Now that Britney Spears is wearing underwear and O.J. Simpson is on trial somewhere else, LA has been desperate for a good story. Thank God for Manny Ramirez! When the Boston Red Sox unloaded their twelve-time All-star future Hall-of-Famer to the Dodgers for essentially a day pass to Universal Studios, it set off the kind of mass media hysteria normally reserved for the Pope’s visit or the premiere of THE LOVE GURU.
As co-host of Dodger Talk with Josh Suchon on KABC radio in Los Angeles I was at Dodger Stadium for Manny’s big debut. Join me as I relive that day. Kudos to the Dodgers P.R. staff for essentially organizing the Yalta Conference on two hour’s notice. Incredibly, everything ran smoothly. They deserve the game balls.
I arrived at the Stadium, five hours before game time. A press conference was scheduled for 4:00 on the field behind home plate. Camera crews were already setting up. This was going to be televised live across America and Korea. The Press Box, usually empty at this hour was already buzzing. Dedicated sports journalists who I hadn’t seen since opening day were catching up with one another. Has it really been two months since the NBA Finals?
KABC has its own booth in the Press Box (conveniently located next to the storage room) where we do our nightly post-game talk show. But today the station’s afternoon show would emanate from there as well, so it was like the Germans invading Paris.
Went downstairs to the Dodger Clubhouse. It was packed with reporters. Players asked such questions as “What do you think about Manny joining the team?” and “You are who again?” I hung with Hiroki Kuroda because he seemed lonely.
Ventured out to the field where the assembled crowd was now larger than the AMERICAN IDOL open auditions. Every local TV outlet was represented, usually with three-person crews – the cameraman in T-shirt and shorts, the on-air guy in a suit, and a smoking hot producer (although I’m sure each producer has a doctorate or at least a masters in Communication). There were some super hot on-air reporters too, just back from Iraq I’m sure. A few Boston scribes were in attendance, their last precious chance to get in a slam piece on Manny.
There was a cluster of reporters around wine maker Tommy Lasorda, obviously all wondering how he can get his Montepulcian D’Abruzzo to be so playfully articulate. Another group surrounded Manny’s uber agent Scott Boras. The answer to every question required a dollar amount.
It must have been 100 degrees. The Dodgers couldn’t get Manny in May?
Security personnel in intimidating white Dodger golf shirts parted the crowd as the rock star himself, Manny Ramirez appeared and walked to the makeshift podium. He expressed his excitement at playing in L.A. beginning every sentence with “As I said…” I wanted to ask, “Manny, as you said when?” He ducked all the Boston questions (big surprise) but the media had more important issues to address – would he cut his dreadlocks and why was he wearing number 99? He said he would be getting a trim as per manager Joe Torre’s request to which one reporter asked, “Are you going to be selling your hair on ebay?”
He answered many of the questions in Spanish. A Japanese reporter was standing next to me furiously jotting down his answers.
One journalist offered to give Manny a tour of Los Angeles which he graciously declined saying “I bought a navigation system.”
Another asked if he would pursue acting. There may have been one or two actual baseball related questions but I can’t think of any.
After the Press Conference the team took batting practice and 4,000 cameras clicked as Manny dribbled a ground ball to third. The Pulitzer committee will have to determine which was the best.
Joe Torre met with reporters in the dugout. Pushing room only. After a barrage of Manny questions the guys who cover the team more than twice a year began asking about other players and you'd think someone yelled "Fire!" By the end there were the usual ten of us.
The gates opened and the crowd started pouring in. 12,000 tickets were purchased within the last 24 hours. Manny Mania is real. The last time the fans were this excited was fleece blanket night a few years ago.
I went back up to the Press Box. Josh and I did an hour pre-game show on KABC. The afternoon host was promoting our program all day, constantly mispronouncing my name even though he was corrected fifty times. It’s great to have the respect of your colleagues.
We interviewed Dodgers General Manager, Ned Colletti about the trade. Two days ago our callers all wanted him drawn & quartered and then fired. Today he’s the best G.M. ever.
I did a bit where I called my wife on the air and asked if I could bring home a houseguest for the next few months. She was happy to have Manny stay with us but did have some conditions. He would have to do chores, not sleep in our room, and keep kosher. I said she would have to negotiate with Scott Boras.
Lost in all this hoopla was that the Dodgers were playing the Diamondbacks – the greatest rivalry in sports.
Ducked into the Press Lounge for dinner. Jammed. Couldn’t get a seat.
The stadium was packed. S.R.O. Quite a contrast from a week ago when the Dodgers hosted the Washington Nationals. Took my normal spot on press row just in time for the National Anthem, painfully and interminably performed by some sitcom star I had never heard of. P.A. announcer Eric Smith (whose voice is so deep he makes God sound like Betty Boop) launched into the starting lineups. Enthusiastic applause. When Manny’s name was announced the place went bonkers. Three players later Andruw Jones’ name was met with 55,000 boos – just because he’s having the worst offensive season in the history of baseball and making $36 million. This was a rough crowd.
Manny stepped to the plate for the first time as a Dodger. The crowd went wild. I was disappointed his intro music wasn’t “Dirty Water” or “Sweet Caroline”. Manny grounded out. Still, a huge cheer.
Andruw Jones’ first at-bat. Booooooo! Called strike three. BOOOOOO!!
Manny’s second at-bat. Single to left. Thunderous applause. You’d think it was another earthquake.
Diamondback Chris Burke hit a ball over the shortstop’s head to left. Manny loped over too late to cut it off and the single became a triple. Not a lot of applause for that play.
Andruw Jones’ second at-bat. Strike three swinging. BOOOOOO!
Manny’s third at-bat. Slow roller to the right of the mound. He legs it out for a single. The crowd was about to cheer when Dodger runner Matt Kemp got tagged out for getting stuck between two bases. The fans didn’t know what to do.
Andruw Jones’ third-at-bat. Ground out to third. BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!
Bottom of the 9th. Dodgers down by a run. Runner at first. Nobody out. And who should step to the plate but Manny Ramirez The noise was deafening. Not a single person had left the park. The stage was set for one of those classic heroic endings you would remember your whole life.
Manny grounded into a double play.
Dodgers lose 2-1.
Back in the booth to do post game Dodger Talk. My kind of audience. 50,000 people trapped in parking lots.
Walked out of the park. Tonight was a throwback to eras past, when Koufax and Drysdale and Fernando and Hershiser and Gibson thrilled capacity crowds, and Dodger baseball was the most exciting attraction in Los Angeles. I miss those glory days. I really do. Hopefully Manny can rekindle them. I’m starting to think Andruw Jones can’t.
See you at beautiful Dodger Stadium. But get your tickets now.