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Will Manny have spring back in step?

Will Manny have spring back in step?

LOS ANGELES -- This year's commemorative jersey sleeve patch marks the Dodgers' 1955 World Series championship, but 2010 might also become Mannywood's Farewell Tour.

"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."

Heading into the start of this Spring Training, nobody knows which Manny Ramirez will show up for the final season of his two-year contract, but at least he has a contract and will show up, in contrast to last spring's drama.

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Ramirez is 37 and playing the outfield bothers his legs. He told teammates he considered opting out of his Dodgers contract for a return to the American League as a designated hitter, but in this market there was nothing close to the $20 million salary the Dodgers were committed to pay him, so he stayed.

After watching Ramirez's late-season fade, management will try a less-is-more strategy to keep Ramirez fresher this year.

"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."

Everybody knows what happened to Ramirez in 2009, and yet nobody really knows what happened to Ramirez in 2009.

He tried to jam Spring Training into three weeks last year after overplaying his hand in the free-agent market. But the shortened Spring Training didn't keep Ramirez from hitting .372 in April. So much for needing Spring Training.

Then came the embarrassing 50-game drug suspension that smeared Ramirez's Hall of Fame-caliber resume and took him from the lineup for most of May and June.

A week before returning from suspension, Ramirez reluctantly accepted the Dodgers' request for a Minor League rehab assignment, which turned into a circus.

So, was he rusty after the layoff? Not exactly. In his first 16 games back from the suspension, he hit .347 with five homers and 17 RBIs.

Then he took a Homer Bailey fastball off his wrist and his power vanished (except for the stunning bobblehead night pinch-homer the following game), even though he insisted the wrist had nothing to do with it.

It could have been the legs, it could have been the wrist and some suspect it was his head -- or at least the emotional angst that comes with getting caught and punished.

Whatever the cause, the number crunchers know he hit 100 points lower after the All-Star break than before. For his final 33 at-bats of the regular season, Ramirez -- a .313 lifetime hitter -- batted .152 with no homers and four RBIs. He finished the season averaging .290, his worst since 1994. With added rest in the postseason, he hit .281.

"He had high expectations after the way '08 ended and probably put too much on himself and a lot of people put too much on him and it probably got to him," said Ethier. "I hope with the offseason Manny can get back to what everybody knows he can be and help the team get back to where it should be."

While any lineup with a Manny Ramirez is to be respected, the Dodgers don't really know what to expect from him, even with a full Spring Training. And after last year, maybe they've learned their lesson about expectations, anyway.

Have the fans? After his '08 acquisition, Ramirez unleashed the most amazing three months of hitting in Dodgers memory and was embraced by the city unlike any Dodgers player since Fernando Valenzuela.

The two-year, $45 million deal he extracted from the Dodgers, at a time of worldwide economic upheaval, ran counter to the company goal of rebuilding with affordable youth, but what choice was there? How could the Dodgers win without him?

At least, that was the conventional wisdom, reinforced when the Dodgers opened 21-8 with Ramirez before the suspension. But the club tailed off only a little to go 29-21 in the 50 games without him, actually adding one game to their National League West lead during his absence. The Dodgers also overcame his vanishing act in September to go 17-13, good enough to win the division.

"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."

Kemp believes the young Dodgers have improved as a team, so Ramirez shouldn't feel like the burden is all his, and Kemp credits Ramirez for contributing to the improvement.

"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," Kemp said. "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?"

Now, can a 37-year-old with sore wheels, coming off his most challenging season, turn back the clock and play like a kid?

"He seems anxious to get started," Torre said. "Last year, missing 50 games, his biggest problem was having trouble recovering from coming back in cold. It's not easy to do, especially on a first-place team, taking somebody out of the lineup like Juan Pierre. He felt a lot of pressure and fought himself a lot.

"We'll look at giving him and [Casey] Blake more days off, daytime stuff. It looks like we'll have the bench to do that."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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