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SoCal really lets Manny have it . . . with love

BILL PLASCHKE

Ramirez returns to the Southland to play in a minor league game, and Dodgers fans are out in force -- but to cheer, not boo. Drug suspension? What drug suspension?

June 28, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

We arrived in hilly Riverside County on a scorching Saturday afternoon, the fertility drug fatale and I, same game, different missions.

Manny Ramirez was here to play for the Class-A Inland Empire 66ers on his first phony rehab assignment in Southern California.

I was here to find a Dodgers fan brave enough to boo him.

Surely it would happen, right?

Surely, somebody will hold him accountable for a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy?

Surely somebody would let him know that, because he has yet to offer any true remorse or explanation since his May 7 suspension, somebody was going to publicly wonder why?

He had appeared in two games at triple-A Albuquerque, where he was showered with love, but folks down there rarely see a celebrity that didn't come out of a UFO, so they can be excused.

Dodgers fans are tougher, right?

Ramirez was going to be, um, needled, right?

Even here in this gorgeous gem of a ballpark known simply as The Diamond, against a team wearing wonderful throwback San Diego Padres uniforms, Dodgers fans surely wouldn't be afraid to hold their best player accountable to the same standards they apply to themselves.

This was my hope as I walked over to a dozen blue-jersey-wearing fans lining a white fence that led from the parking lot to the visitors' clubhouse.

It was 2 1/2 hours until the first pitch, and in pulled an SUV, and out stepped Ramirez, and up perked my ears.

Surely they would boo him because the driver was the Dodgers' roving strength coach, Mike Winkler.

This made Ramirez perhaps the only drug offender in baseball history whose employers gave him his own chauffeur during the suspension.

Or surely they would boo him because he was accompanied into the clubhouse by Rico Perdomo, a relative who was in the gym with Ramirez this winter.

Again, this made Ramirez perhaps the only drug offender in baseball history allowed to bring previous workout buddies into the clubhouse and dugout with him during his suspension.

Hey commissioner, are you watching this? Any of it?

Lots of reasons to boo the entrance. But nobody booing, everybody cheering "I love you Manny!" again and again.

OK, fine, I gave the people a pass because they had waited in subhuman heat to see their hero, maybe their heads were as mottled as Ramirez's testosterone levels.

So I checked again later after batting practice, in the stands of the 6,060-seat ballpark, seats filled with Dodgers fans in pressed blue Ramirez bandannas and freshly laundered white Ramirez jerseys.

Ramirez had already stood out during the hitting session because he was the only one on the field violating team rules by not wearing a uniform. They all wore hot blue jerseys; he wore a cooler white stretch T-shirt.

Ramirez was also standing out in the clubhouse where players had heard of how, while in Albuquerque, Ramirez became that rare major league millionaire who did not buy his minor league teammates dinner.

Surely somebody would see through the braids and bull and boo?

Not the guy running up the aisle wearing a Dodgers jersey and waving a freshly inked baseball.

"No way," said Vince Castro of Buena Park. "Look what Manny did. He signed my autograph."

Indeed, Ramirez was signing autographs, something that Angels slugger Vladimir Guerrero did not do when he appeared here earlier this season.

"There is something about him that makes him different from Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, all those guys," said Tony Cruz of Lake Elsinore. "It's his personality. His personality overcomes all of his wrongdoings."

It overcomes them so much, Castro was wearing a Ramirez jersey that read "I'm back," and he was making a bold pregame prediction.

"I know Manny, and tonight he is going to hit a home run, you just watch," he said.

I scoffed and moved on to the next potential boo birds, a family of six, the Riveros of Hemet, only two Ramirez jerseys among them.

But, again, no boos.

"Aren't they all on something?" said matriarch Lizette Rivero. "If we don't cheer for players who are on something, then we can't cheer for anybody."

Her husband Jesse agreed, saying, "Everybody is allowed one mistake, aren't they?"

The mistake here is all mine, thinking that one of these thousands of Dodgers fans among the crowd of 8,099 would act a little, I don't know, angry?

How about this serious-looking, Dodgers-jersey-wearing fellow taking a serious look at batting practice?

"I don't think I'm cheering for him, I'm cheering for the Dodgers," said Scott Willens, who made the trek from Santa Clarita. "I love baseball, and I love the Dodgers, and so I cheer for them all."

Besides, he said, he and Ramirez have something in common.

"My wife also used a female fertility drug," he said. "Manny got suspended, but we got twins!"

On this note, I settle in for the first pitches of the game, from the Lake Elsinore Storm's Nick Schmidt to leadoff-hitting Manny Ramirez.

Huge cheers. Strike. Huge cheers. Boom.

Boom?

Line-drive home run over the left-field fence.

Standing ovation.

I give up.

"I told you, I told you!" shouted Tony Cruz, dancing and high-fiving.

Yeah, he told me.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twiitter.com/BillPlaschke

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