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Endless game of Dodge ball

McCourt, Ramírez just go back and forth

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / March 1, 2009
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All along, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt has been torn about the Manny Ramirez negotiations.

The dilemma has stemmed from one undeniable fact: Players in the game who are no longer in their prime are settling for much less this year.

So why should McCourt pay Ramírez the going superstar rate from last year? But as frustrated as he is, McCourt has come to the conclusion that he has to keep negotiating because Ramírez is so valuable to the lineup.

Which is why this has been the most interesting negotiation in baseball this winter.

Ramírez's agent, Scott Boras, has demanded that the slugger be paid above the $20 million per season he received from the Red Sox the last eight years. There have been no discounts or concessions, except for the fact that Boras and Ramírez are resigned to the fact that their desire for a four-year deal will not be met.

McCourt has made four proposals, which have been rejected: A two-year, $45 million deal that was rejected twice; an offer of arbitration; and a one-year, $25 million deal.

The team's most recent offer called for Ramírez to earn $25 million this year with a 2010 player option of $20 million. Boras rejected it because of deferrals that made the deal about $3 million less in present-day value.

So Boras sent over his third proposal, which eliminated the deferrals and gave Ramirez $45 million over two years, a tidy $5 million raise over the $40 million in options Ramírez was allowed to tear up after he was traded by Boston to Los Angeles last July 31.

We guess a deal is going to get done soon, though we've thought that before.

The negotiations have had many components:

1. The "other team." Boras likes to create the impression that there is another team or even several teams in hot pursuit of Manny - whether it is reality or illusion. So far, no team has been willing to admit to it, and McCourt has never thought there was another one, which is why he says, "We're bidding against ourselves." There was suspicion that the Giants were in it, but . . . well, they weren't really. Anyway, the teams that had some interest weren't going to pay the superstar rate for a 36-year-old outfielder with Ramírez's many quirks.

2. It's all about the money. If anyone exemplifies this philosophy, it's Ramírez more than any other player. What happened the moment he found out the Red Sox weren't going to rip up his option years and give him a multiyear extension? He tanked it. What happened in Los Angeles when he knew a good performance would be rewarded? He stepped it up. McCourt knows that if Ramírez isn't happy with his contract - even after agreeing to it - there could be major ramifications. A prominent American League general manager said recently, "There's a track record now of what he does when he doesn't like his contract, so you have to decide: Do you take that chance and hope he's happy enough for a little while or do you risk having an unhappy player?"

3. The "Best Hitter." If the Dodgers sign Ramírez, they would be the odds-on favorites to win the NL West. He is a game-changer and he showed how he can affect a team last year. The Good Manny was a great influence on young teammates. This is what tugs at McCourt even in his moments of doubt - that Ramírez got the fan base excited and provided the Dodgers with one of the most prolific postseason performers in history.

4. Uh, Manny? There are people losing their jobs. There was an incredible amount of audacity in Ramírez walking away from that much money to play baseball. This also stuck in McCourt's craw. Here's a guy being offered $25 million to play a game, and he brushed it off like a piece of lint. The Dodgers don't like to give long-term contracts, and even with a recent short one - Andruw Jones's - they were burned.

5. Doing business with Boras. McCourt hates to give in to Boras, who is a Dodger season ticket-holder, and so far the owner is resisting. The leverage for Boras and Ramírez is that they know McCourt needs them. McCourt will have to decide in the next few days whether to accept Boras's counter-offer, which is an extraordinary contract demand in this climate. The Dodgers did leave payroll room for Ramírez.

6. Plan B. At one time, the Dodgers did have one; they were considering Adam Dunn and Bobby Abreu, but both were scooped up. They signed Orlando Hudson, but while he is a good hitter and a Gold Glover, he is closer to Adam Kennedy than he is to Manny Ramírez.

Brave new world for Cox

A few questions for Braves manager Bobby Cox.

How's the communication with new Japanese starter Kenshin Kawakami?

