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BILL PLASCHKE

Manny did the time, but what about the crime?

In first game back from drug suspension, Ramirez is the celebrated straw that stirs the drink, with fans and teammates welcoming him with open arms, no questions asked.

July 04, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM SAN DIEGO — Manny Ramirez was released from the substance slammer Friday, ending a 50-game drug suspension whose effects were immediate and overwhelming.

Best thing to ever happen to him.

It made him more famous, Petco Park rocking with his every step, roaring Dodgers cheers clashing with angry San Diego Padres boos, a swirling blizzard of noise.

"I still have it in me, bring it on," Ramirez said.

It made him more beloved, his teammates verbally embracing him before the game, hitting around him during the game, rolling to a 6-3 victory.

"They support me all the way, we're ready to take this to another level," he said.

It made him even more self-assured -- if that's possible -- as he successfully dodged every steroid question during a pregame interview while reminding everyone why he can.

"I'm one of the best players to ever put on the uniform," he said.

If Friday was any indication, he will certainly spend the rest of the season as baseball's most celebrated player, filling stadiums, creating buzz, everyone profiting from his crime.

"We love the commotion, are you kidding me?" said Dodger Orlando Hudson. "All these people are just putting more money in our pockets."

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's famous Yankee Stadium speech, it was indeed Manny Ramirez who seemed like the luckiest man on the face of the Earth.

It was July 3, yet he's still strong.

"I have plenty of energy, I haven't played for 50 games," he said.

It was the middle of a tough season, yet he's freshly motivated.

"I've got to go out there and show people I could still do it. . . . That's going to give me more fire to play the game," he said.

There are three long months remaining, yet he's understandably acting as if he's starting anew.

"It's showtime," he announced with a grin from behind mirrored sunglasses during the indoor media session.

Talk about $7.7 million well spent.

"He comes back to this team, he changes everything," Hudson said.

The only kink in this triumphant return, of course, is the question of whether either the missed games or the missed steroids have hurt Ramirez's swing or strength.

Here's guessing he won't be so beloved next month if he's batting .220 or battling hamstring injuries.

It was hard to tell much from Friday's four plate appearances and five innings in the field.

He drew a walk, hit the ball hard on a grounder up the middle, but finished with a weak grounder, a weak pop out and a thrown bat.

In the field, he successfully fielded a line-drive single and caught another line drive.

"I'm going to take my time, but I'm going to be good," Ramirez promised. "I need to catch up but I will."

At times during the pregame media session, he seemed so confident, it was as if he was trying to convince himself.

At other times, he seemed so defiant, it was like he really did believe he didn't do anything wrong.

I posed the first question, asking if he could explain when he started and stopped using steroids.

"First, I want to say that God is good and good is God," he said. "I don't want to get into my medical records right now."

I later asked whether he agreed with baseball's steroid policy.

"I'm not getting into that, sir," he said. "I want to talk about the game. . . . I'm moving on."

When asked to publicly apologize, he actually did, so give him credit for that.

"I want to say I'm sorry to the fans, to my teammates, they're always there for me," he said.

When asked exactly what he was sorry for, he said, "Not being there for them. For not playing the game."

He also actually admitted that "I made a mistake, but I learned from that and I'm moving on."

That's about as close to a confession as anyone is going to get, a notion later furthered by Manager Joe Torre.

"When you weed through the whole thing, he didn't deny doing something wrong, and he apologized for it," Torre said.

After which Ramirez sauntered back into an atmosphere that crackles with his presence.

In one corner of the clubhouse, Hudson was counting the hordes of reporters walking through the door -- "That's 50, keep 'em coming!"

In the other corner stood a solemn Dodgers security guard who will accompany Ramirez for the immediate future. It is the first time I have ever seen an actual security guard working for a player in the safety of a clubhouse.

"We've seen all this before, when Manny came last year, and when Manny came this spring," teammate Andre Ethier said. "Hopefully everyone in here is mature enough to handle the commotion."

Once on the field, it was louder and crazier.

"Man-ny! Man-ny!" some fans chanted as he walked on to the field for batting practice.

"Ster-oids, Ster-oids," chanted other fans.

The entire night was reminiscent of the constant scene around the San Francisco Giants several years ago.

A player was bigger than the game. A drug issue elicited more responses than the score. The buzz was initially interesting and fun, but later bulky and onerous.

On a night when Manny Ramirez was supposed to return as a shamed drug cheat, he actually created a stir befitting the greatest home run hitter in baseball history.

All you Dodgers fans who secretly coveted Barry Bonds?

You got him.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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