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WHENEVER MANNY RAMIREZ bats, his L.A. teammates and other Dodgers personnel, virtually to a man, migrate to the railing at the top step of their dugout. "You don't want to miss anything with Manny," third baseman Casey Blake says of the hitting virtuoso who is unlike anyone they've ever seen, "because every at bat is the chance for something special." That Ramirez can rake is not news. That the man can hit while carrying an entire franchise on his back, not to mention a city that is falling in love with baseball all over again, is one of the great feats of his prolific career. � The Dodgers, who hadn't won a postseason series in 20 years and were an unappealing .500 team this year through 108 games without Ramirez, are transformed and transfixed by the new slugger's presence. With Manny, they bear no resemblance to the team that played four months without him, as the Chicago Cubs brutally learned. Los Angeles dominated what had been the winningest and highest-scoring team in the National League this year by wiping out the Cubs in three straight Division Series games by an aggregate score of 20--6. Had it been a prizefight, the series would have been stopped after two games. Ramirez took 14 must-see plate appearances in the series. The Cubs got him out only five times. He scored five times, only one fewer than the entire Chicago team. He outhomered the Cubs 2--1. In the signature at bat of the series, in Game 1, Ramirez swung flat-footed at a wicked shoe-top-high 0-and-2 curveball from reliever Sean Marshall and blasted it 420 feet into the Wrigley Field bleachers.
"Just sick," teammate Greg Maddux says. "Even we look at Manny and go, 'That's just on another level.' It's like watching Tiger Woods hit an eight-iron a thousand feet in the air and knocking it stiff. Normal people just don't do that. Guys like Tiger and Manny are out there in a class by themselves."
"Manny sits on 0-and-2 breaking balls!" Piniella huffed in anger afterward.
Such reputed telepathy is part of the wonderment of Ramirez. Think of him as the baseball equivalent of the computer hacker. Give him enough time with a pitcher and he'll decode everything about him, from his pitch patterns to his social security number.
"I don't think you try to trick the man," Piniella says, "because you can't. You have to stay on his hands, with velocity."
"I swear he sets pitchers up," says Dodgers bench coach Bob Schaefer. "He'll look bad on a pitch early in the count, knowing the pitcher is going to go back to that pitch later in the at bat."
In Game 2 Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano struck out Ramirez each of his first two times up. "Watch this," Dodgers manager Joe Torre told Schaefer in the dugout. "He thinks he's going to get Manny a third time." Zambrano tried a cut fastball on an 0-and-1 count. Ramirez walloped it above the dark batter's-eye backdrop and shrubbery in centerfield at Wrigley, a place rarely visited by batted balls.
Says L.A. general manager Ned Colletti, "Normally, as a pitcher gets strikes on a hitter, the hitter becomes more and more defensive. But with Manny it's different. It's like the more pitches he sees, the more he knows about what the pitcher is doing and where the pitcher wants to go, and the odds swing more to his favor. And the pitcher knows that.
"I've been around Maddux, [Barry] Bonds and Manny. Those three guys are the smartest baseball players I've ever seen. They're in a class by themselves. They see and understand the game at a higher level than everybody else. The game slows down for them. It's like they see everything in a frame-by-frame sequence. It's different from everybody else."