— When the Dodgers opened the vault to hire Joe Torre, it was because of his ability to manage teams under playoff stress. And when they dug deep to sign Manny Ramirez, it was because of his ability to drag a team into the playoffs by his dreadlocks.
This would be a good time for both to live up to their reputation: Torre as the unflappable leader whose teams never panic, even when they can’t buy a win; Manny as one of baseball’s most reliable RBI machines.
It’s not something that they can put off for a week or two. The seemingly impregnable lead the Dodgers once had in the NL West has shrunk to two games. And the team that is eating into that lead, the Rockies, have just welcomed Torre’s troops to Denver with a heartbreaking defeat in Game 1 of a three-game set.
Nobody’s blaming Torre for what could be a memorable collapse should the Rockies continue their torrid pace and the Dodgers fail to remember how to win. At least not in Los Angeles, they aren’t.
And so the blame for the Dodger doldrums is falling squarely on the shoulders of Manny. Normally, calling one player on the carpet for a team’s problems is too simplistic. But in this case, it’s not. If Manny were even half the player he was last year, the Dodgers would be comfortably in first place and I’d probably be writing yet another column about the — groan! — AL East.
At this time last year, Manny was as awesome a force as you’ll see. After arriving from Boston, he averaged an RBI a game and dragged L.A. into the playoffs.
He signed a short but sweet contract in the spring, took nearly two months off early in the season to serve a suspension for violating the league’s drug policy, came back with his signature dreads longer than ever, and then disappeared.
Brett Favre was better down the stretch for the Jets last year than Manny has been in August for L.A. John Smoltz wasn’t as bad for the Red Sox this year than Manny has been for the Dodgers.
He’s been so bad he got booed in Dodgers Stadium the other day when he misplayed a ball into a triple and put another 0-for-4 in the box score in another loss.
Dodgers fans aren’t given to booing — it takes too much energy and demands that the spectators actually pay attention to the game. So this was a remarkable event, especially since Manny had been as popular a man as there was in a town full of popular people. Even when he held out in the spring and then got suspended for using banned substances, the non-demanding fans treated him like the hero he had been for them.
But even Dodgers fans have their limits, and Manny has found them with one of the worst months he’s probably ever had in his career.
Through Sunday’s games, Manny had played 22 games in August. In two of those games, he performed like Manny, getting a home run and three RBIs in each of them. In the other 20 games, he has zero home runs and a grand total of six RBIs, a hitting pace that a lot of pitchers have little trouble keeping up with. He’s driven in just one run in his last dozen games.
He’s hitting .303 on the season, but only .254 since the All-Star break. In Los Angeles, the thinking is he’s trying too hard to carry the team on his back and prove his own greatness. Even the somnolent Torre has said Manny is trying too hard.
Manny denies it and continues to act as if there’s nothing wrong. But clearly, he’s got big problems. This is a guy who’s made a career out of driving in runs, and he’s not getting the job done.
The Dodgers are not a bad hitting team. They lead the National League in team batting average and on-base percentage. Normally, that’s a sure formula for winning baseball. And when Manny’s driving in runs, it is.
The Dodgers are third in the NL in scoring, with 603 runs. But they’re 10th in slugging percentage and their 103 home runs are thirteenth in the league. All other things being equal, when Manny is hitting, they win. When he’s not hitting, they have problems.
Right now, they have problems.
Which brings us to Torre. By the end of his 13-year tenure in New York, a lot of fans and most of the media had come to the conclusion that while he was great at maintaining calm in the clubhouse, he was terrible at motivating the troops in the biggest games. He also established that he is a master mishandler of bullpens, overusing effective pitchers and destroying the confidence of those who were having rough patches. His overuse of Mariano Rivera is usually given as one of the principal reasons the team didn’t win another World Series after they won four in five years ending in 2000.
But it took a long time for people to spot the holes in Torre’s armor. For most of his time in the Bronx, pretty much everyone but a few cranky writers thought he was the best manager the town has seen since Casey Stengel.
On the Left Coast, he still seems to be viewed as the greatest manager since Mr. Feelgood himself, Tommy LaSorda. After all, he arrived, then Manny arrived and the Dodgers went to the playoffs.
But now he has to do something to get the attention of his team — and, more important, of his superstar left fielder.
So far, there’s no sign that Torre has done anything to light a fire under Manny. Last year, the manager at least demanded that Manny trim his dreadlocks when he arrived from Boston. This year, the famous locks are trailing down his back, untrimmed probably since last year. Torre, it seems, would rather that Manny be happy with his hair than say anything that might upset the mercurial slugger.
Right now, nobody’s blaming Torre for that. But if things continue to go badly in Colorado and if that once huge lead continues to erode like a sand castle in a hurricane, somebody’s going to bring it up.
And if they don’t, they should.