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Dodging the boos?

Consensus isn’t clear on Ramirez’s reception

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / June 17, 2010

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CINCINNATI — On the eve of his return to Fenway Park, Manny Ramirez is mum.

“What are you doing here?’’ a surprised Ramirez asks the reporter from Boston, giving him a hug.

Asked how he’s doing, he says, “I’m good.’’

Asked if he expects to be booed or cheered tomorrow night when he makes his first appearance in Boston since leaving town on bad terms in July 2008, he does an about-face.

“No thank you,’’ he says over his shoulder.

End of interview.

Ramirez hasn’t talked to the media all season. His power numbers are down since he served a 50-game suspension last spring for testing positive for a banned substance, a female fertility drug. This year, he is hitting .296 with 33 RBIs in 47 games but has just 7 home runs (adding one last night in LA’s 6-2 win over the Reds). Since returning from a stint on the disabled list with a right calf strain May 8, he has hit .250.

His swagger is not what it once was.

“I think his suspension last year certainly knocked him a little bit,’’ says Dodger manager Joe Torre. “I think he was embarrassed about it, the whole thing.’’

Might the Fenway Faithful expect Manny Light?

“ ‘Manny Light’?’’ says Torre. “As far as his power numbers, maybe, but not his production numbers. He was on the DL but to me he’s still a force, RBI-wise. I’m not really concerned about home runs as long as he has the same impact with men in scoring position.’’

Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly says Ramirez’s timing has been “off and on’’ and that he’s been “a little quiet at times’’ this season.

“But he’s been great to work with,’’ says Mattingly.

Torre says things have changed with Ramirez since 2008, when he almost singlehandedly propelled the Dodgers into the playoffs after coming over from the Sox in a three-team deal.

“He’s still having fun, but when he first came over here, he was like giddy,’’ says Torre. “It sort of rubbed off on the players.’’

Orlando Cabrera, the starting shortstop on the Red Sox’ 2004 world champions, also sees a different Ramirez.

“He’s not the same person, not the same guy,’’ says Cabrera, now with Cincinnati. “He’s been through a lot of personal stuff. He kind of wants to be private this year and last year because he kind of went through a lot.’’

Complicated case
When Ramirez was sent to the Dodgers in the deal that brought Jason Bay to Boston from Pittsburgh, he bad-mouthed the Sox on the way out the door.

“I was unhappy for eight years in Boston but still put up great numbers,’’ he told the Los Angeles Times.

Ramirez, 38, has lost some luster in La La Land — some of which has been inherited by Andre Ethier, the young, handsome right fielder who is making a bid to make the All-Star Game for the first time. “Mannywood,’’ the left-field section of Dodger Stadium devoted to all things Manny, is no longer the hot ticket. Where Ramirez was once the talk of the town, now he doesn’t talk at all.

There has been much speculation on both coasts as to whether there will be happy returns when the former Sox slugger shows up at Friday as a Dodger this weekend. In the aftermath of tonight’s Celtics-Lakers Game 7, Sox fans will likely still be in “Beat LA’’ mode.

“That’s going to be an interesting one,’’ said Sox captain/catcher Jason Varitek. “I don’t know how this one is going to go.’’

Johnny Damon returned to Boston as a Yankee two years after the 2004 championship and was booed mercilessly. But other Red Sox stars have returned to Fenway to standing ovations.

When Nomar Garciaparra left in midseason 2004, fans remembered him sitting out a game in Yankee Stadium while Derek Jeter did a face-plant into the stands after catching a popup. Yet last year, after a five-year hiatus, Garciaparra returned with the A’s to a hero’s welcome. All was forgiven.

With Ramirez, a 12-time All-Star, it’s more complicated. He alienated more teammates, media, and fans than Garciaparra.

David Ortiz is lobbying hard for Red Sox Nation to be kind to Ramirez.

“Let me tell you one thing,’’ said Ortiz. “He might get an ovation and then a boo. But he deserves an ovation to begin with because he helped this ball club to win two World Series. That’s the way I see it, man. If anyone thinks it’s something else, it’s gonna be up to them.’’