BC: "Good. He's got an interpreter who's outstanding. We haven't missed a thing. Funny story. We had physicals in here the other day, and I'm in here, and he says to me, 'Where are the physicals?' And I said, 'Not here.' So I got him directions. He said, 'One problem - no gas.' No gas in the car? 'No gas.' So I gave him the keys to my car.' He's fit right in with guys. He's been great. Probably not as big of a circus as Dice-K."

How about that Japanese pitchers pitched only once a week in Japan?

BC: "I don't know how that's going to work itself out. You would know more than I do. I guess any chance we get to have the extra day, we do it."

How has Derek Lowe been for the team so far?

BC: "I've never seen a guy do what he does - never. I've seen [John ] Smoltz, [Tom ] Glavine, [Greg ] Maddux, and the way they worked, but not that kind of workout. He's nonstop. He's always in movement. We're very fortunate to have him. His stuff is so good."

John Smoltz speaks so fondly of you; how painful is it for you not to have him back?

BC: "It was like Maddux when he left and Glavine when he left the first time. The thing you miss is in spring training and you'd see these guys so early in the morning and you look now and they're not there. This time it was Smoltzie. It's a strange feeling because we were together for a lot of years. He'd come in here and get guys revved up in the morning. We miss John. He's going to do real good over there."

Still think he has something left?

BC: "Geesh, yeah. I'll tell you, the younger Boston guys should watch him when he throws in the bullpen, because he's perfect. You can't teach a better delivery, location with the fastball. They can learn from watching how easy it comes out. He loves to talk about pitching. He's good at it. And now we have Tommy back and he tells me this is the best he's felt in six years at this time of the year."

When it comes to steroids, this father may know best

The risk that steroid users take when they inject the drugs is mind-boggling. All you have to do is hear the words of Don Hooton, who started the Taylor Hooton Foundation in memory of his son, whose suicide at age 17 in 2003 was linked to steroid use and the depression it caused.

"From the time you inject yourself, your body stops producing testosterone, and when you stop, your body is without testosterone for a period of time," said Hooton. "Doctors tell us that it can take up to a year to get your body to where it used to be.

"But for the first 4-6 weeks - and this was the case with Taylor - he was walking around with zero testosterone at 17 years old. One of the things that comes with low testosterone is depression, and with zero testosterone, it can be bad enough to lead to suicide."

You wonder how many ballplayers went through such depression, having had no idea what the effects would be after getting off steroids.

To illustrate the lack of education about steroids, Hooton said the psychiatrist who finally got his son to admit he was using steroids advised Taylor to quit cold turkey, rather than gradually, and that proved fatal.

How many players went cold turkey before what was supposed to be the anonymous 2003 testing? How many went cold turkey after the '03 test, knowing that testing would count the following year? It's amazing there weren't more tragedies.

Hooton has no qualms about using Alex Rodriguez as his foundation spokesman. He is convinced A-Rod can be effective. Hooton also agrees with A-Rod's description of the steroid culture in '03 as "loosey-goosey." That same year, Hooton said, his son was sitting on a bench on a baseball team where "half the boys were using steroids."

If half a high school team was using, were half of major league teams using? More?

Etc.

Touching the bases
Apropos of nothing: 1. Pirates righthander Ross Ohlendorf is a cattling-ranching Princeton grad; 2. Alex Rodriguez and Jose Canseco are linked by Miami, the Texas Rangers, the MVP, steroids, and Madonna; 3. A few athletic trainers are steamed - "appalled" said one - that I goofed when I called A-Rod associate Angel Presinal an athletic trainer instead of a personal trainer; 4. The Red Sox have two Bards, Josh and Daniel; what are the odds of that? 5. The Sox had only three prospects (Lars Anderson, Michael Bowden, and Daniel Bard) in Baseball America's top 100, compared with seven for the A's and Rangers.

Catching up with . . .
1. Jim Bowden, Nationals general manager - One team official doesn't think Bowden can survive in Washington because of his alleged involvement in the Dominican signing-bonus scam. Bowden says he's innocent and will be able to prove it. Former Red Sox scout Mike Rizzo, Bowden's assistant, may replace his boss on an interim basis should the Lerner family fire Bowden. But there's speculation that if the Nats clean house, they'll need a veteran baseball executive with a track record of turning around chaotic situations. You can count those guys on one hand.

