LOS ANGELES – Hard by the left-field foul pole, three rows from the field, smack-dab in what Los Angeles Dodgers marketing wizards recently dubbed Mannywood, 3-year-old Daniel Ontiveros looked up at his dad.
Luis Ontiveros picked up his son and tousled his hair.
"He's on vacation," he said. "He went on a trip. He'll be back."
A rite of passage given a gut-wrenching twist, families attended a Dodgers game together and chatted about Joe Torre batting Juan Pierre(notes) ninth behind the pitcher, a record 13-game home winning streak blown to bits …
By the time they reached the ballpark Thursday, most fans knew Manny had been suspended for 50 games, even if the details seemed fuzzy. He'd taken an illegal drug but it wasn't a steroid; it was something women take to get pregnant. Somebody close to him said he had erectile dysfunction. The drug didn't make him a better ballplayer, but he wouldn't have used it if he hadn't already taken steroids and lost all his testosterone.
Something like that.
It's all kids talked about at school. Parents got wind of it at work. Shock gave way to disappointment, then to sadness or weary resignation. And for those with tickets to the game against the Washington Nationals, especially those sitting near left field, the news was especially jarring.
"I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach, like I lost a family member," said Luis Kraner, wearing a No. 99 Ramirez jersey and sitting with his friend Nancy Sanchez.
"I can't imagine what you'd tell a child," Sanchez said. "How do you talk it through?"
Much easier done when the child is 3 than 13. Gus Gonzalez remembered to grab his gray Franklin glove before climbing into his older brother's car for the drive to the stadium. This would be the seventh-grader's first Dodgers game.
"I can't wait to see Manny," Gus said to his brother.
The reply was cruelly casual: "Oh, yeah, I forget to tell you, he's suspended for 50 games."
Gus stood against the left-field rail during batting practice, hoping to snag a home run. All he could think of was Manny. He's so good. Why did he take something illegal when he didn't need the help?
"I expected better," he said, shaking his head. "I said to myself, 'No wonder he's hit so many grand slams.' "
A 13-year-old might get only one chance to express himself. When Manny returns July 3, would Gonzalez cheer or boo? He dropped his chin and gave it some thought. "I'm not sure about that," he said.
Sorting through conflicting emotions was easier with company. Three eighth-grade classmates from Manhattan Beach Middle School talked about Ramirez and punched All-Star ballots.
"I think steroids should be legal if you are coming off an injury, but not if you are just trying to get better," Alex White said.
"I totally disagree," Quinn McCauley said. "You can't cheat. Injuries are part of the game."
Danny Kelleher sat between White and McCauley. He's the sports editor of the school newspaper and is halfway through Joe Torre's book, "The Yankee Years," so his buddies listened when he spoke.
"I think most players were raised to play fair, but once they get a taste of the money and fame they'll do anything to get more," Kelleher said. "It's disappointing, but it's understandable."
Overall, parents were more strident than kids. Even though he'd been looking forward to the game since his father bought the tickets six weeks ago, Ricky Gonzalez, 17, already had forgiven Ramirez.
"Everybody makes mistakes," he said, shrugging. "Nobody's perfect."
Ricky's father, Ricardo, huffed. "They should bust all of them," he said. "Be accountable. When he comes back, I'll boo him. Loud."
Sensing the intense passions of some fans, the Dodgers pulled Ramirez merchandise from the kiosks sprinkled throughout the stadium. No dreadlocks. No T-shirts. No 99 jerseys. Team president Dennis Mannion said the Mannywood promotion in left field is "on hold," although a Ramirez bobblehead day in July will remain on the schedule and merchandise will return "on a supply-and-demand basis."
Any dip in demand almost certainly will be temporary. Opportunistic entrepreneurs already were busy in the parking lot, peddling "Free Manny" T-shirts.
The Dodgers are counting on fans' ability to forgive and forget. Ramirez's next home run will tie Jimmie Foxx on the all-time list. His fourth will push him past Mickey Mantle. The Hall of Fame might be a long shot now, but if Ramirez helps the Dodgers to the playoffs again, the dads will soften and the sons will cheer.
Jim Griffiths and his 22-year-old son, Jeremy, sat behind the Dodger dugout wearing matching white Ramirez jerseys. Jim told his son about watching the 1959 World Series at the L.A. Coliseum. Jeremy reminisced about the last Dodger to captivate the crowd the way Ramirez does – closer Eric Gagne(notes) and his "Game Over" routine.
It dawned on them both that Gagne eventually was revealed as a user of performance-enhancing drugs.
"Irresponsible, a tragedy for us," Jim said. "Manny, I'm not so sure about. Maybe he didn't know he made a mistake."
Jeremy nudged his dad and laughed. "C'mon. He knew what he was doing, and he knows he made a mistake.
"And when the suspension is over he'll say what he said before: 'I'm baaaaack!' "