played as a team, we stepped up and did the job," center fielder Matt Kemp said. "We really did some things people didn't think we we're going to do.

"He's taught us a lot about having fun and that it's a kid's game and just play and not worry about too much stuff. That's the main thing, the team needed to have more fun and stop being so serious. We've been playing the game since we were kids, why not act like a kid?"

So Manny's presence alone will also be worth something, even if the .350 averages don't come as easily as they once did.

This will probably be the ongoing theme of the season, can Manny help and will the rest of the team rise to the occasion.

But one should also remember that it was also Fitzgerald that wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives."