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Trouble in Mannywood

Published May 18, 2009

Originally published in the Boston Globe

Trouble in Mannywood

FOR THE 37,000 fans that arrived early at Dodger Stadium a week ago Thursday, the excitement in the air was not in anticipation of a first-place club getting ready to extend its division lead. Rather it was the hoopla surrounding prodigious slugger Manny Ramirez and his just-announced 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

At the end of the seventh-inning stretch, after fans listened to "God Bless America" and sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," a chant rose from Mannywood, the recently christened lower boxes adjacent to left field. "We want Manny, we want Manny, we want Manny. . ." The Dodgers were clinging to a lead, their record-setting 13 home-game winning streak in jeopardy. The chant of the faithful decked out in Ramirez's number 99 jerseys and T shirts, some with dreadlock-adorned caps, reminded us: The fans will sooner forgive you for cheating than they will for losing.

Los Angeles is a Lakers town. Fans pay little attention to the Dodgers until mid-June or whenever the Lakers' season ends. But that changed, after 19 years without winning a post-season series, with last year's division victory over the Cubs. The Dodgers were basically a break-even ball club until Manny showed up, with his beautiful batting stroke and his carefree demeanor - as well as his reputed baggage, and led them to the League Championship Series for the first time in a generation.

Who else but Manny could change the sports paradigm in LA? And in the process knock the Lakers' second-round playoff ink to below the sports-page fold and make Kobe Bryant and Co. an afterthought for the sports-radio hosts. Basketball would have to wait. There's trouble in Mannywood.

Righteous indignation began immediately with cries of "clean up his act" and "eviction in Mannywood" by LA sports columnists who were met with equal parts "hooray" and "gimme a break" by fans' letters and e-mails. Everything we heard but had not experienced about Manny being Manny was coming true, albeit not in a fashion anyone on either coast may have expected. The friendly, fun-loving, free-spirited Dodger was under a cloud.

LA was about to experience Hometown Fallen Hero Syndrome. America loves a fallen hero, especially when they get up and apologize. Pete Rose couldn't do it. Barry Bonds hasn't done it, and neither has Roger Clemens. The only fans not disappointed by that are loyalists of the teams for which they starred. When Barry Bonds was marching through the National League on his home-run assault a couple of years ago he was booed vigorously in every city except San Francisco. Manny, who became an instant local hero, will experience the same thing in LA. He may be tainted, but he's our tainted.

When Manny was busted, team chairman Frank McCourt's wife and Dodgers CEO, Jamie, released a statement that the team shares everyone's disappointment, supports MLB's policies (of course), and will welcome Manny on his return. You betcha. Even though the season-ticket packages touting Manny's "I'm back" slogan have already been sold and Mr. and Mrs. McCourt will save a few dollars (suspended players under this policy are not entitled to salary), there will be revenue loss. The cost of changing the Manny-centered advertising campaign to the less ballyhooed but readily available "This is my town, Dodgertown USA" will be minimal, but the Manny merchandise sales may take a hit.

Manny, who had been on best behavior, was making the ballpark fun again, even during the Lakers' playoffs. Fans were staying in their seats an inning or two longer in hopes of seeing Ramirez bat one more time. But by the time the LA Times sports section hit the stands a week ago Saturday, the Lakers and their 2-1 playoff advantage had already taken over the top half of the fold.