Manny being Manny was cute.
Manny being conceptive changes everything.
Presumably he measured the risks when he began whatever he began. Probably he considered the consequences when, years ago, baseball first requested a cup of his urine. Maybe he cringed when, famously, so many ahead of him on the all-time home-run list – Bonds, Sosa, McGwire, Palmeiro, Rodriguez – were suspected or revealed to have drugged themselves illegally, unethically, and deplorably.
He thought he was bulletproof, like the rest of his brothers.
Yet, here he is, a 37-year-old outfielder about to climb into an Albuquerque Isotopes uniform, rehabbing his image and his conscience in the Pacific Coast League. He hasn't played since the night of May 6, when he doubled home a couple runs in a win against the Nationals, and won't see another big-league field until next Friday, when the Dodgers open a series in San Diego.
When he gets back, I'm thinking, the dreadlocks won't seem so carefree. The smile won't seem nearly so honest. The swing, maybe not that natural.
Now he's just a guy short a cup or two of testosterone. He'll hit or he won't. He'll protect and fuel the young bats of Kemp and Ethier and Loney or he won't. He'll lead the Dodgers to the World Series or he won't. The fact is, whatever it is, the little blue fairy tale ended the moment we learned Manny not only played and thrived in the era of performance-enhancing drugs, but fanned it. Only the names change anymore.
“I didn't kill nobody,” Manny had said in the midst of his 50-game suspension. “I didn't rape nobody. So that's it, I'm just going to come and play the game.”
That'll be good enough for L.A.
(I can't speak for Frank McCourt, who is on the hook for another $20 million next season – at Manny's option – for a middle-of-the-order hitter leaking testosterone. And won't it get interesting if Manny fails to produce over the final three months, and McCourt comes to view him as damaged goods?)
It probably won't play quite as well outside L.A., or inside Manny's head.
Anybody seen McGwire? Palmeiro? What time is Sammy Sosa's press conference?
It's a lot to bear.
Bonds was just arrogant enough to handle it. Now Manny pushes into his late 30s and finds himself knee-deep in controversy, bigger than … Which knee? Bigger than rumors of tanked at-bats. Bigger than a Nation scorned.
It's one thing to be feared for your exceptional talent, another to be despised for your decisions.
He'll do his 10 days in the minor leagues. He'll return to three games in San Diego and then three in New York against the Mets. In the second half, there will be series in San Francisco in early August and mid-September, and don't you know Giants fans are wetting themselves over the delicious turnabout.
Manny will stand out there without his shots of human chorionic Gonadotropin, the female fertility drug of choice for men such as himself and Jose Canseco.
And now he says he's just going to come and play the game, and maybe he can. This assumes that his bat speed will be the same, his energy will be the same, his confidence will be the same. He's slowed down the game and his head before, over frantic moments in Boston and New York and L.A., in September and October. But is he that player? Physically? Emotionally?
Dodgers manager Joe Torre has lived this before, of course.
“The fact he played for Boston for those seven-plus years, he just understands,” Torre said. “Whether he can handle it or not, it's not a shock to him. … He has a way of locking in.”
Manny may be the belle of Albuquerque for the next few days, but according to those close to him he won't be talking to reporters about his suspension. And he won't be explaining the circumstances that led to it. He might not ever. So much for the A-Rod strategy of truth and apology.
He appears to be over the flu symptoms that briefly hampered his workouts but apparently thinned out his body. He's supposed to be ready to play, having left L.A. for New Mexico on Monday afternoon.
“It's really what he knows,” Torre said. “That's what he's going to look forward to. Is it going to be uncomfortable for a while? Probably will be. Because he's not going to be allowed to just play baseball.
“I think the first exposure after the suspension will be the major thing. The rest, that's what you do for a living anymore.”
So, cue Manny's new life. It's all different from here.
- Rafael Palmeiro