There are your players, your stars, your superstars, and then there are the icons. Performers who change everything for a team. By necessity, there are only a few icons, and the Dodgers have one of these now in Manny Ramirez.
It goes beyond what he is able to produce in the lineup or on the field. It becomes part of the mindset of a team and its fan base. It puts some style in the swagger, swinging the hips and bringing a dance step to the feet.
As a franchise of long tradition, there have been previous icons in Dodger Blue. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale were on the mound in the '60s era teams. Fernando Valenzuela and Hideo Nomo helped bring fans of different nations together to celebrate excellence. Jackie Robinson and Duke Snider brought cheer to long oppressed Brooklynites.
But as a hitter in Los Angeles, only Mike Piazza has come close to what Manny brings to the Dodger Stadium batter's box. While Piazza came up though the farm system, was the godson of manager Tommy Lasorda, and produced with the bat like no other catcher before him, there are a few areas where Manny has surpassed him.
No one in a Dodger lineup—Piazza or Pedro Guerrero, Steve Garvey or Ron Cey, Maury Wills or Kirk Gibson—has captured the imagination of Dodger fans to the extent that Manny has in his short time wearing Blue. His at-bats are must-see, even in the bottom of the ninth inning while losing by six.
But why is this the case?
He brings an unique combination of joy and intensity to the plate. No one I've seen in Dodger Blue during my 40 years of following the team seems to enjoy the opportunity to deliver in pressure situations as much as Manny. And he goes about his business the same when it's the first inning or the outcome is not in doubt.
He understands this is a game, intended to be fun, and brings pure joy as heady and healthy as a blast of pure oxygen, though not canned or bottled. It comes from a natural source.
Dodger fans see this and react by releasing their mighty yowl, the merger of power and passion. There is a crackling of human electricty, akin to the static felt in the air during a thunderstorm, cascading throughout the entirity of the stadium, from the bleachers to the private boxes, orchestrated by the Dodger's maestro, Vin Scully.
Manny brings incontrovertible credentials, both as a multi-championship-winning player and as one of the most productive hitters this sport has ever seen. A batting stroke that packs ample power to go with a stellar average and keen eye.
Timing also has something to do with his reception. Dodger fans in Los Angeles had been well taken care of by the O'Malley family. Teams were often in contention and had a fair amount of stars on the roster. From the '60s through the '90s, the Dodgers were able to be counted on for entertainment and achievement.
That ended under the Fox Corporation ownership. Dealing Piazza shocked Dodger fans to the core, as well as the team. Closely followed was the firing of longtime GM Fred Claire and the even longer tenured Bill Russell as the manager. These events brought a gloom over the franchise, even though all involved tried to move beyond it.
Current owners the McCourt family has faced numerous questions, both fair and unfair, in their short tenure. After winning the division in 2004, the roster has seen massive turnover, stemming momentum. The wisdom of those decisions was a fair topic of debate.
A young crop up from the farm increased the talent level, but curmudgeonly veterans such as Jeff Kent were not the right catalyst to bring out the best in them. The inspired introduction of Ramirez to the formula has triggered fireworks of the positive kind. The fans have seen and appreciated this, responding in a fashion not before seen in Chavez Ravine.
Manny represents both the victorious tradition of the Dodger franchise and the promise of future success. Dodger fans, finally emerging from the chaos of the past decade, fully embrace Manny both in concept and in fact, laughing at all naysayers for their inability to appreciate what Manny means to them.
His stepping to the plate is like Christmas Day for Dodger fans. A big shiny present waiting to be unwrapped that has unbridled joy ready to erupt like a volcano, with the blasts coming about four times a game.