LOS ANGELES – Paying customers provided clarity as they often do, at the top of their lungs.
The deafening roar when Manny Ramirez(notes) came to the plate at Dodger Stadium on Thursday night for the first time since his 50-game suspension began May 7 drowned out disillusionment and obscured indignation.
Ramirez was greeted by a standing ovation. Fans chanted his name. Boos were heard only when Houston Astros pitcher Wandy Rodriguez(notes) had the audacity to locate a pitch in the vicinity of Manny's shins. The only way he could have felt more welcomed would have been if "Carry on Wayward Son" blasted over the loudspeakers.
Trends start in Hollywood, so why not Mannywood? The absolution afforded Ramirez might become a turning point in how steroid use is viewed, not only by the public but by the media. Hall of Fame voters are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with having to speculate on who took what substance. The Baseball Writers Association of America a few days ago narrowly voted down a proposal to form a committee to develop Hall of Fame guidelines on evaluating players in the steroids era, but some sort of codification seems inevitable, if not imminent.
The staunch opposition to Mark McGwire's induction might dissipate by the time Ramirez becomes eligible. The debate over Barry Bonds(notes) in a few years might tire everyone out for good. Perhaps the battle will be called on account of apathy. Or at least uncertainty.
Certainly, nobody in L.A. seemed to care when Manny strolled to home plate. He developed his strategy of refusing to address the steroids issue soon after he was suspended, and it turned out to be brilliant. Each day without a comment had the effect of air seeping from a balloon.
By Thursday's homecoming, he might as well as responded to the media with a big "Pffffftttt."
Asked after he went 1 for 4 in the Dodgers' loss if the fans' warm embrace validated his strategy of refusing to address PEDs, Ramirez leaned back in the chair in front of his locker and shrugged. "I don't know. L.A. fans are the best. We're moving on."
He spent time in left field gesturing playfully to the denizens of Mannywood, the field-level section behind the foul pole packed with fans who paid $49.50 each for a ticket and a T-shirt.
"I was doing the same thing I always do, having fun," he said. "This is my town."
It's an entertainment town to be sure, and Manny is an entertainer, among PED users a closer cousin to Stallone and Schwarzenegger than to McGwire and Sosa.
Sylvester Stallone has wondered out loud how moviegoers could expect him to play Rambo at 60 without liberal doses of human growth hormone. Maybe the folks wearing faux-dreadlocks and No. 99 jerseys intuitively understand something similar about Ramirez, that he took whatever it was that spiked his testosterone level for their benefit.
He's 37 and getting paid $20 million to not only perform, but at a superior level. To crush the ball. To lead the Dodgers to their first World Series in 21 years.
To put on a show.
"Fans come out here to be entertained," manager Joe Torre said. "It's no knock on the fans. They understand he did something wrong, he paid his price and they want to see him perform."
As a teenager in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, Ramirez ran up steep hills, pulling a 20-pound tire from a rope tied to his waist. Many in the media believed his suspension for a female fertility drug commonly used to elevate the testosterone level of steroids users would have the metaphorical effect on his career of dragging a tire.
Instead, public forgiveness is widespread, and Manny is only too happy to duck behind its shield. His first clue came July 3, when he was cheered in San Diego the day he returned from the suspension. Visits to New York and Milwaukee followed, and he was mostly ignored.
Even though he'd refused to respond to any questions regarding steroids, whether he'd taken them, or when. He hasn't denied use, which for many is an admission of guilt. He's apologized to fans for his "mistake," but might that be code for being sorry he got caught and sitting out for nearly two months?
Manny was questioned aggressively in San Diego, but the L.A. media didn't muster a single mention of steroids Thursday. He plopped down on the bench next to Torre before the game and chuckled his way through a handful of innocuous questions by reporters he'd charmed and defanged months ago.
Q: "Are you ready for the attention?"
A: "I like it. It makes me want to do better."
Q: "You going to play the entire game?"
A: "How many innings am I going to play today, Joe?"
Torre: "You usually tell me that."
Laughs all around.
Q: "Is coming out early going to hurt your chances of a Gold Glove?"
Q: "You're getting older."
A: "My bat is young."
Was it aided and abetted by steroids? He isn't saying, everybody has stopped asking, and baseball fans are too busy cheering to care.