Manny's return is awash in ambiguity

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

SAN DIEGO – Just noise. So appropriately.

Not a condemnation, taken as a whole. And not confirmation.

Just noise, foisted upon an occasional rivalry, draped with dreadlocks, scented by a sea breeze and framed by a sad, sullied era.

Manny Ramirez(notes) was free again on the eve of Independence Day.

Take it or leave it.

A ballpark that for weeks was two-thirds empty was filled to the last few feet Friday night. Rows of heads were visible on the Marriott's rooftop bar across the street. Dozens of looky-loos stood on the sixth-floor deck of the building beyond the left-field bleachers.

They were here – or leaning in or on the corner scalping tickets – for Manny, who came off baseball's suspended list to the sound of rampant, raging, numbing ambivalence. They cheered. They booed. They wore tangled wigs. They turned their backs. They begged him to hit a ball off the brick wall of the Western Metal Supply Co. They hoped he'd fall onto a bat shard. They bought stuff at the concession stands.

They accompanied Joe Torre down the Golden State Freeway early in the afternoon, Dodgers flags lashed to their car windows. They waited on Tony Gwynn(notes) Drive, hoping for a glimpse, hoping to heckle the man in the middle of it all.

But there were no answers here.

Manny sat behind a microphone hours before the Los Angeles Dodgers took the field against the San Diego Padres, tried to laugh, tried to move on, tried to make it about the game. His agent, Scott Boras, defended him from every suspicion, every arched eyebrow. Seems everyone has it wrong about Manny. Not Dodgers fans, of course. But everyone else.

And now Manny does what he does, and the game does what it does.

He bats third and plays left field. He sells tickets and jerseys. The game tags along obediently, having done what it could to maintain a little integrity, but not so much to kill its own momentum. Now Manny lives with it, which apparently won't be so hard. Only one man was perfect, he reminded everyone, and look what happened to that guy. I think he was traded to the Pirates.

He said he still feels strong, still feels energetic.

"I feel great," he said. "I haven't played for 50 games."

He did his thing for, well, we have no idea for how long. And we're not even sure what this thing was, or why, or if it has left him psychologically frail or physically vulnerable. His doctor is reportedly being investigated. So there's that.

And Manny apologized for, well, we have no idea about that, either.

He only promised he would not fail from here on. He only said, "This is not my first rodeo." He explained, "I'm one of the best players to put on a uniform." So, you know, back up.

The fact is, he was caught and punished. The Dodgers sagged but didn't collapse by any means. Now they can stroll into the World Series, because the rest of the National League looks more awful by the minute.

Meanwhile, on this Friday night before all these blue shirts and enough Padres fans to make it a fair fight, with Manny again among them, the Dodgers scored five runs in the first inning and won again. He walked, he grounded out twice, and he popped to shallow center field, then he sat down and let Juan Pierre(notes) play the last 3½ innings. He didn't hurt himself in the outfield.

More important for him, perhaps, he stood amid the noise and it did not shake him. Not yet. I mean, it's San Diego, and the southbound carpool lane was clogged with Dodgers bumper stickers. They go to New York next.

"It was a lot friendlier today than I thought it would be," Torre said.

By postgame, Manny had lost the blue-lensed sunglasses and some of the defensiveness. He laid the microphone in his lap and leaned back in the folding chair, like a man who'd done his time, who believed explanations were beneath him. He wore a black T-shirt that read, "MANIACO," which means just what you think it would.

He said he could hardly wait for the day to arrive, for Game 51, that the entire affair had felt "like 200 pounds on my back." He stuck to his strategic mantra that the previous two months would be stricken from the record, but there was at least that, an admission it was bigger than jokes and jukes.

"Go have fun," he said of the strategy from here, "and whatever happened in the past, leave it in the past."

No, there were no answers Friday. But, that's where all these guys, all these decisions, these times, have left us. They take a few steps out of the dugout. They take their at-bats. The go on with their careers.

And they live with the noise.

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