2. Brad Penny, RHP, Red Sox - There seems no end to the enemies Penny made with the Dodgers. We heard Larry Bowa's frank comments in which he called Penny lazy. Another Dodger official reiterated everything Bowa said and added, "I hope Brad begins to take his career more seriously. He's an enormous talent, but some of the things we saw here from him just made all of us shake our heads. He's got a second chance to prove himself and hopefully he straightens out and takes advantage of the gifts God gave him."

3. Cito Gaston, manager, Toronto - Gaston will have to do a great job to make the Blue Jays viable in the American League East, but already he has drawn praise from scouts. Said one, "He's shown a very positive outlook, really, really stressing fundamentals, and while he's not telling his guys, 'Hey, we've got no chance to win,' he's letting them know how they can win, by playing the game right and playing it hard. This team is pretty short, but I've seen teams overcome a lack of depth and band together and win."

4. Dontrelle Willis, LHP, Detroit - The Tigers have drastically simplified his delivery. In the words of one scout, "No more herky-jerky, but hitters are getting good swings on his fastball. He's not very confident in it right now. He's throwing more breaking stuff and off-speed stuff. It's too early to write him off, but he'd have to show marked improvement for me to consider him a factor for the Tigers." Better off with the herky-jerky? "Only time will tell. With the herky-jerky, part of his success was deception. Some of that is gone now. We'll see how he adapts."

5. Gary Sheffield, DH, Detroit - My choice to have a monster comeback year. Sheffield, one home run shy of 500, looks fitter than last season when he battled shoulder injuries. The same scout who watched Willis said of Sheffield, "He got some good swings on the ball. Really drove a couple of balls to the outfield. He looks really determined to have a great year and prove he can still play."

6. Pudge Rodriguez, free agent catcher - The Astros had some interest, but owner Drayton McLane isn't going to ante up until he exhausts every cheaper option in the organization. Rodriguez will get a chance to display his skills in the World Baseball Classic for Puerto Rico. While he's considered a good teammate and still a good backstop, Rodriguez is not considered the mentoring type, which is one reason teams with younger catchers have shied away. The Marlins still appear the best fit.

7. Bartolo Colon, RHP, White Sox - The big lug, who took his ball and went home when the Red Sox asked him to come out of the bullpen, is throwing well in camp. The plan is to have him ready to pitch in a Cactus League game by March 14, which would put him in line to pitch April 10 or 11. The former Cy Young winner had an elbow scope in the fall, but his arm strength has been impressive so far.

8. Bill Smith, GM, Minnesota - The Twins were being quiet this offseason, but the addition of Joe Crede has made them viable contenders in the AL Central, with Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Crede, Michael Cuddyer, and Delmon Young in the middle of the order, five good starters, and a solid bullpen that still needs a set-up man. The Twins explored Juan Cruz, a Type A free agent, but he rejected their offer. Smith will likely add another arm - and then watch out.

9. Tracy Ringolsby, national baseball writer - The death of the Rocky Mountain News means Ringolsby, a Baseball Hall of Fame honoree, will no longer be on the Rockies beat. Ringolsby, however, will serve as pregame and postgame analyst on Rockies telecasts. We wish Tracy the best.

Short hops
From the Bill Chuck Files: "Without even seeing the pitchers throw in the A's fifth-starter competition, by virtue of name alone, I pronounce Josh Outman the winner." Also, "Looking for backup or support for Troy Percival, the Rays may have made a good pickup with Jason Isringhausen if he can regain his form from previous years. Six times from 2001 to 2007, righties hit the righthanded Izzy under .200. Last year they hit .327 off of him, although he did hold lefties to a .186 average." . . . Happy birthdays to Anibal Sanchez (25), Willie Banks (40), Matt Stairs (41), and Frank Malzone, who turned 79 on

Saturday.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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