MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Today in Los Angeles, tens of thousands of people showed up for a parade to celebrate the NBA champions, the Lakers. Well, now that the pro basketball season is over, Angelenos can turn their full attention to another home team, the Dodgers who are also winning.
They have the best record in Major League Baseball even without their best player, Manny Ramirez. He's serving a suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy.
NPR's Tom Goldman reports on how the Dodgers are thriving without Manny.
TOM GOLDMAN: Sports fans - real sports fan - are kind of nutty, the kind of nutty that makes a guy like Shane Norton(ph) wake up at 3 a.m. on the East Coast so he can catch a plane to L.A. to make an early afternoon Dodgers game.
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GOLDMAN: For all he did, you'd think Norton's beloved Dodgers would get him an easy win. But on a warm June Saturday, they were in trouble. It was the bottom of the ninth inning. L.A. trailed the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies by a single run.
Norton, nervous, was sitting in the section of Dodgers Stadium that had been named Mannywood, the sign's down now, and wearing a number 99 Manny Ramirez jersey. He couldn't help but feel the absence of L.A.'s banned superstar.
Mr. SHANE NORTON: We could use somebody like him to come up with a big hit, so yeah. And all the way from Connecticut to see this game today. So, I could really use a hero.
GOLDMAN: On cue, pinch hitter Rafael Furcal smacked a game-tying homerun over the right field fence. Norton was happy.
Mr. NORTON: (Shouting) (Unintelligible) Rafael Furcal, baby.
GOLDMAN: But Furcal merely was the hero of that inning. In the bottom of the 12th, Dodgers right fielder Andre Ethier, who had a game-winning hit the night before, stepped up to the plate…
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GOLDMAN: …and hit it again.
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GOLDMAN: A game-winning homerun. Not that L.A. manager Joe Torre expected it, but let's just say Torre is getting a certain feeling about these Dodgers.
Mr. JOE TORRE (Manager, Los Angeles Dodgers): You know, I've learned to not be concerned, I guess, when everything seems pretty flat because something, whatever it is - and I'd bottle it if I knew what it was - whatever clicks in with these guys, they don't seem to be bothered by the pressure of the moment.
GOLDMAN: You could say the pressure on this team was never greater than on May 7th. That's the day Ramirez was suspended 50 games. The Dodgers had the best record in baseball, were undefeated at home, and the consensus was that losing their biggest star would take a big toll on the rest of the team.
L.A. sports radio host John Ireland was interviewed on ESPN the day Ramirez was banned.
Mr. JOHN IRELAND (L.A. Sports Radio Host): All these guys get better with Manny in the lineup, and now he's going to be out. It's impossible to overstate what that means for the Dodgers on the field.
GOLDMAN: But here they are. In 36 Manny-less games, the Dodgers have won 22 times. They still have the best record in the majors. The players say they're feeding off the confidence and swagger they gained last season, when Ramirez first joined the team. Outfielder Matt Kemp says the team then figured out how to play without Ramirez, when Ramirez held off signing a contract during this year's spring training.
Mr. MATT KEMP (Outfielder, Los Angeles Dodgers): We were comfortable. I mean, we didn't know if we were going to get him here in the off season, and we still know we had a good team. I mean, we'll be happy when we get him back, we'll be even better team, but right now, we're still a great team.
GOLDMAN: Joe Torre says he encouraged his players not to try to do anything differently because Ramirez was out. Juan Pierre, filling in for Ramirez in left field, has been great. Other than what to do with Pierre when Ramirez returns July 3rd, the team says getting Ramirez back can only be good, as long as you don't dwell on why Ramirez was suspended.
The team doesn't, at least publicly. But for those who do, the details still are sketchy. Did Ramirez actively use a banned drug for performance enhancement? He initially cited a personal health issue, and he hasn't been much help since. When asked by reporters recently what led to his banning - the highest-profile drug suspension yet in baseball - Ramirez said, I didn't kill nobody. I didn't rape nobody. So, that's it. I'm just going to come and play the game.
Out in the former Mannywood section of Dodgers Stadium, L.A. fan Shane Norton was a bit more philosophical about Ramirez breaking the rules.
Mr. NORTON: Maybe not forget, but forgive.
GOLDMAN: Ramirez is lucky. Dodger fans are in a forgiving mood. Who knows, if Ramirez stokes the fire of an already hot team, there could be a lot of fans willing to forget, as well.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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