PHILADELPHIA — The first impression Manny Ramirez left on Charlie Manuel was much like the one he offers most — aloof, quirky and maddeningly confusing.
The current Phillies manager was managing Cleveland's Triple-A team near Charlotte, N.C., 15 summers ago when a 21-year-old Ramirez arrived at his clubhouse door.
He left his luggage at the airport — his equipment bag, too. The first favor he asked his new manager was for money to pay the limo driver. At batting practice that day, his swing was lazy, poking the ball to rightfield.
"Oh, no," Manuel remembers saying to his coaches then. "Here's another guy I'm going to have to work with."
That night, Ramirez blasted two homers in his first game. Manuel, who would later serve as Ramirez's hitting coach and manager in Cleveland, was sold.
"Manny Ramirez makes you a good hitting coach," Manuel said. "He's that good."
Fast forward to tonight. Ramirez is on a new stage, but the show is the same. After spending his entire career in the American League, Ramirez is the best thing the senior circuit has to offer this postseason. He has led the Dodgers to the National League Championship Series, which opens tonight at Citizens Bank Park, and it is Manuel's job to make sure Ramirez doesn't play the villain in front of the Philly faithful.
In the division series, the Cubs tried to pitch around Ramirez, walking him four times, but he still hit two homers in the three-game sweep, going 5-for-10.
"He's the guy we don't want beating us," Manuel said Wednesday. "He'll make you change your ideas on things at times."
"It's not only me," Ramirez said. "We have a lot of other guys. I wish they would stop me and don't stop our other guys."
But we've seen this Manny Ramirez before. He's the same one who frustrated AL East opponents for seven-plus seasons with the Red Sox until the trade-deadline deal that sent him to L.A. He's the same player who has the rare flair for the dramatic — he has 26 postseason homers — as he did hitting 41 career homers vs. the Rays.
He wore out his welcome in Boston, where baseball — and baseball players — are put under a microscope. He's moved on.
"I don't think about the past," he said. "This is a new setting."
But Ramirez has injected energy into a young Dodgers team rich in talent but low in postseason experience.
"I think he fit us perfectly," said Dodgers pitcher Derek Lowe, who was also a teammate of Ramirez's in Boston. "I think it was great for our young hitters to see how a superstar goes about his daily business, how hard he works, how he prepares, how he doesn't let one pitch or one at-bat affect the next one."
Dodgers manager Joe Torre, who saw his share of Ramirez when he managed the Yankees, has been surprised by Ramirez's work ethic. No sooner than he changes into uniform before a game, Ramirez disappears into the batting cage and hacks away — every day. Torre and Manuel agree that's where the true Manny is most comfortable — with a bat in his hands.
"I used to have to keep him away from people," Manuel said. "Everybody wanted to mess with him. The biggest problem was getting people to leave him alone because he could hit from the first time I saw him. He loves to hit."