Regrettable incidents
With his gorgeous swing, Ramirez hit .312 with 274 home runs and 868 RBIs in eight seasons in Boston.

“Manny being Manny’’ became part of the local jargon, a catchphrase that meant Boston fans could forgive his flaky behavior, such as occasional lapses in running out ground balls or bizarre outfield adventures.

Fans laughed when Ramirez dived like a soccer goalie to cut off a Damon throw in the outfield and when he high-fived a fan after making a leaping catch, then turned and threw the ball in to complete a double play. He made trips into the Green Monster to do God-knows-what during pitching changes, then just laughed when the pitcher wasn’t replaced after all, and he was missing in action.

Fans forgave his antics because he could hit like few others in baseball history. He was MVP of the first World Series the Red Sox won in 86 years. Teamed with Ortiz in the middle of the lineup, it was like watching Gehrig and Ruth, only with more flair.

That was the good Manny.

The bad Manny became unbearable in 2008. He scuffled with teammate Kevin Youkilis in the dugout in Fenway Park. He shoved 64-year-old traveling secretary Jack McCormick to the ground when told his day-of-game request for 16 tickets in Houston couldn’t be filled. After he sat out two games against the Yankees, saying he had a knee injury, he later couldn’t say which knee hurt, so the Sox ordered MRIs on both knees. The tests were negative, and Ramirez returned to action, but he was slow running out ground balls.

“Those are incidents that probably shouldn’t have happened,’’ Varitek said of the Youkilis and McCormick confrontations. “You don’t want to see that happen. That was an awful situation and I’m sure Manny, being a human being, isn’t too happy about that.

“Things didn’t necessarily end on a good note. But I know he helped us win a lot of games.’’

Mike Lowell thinks Ramirez is bulletproof to boos.

“He has a great way of tuning distractions out,’’ says Lowell. “I think he will not be affected by it at all. He’s going to be cheered. Overall, he didn’t leave on the greatest terms but I think the fans realize what he did was pretty astronomical.’’

Asked about the lack of hustle issue, Lowell shrugs.

“Well, if we had a problem with him running down the baselines, we should have taken him out of the game,’’ he says.

Youkilis says that if he were a fan, he would cheer Ramirez.

“Why not?’’ says Youkilis. “He won two World Series here. He was a World Series MVP and he brought a lot of joy here. I don’t believe in booing. What’s the point?’’

The 2008 dugout scuffle, which was caught by TV cameras, is ancient history, according to Youkilis.

“That’s water under the bridge,’’ he says. “There’s no bad blood there. No, not a chance. I don’t sit up at night and think about it. I don’t think about how Manny’s doing in LA. I worry about our problems here.’’

High drama
At Sunday’s Red Sox-Phillies game at Fenway Park, 100 fans were asked whether they would cheer or boo Ramirez. Fifty-eight said they would cheer.

“Manny was the best Red Sox hitter since Ted Williams,’’ says Jack Joyce, 72. “I loved Yaz, but Yaz couldn’t hold Manny’s sneakers.’’

Of the 42 who voted to boo the Savant Slugger, the reason was more about the lack of hustle than the 50-game suspension.

“Manny does what Manny wants and thinks it’s OK,’’ says Sox fan John Haypin. “It’s not.’’

Either way, it promises to be great drama. Imagine the ninth inning of a Red Sox-Dodgers game, the go-ahead run coming to the plate. Manuel Aristides Ramirez, chomping on his tobacco, steps into the batter’s box against Jonathan Papelbon, who labeled him a “cancer’’ in an May 2009 Esquire interview.

The crowd chants, “Beat LA!’’ Papelbon looks in, gets the sign, and stares down Ramirez with that trademark glare.

“You think I’m going to tell you how I’m going to pitch Manny Ramirez?’’ says Papelbon, laughing. “Very carefully, dude. Very carefully.’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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