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Dan Shaughnessy

The show goes on

Ramírez dodges questions, commands spotlight in return

After a 50-game absence, it was time for Manny Ramírez to get back in the cage for batting practice. After a 50-game absence, it was time for Manny Ramírez to get back in the cage for batting practice. (Denis Poroy/Associated Press)
By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / July 4, 2009
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SAN DIEGO - Manny is back.

Surrounded by the love of his teammates and thousands of Dodgers fans - some wearing “Free Manny’’ T-shirts - Manny Ramírez returned to the Los Angeles lineup at Petco Park (appropriate, no?) last night. He went 0 for 3 with a walk in the Dodgers’ 6-3 victory and was replaced in left field after popping up in the top of the sixth.

When asked afterward about the fan reaction, he said, “It was great man. It was the best.’’

It was Manny’s first game since he was slapped with a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test in spring training. And it was, of course, a circus. It’s always a night at the Big Top with Manny. In addition to being one of the greatest righthanded sluggers ever, he also serves as the clown prince of baseball.

“This better be good,’’ I told him when I saw him in the clubhouse late yesterday afternoon. “I flew 3,000 miles for this.’’

Manny gave me a curious look.

“Let me see your eyes,’’ he said. “I can tell by looking into your eyes if you are ready. I am ready.’’

He sat down to play cards with Rafael Furcal and Guillermo Mota. He glanced at one of the overhead televisions and saw the Red Sox and Mariners, live from Fenway. He did not look homesick.

ESPN’s intrepid Colleen Dominguez spoke with Manny for a moment. She should have been wearing a “Free Colleen Dominguez’’ T-shirt. Dominguez has been on Manny Watch since he was suspended May 7, and made trips to Albuquerque, Lake Elsinore, and San Bernardino in pursuit of Manny minutiae. I asked her if she speaks to Manny in English or Spanish.

“Spanglish,’’ she said. “It’s better that way.’’

Manny’s early afternoon press conference was all English. It got off to a rockin’ start when Manny (wearing sunglasses) announced “Showtime’’ as he planted himself in front of about 75 reporters.

The press conference was typically low yield. It wasn’t as tasteless as that night at Dodger Stadium when he said he hadn’t raped or killed anyone, but Manny basically went all Mark McGwire on us and avoided the hard questions. Manny loves to turn the page, remember?

Seated alongside the loathsome Scott Boras, Manny was asked, “How long were you doing steroids? When did it start? What was the regime?’’

Manny answered, “First, I want to say that God is good, and good is God. And I don’t want to get into my medical records right now. I’m happy to be here, I missed the game, I’m ready to play, I was practicing in Triple A, and I can’t wait to get into the field.’’

Manny channeling John Lennon? God is good and good is God? And I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together.

Asked if he’d been contacted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Manny said, “I don’t want to get into my records. I want to talk about the game.’’

Are steroids bad for the game? “I’m not getting into that, sir. If you want to talk about the game, I’m accountable.’’

Later in the session, dodging another question, Manny chuckled and said, “I don’t want to talk about my criminal record.’’

He did say he was sorry. Sorry that he wasn’t there for the team. He admitted the episode was embarrassing, adding, “There was only one man that was perfect, and they killed him. So that’s how I look at life.’’

He said he would not fail. He said, “I’m one of the best players who ever put on a uniform.’’ He said, “I know I made a mistake, but I learned from that, and I’m moving on.’’

No details. No explanation. And just a little contrition. He ended the press conference with “Showtime tonight!’’

Then it was back to the locker room where the first-place Dodgers (best record in baseball) were being peppered with Manny questions.

“Nothing’s changed between me and him,’’ said first baseman James Loney. “It’s not really my concern, whatever he took.’’

“We’ll be a better team because of him,’’ said cleanup hitter Andre Ethier. “All kinds of people everywhere take all kinds of stuff. It’s not my place to ask him why or why not. I don’t think anyone really knows what happened.’’

“We go to New York next week,’’ noted Mark Loretta. “That’ll be brutal.’’

Over and over, manager Joe Torre said, “I think he’s very uncomfortable with this.’’

While in the clubhouse, Manny was “guarded’’ by Dodgers security officer Ray Maytovena, who spent four years with the Secret Service. Under the watchful eye of Maytovena, Manny ate cantaloupe, watermelon, and part of a tuna sandwich, then sat and chatted with Furcal, Juan Castro, and Jose Vizcaino.

At 4:15, Manny put his Dodgers skull cap in place. Then he went through his bat bag and picked out a couple of weapons for his assault on the Padres. At 4:40, the Dodgers called for a team meeting (a standard hitter’s meeting, we were told).

“Media, out!’’ Manny said with a smile.

Dodgers fans were gathered around the third base dugout when Manny (again, he said, “Showtime’’) emerged for stretching and batting practice. No blue meanies in this crowd. Nothing but cheers and chants for the cheater.

After BP, Larry King arrived and signed autographs for anybody who asked.

Manny heard a lot of boos when he came to the plate in the first. Dodger legions tried to drown out the abuse, but the Padres fans managed to hold their ground against the blue wave.

Manny walked on a 3-and-2 pitch in LA’s five-run first. When he jogged to his position in the bottom of the inning, he was greeted by people singing songs and holding signs.

“It’s all about the dreads, not the meds,’’ read one.

“Manny ‘Roid’ Mirez’’ read another.

He grounded out to short in the fourth inning, drawing another mix of boos and cheers.

“I want to thank the fans who drove from Los Angeles. It was incredible,’’ he said afterward. “I knew it was going to be crazy. It was like you took 200 pounds off my back.’’

Manny’s back and this is only the beginning. Wait ’til he gets to New York.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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