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Manny Ramirez returns in New Mexico

Slugger goes 0 for 2 in first game since suspension. Merchandise sales are off the hook.

June 24, 2009|Dylan Hernandez

ALBUQUERQUE — A news helicopter circled the airspace above Isotopes Field. Ticket takers wore dreadlock wigs. The lines in the souvenir shop stretched across the room.

Manny Ramirez was in the building.

And when Ramirez had his name called over the public-address system, many of the 15,321 fans who made up the standing-room-only crowd Tuesday night stood to applaud. Camera flashes lit up the stands. A banner that read "Mannywood, N.M." was unfurled in the box seats down the left-field line.

Ramirez struck out, but it didn't matter.

He grounded out, but it didn't matter.

More cheers. More flashes.

Ramirez did more in the first game of his weeklong minor league tour than prepare himself for his return to the Dodgers' lineup July 3.

He sold tickets for the triple-A affiliate, more for this game than in any other home game in the Isotopes' seven-year history. He moved merchandise and did so quickly, as all 136 Manny-style wigs in the souvenir shop were sold for $25 within 45 minutes of the gates opening.

He has eight games remaining on his suspension for violating baseball's drug policy, but there wasn't a single steroid chant or a single syringe thrown onto the field.

"It completely lived up to my expectations," Isotopes General Manager John Traub said.

What Ramirez did on the field almost became secondary.

He batted leadoff and was 0 for 2 facing Nashville Sounds left-hander Manny Parra, who was demoted to triple A by the Milwaukee Brewers only 10 days earlier.

He saw eight pitches.

He struck out swinging in the first inning and grounded out to short in the third.

He didn't get a ball hit his way in his four innings in left field.

That didn't dampen the mood.

"That was a pretty neat crowd for a triple-A ballgame," Isotopes second baseman Blake DeWitt said. "The atmosphere from the get-go was pretty impressive."

It's expected to remain that way over the next couple of days.

Isotopes Manager Tim Wallach said Ramirez would play five innings today and seven Thursday. The only tickets available for both games are for grass seating.

The Isotopes are expecting a shipment of 500 wigs from the Dodgers on Thursday. Ramirez is expected to head back to Los Angeles on Friday, but tickets for that game are also close to selling out.

The town's response to Ramirez proved a point he tried to make when addressing reporters before the game -- that his 50-game ban wouldn't affect his popularity.

Speaking to reporters in the hours leading up to the game, Ramirez said the city of Los Angeles continues to love him. Of the way he has been received in Albuquerque, he said, "Like I said, people love me. Everywhere I go, people support me. I'm excited to bring a lot of joy to a lot of people here. I'm excited that I'm here."

Ramirez refused to say whether he used steroids.

Initially, he was reluctant to talk about anything.

Pulling his bat out of a corner locker that was occupied two days earlier by Jason Schmidt, Ramirez declined to be interviewed.

"Come back on July 3," he said in Spanish, as he rushed to the batting cage.

The hallway by the cage became off-limits to reporters, who were prevented by a security guard from walking by to get to the field.

"No media," the guard said.

Done with his cage work, Ramirez returned to his locker to grab a bat and helmet. He ran by reporters, telling them, "I ain't talking, baby. Write whatever you want."

When he emerged from the tunnel that led to the field, Ramirez was met by a wall of cameras. The mob trailed him as he walked down the left-field line to stretch.

Watching from a distance, DeWitt laughed.

"This is funny," DeWitt said.

Ramirez hit several home runs in batting practice, including one that hit the giant scoreboard over the wall in left-center. That prompted him to make another drive-by comment to reporters who stood nearby, as he said of the notoriously hitter-friendly park, "This field is a joke. I want to play here."

But the hitting session that made Ramirez laugh provided Nashville catcher Angel Salome with the memory of a lifetime.

Salome, 23, went to the same New York City high school as Ramirez. He was introduced to his hero by ESPN Deportes reporter Enrique Rojas.

Salome smiled as he recalled how Ramirez told him, "Hey, throw me pitches right down the middle. I'm not going to hit it. I'm not that good of a hitter."

However, Ramirez's teammates didn't get a treat they were expecting.

Major league players in town on rehabilitation assignments often pay for special pregame meals for the team.

Last week, Isotopes players were treated to food from Outback Steakhouse by Will Ohman and P.F. Chang's by Claudio Vargas.

Pizza was served Tuesday, leading to some light-hearted kidding.

"Manny better pony up," Ohman said, laughing. "I know his money is deferred, but if we get Domino's after the game, there will be a lot of [angry] guys."

Well, they didn't even get that.

Ramirez, who signed a two-year, $45-million contract in the spring, wasn't around to explain why.

He made a quiet exit from the field at the end of the fourth inning. Soon after, he strolled out the back of the clubhouse to the parking lot. Crowded by a mob of 40 or so autograph seekers, Ramirez didn't answer any questions as he signed a couple of items on his way to a car that was waiting nearby.

The night was over.

Wait, there was something else, right?

Oh, yeah, the game.

The Isotopes won, 1-0.

--

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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