SAN DIEGO -- You cannot say that Manny Ramirez beat the system, because the system nabbed him and punished him. But you also cannot say that he was beaten by the system, because he is back at his post, getting what sounds like the last laugh and the big applause.
Friday night, Ramirez returned from his 50-game suspension. This did not seem to be a man who had been caught cheating coming back in disgrace. No, this was more like a conquering hero returning to a ticker-tape parade.
Think of Charles Lindbergh's return after he became the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic. Think of Neil Armstrong's return after he became the first man to walk on the moon. This was Manny Ramirez's return after he became one more baseball player caught using performance-enhancing drugs.
His suspension at an end, Ramirez was back on the field for the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night at PETCO Park. Was all forgiven? Not by Padres fans. But among Dodgers fans, you bet.
Think this time of a Biblical comeback, the return of the prodigal son being celebrated with the slaying of the fatted calf. There's a line here about the fatted calf being on steroids, but we're not going to dwell on it.
PETCO Park was full Friday night, with 42,217 on hand. And yet, the home team, the Padres, have an average attendance of fewer than 24,000 this season, with only two previous sellouts. Dodgers fans filled the place for this one, and they roared for the man who had carried their team to the postseason last year.
When Manny came to bat in the first inning, there was a wall of sound. The majority of it came from a standing ovation by Dodgers fans. The San Diego partisans on hand booed as loudly as they could, but they appeared to be decisively outnumbered.
Manny, for those of you keeping score at home, walked in this appearance, doing his bit to help the Dodgers to a five-run first and an eventual 6-3 victory. He was retired in his other three at-bats; two groundouts and a popup. He was lifted for a defensive replacement, Juan Pierre, in the sixth. That was a sound move because Pierre had to go a long way in a hurry to haul in a drive by Adrian Gonzalez in the eighth.
Manny didn't produce like Manny at the plate, but then, he hadn't seen Major League pitching in two months. He'll hit again. There will be increased ambivalence about his work because of the PED issue, but he'll hit again.
But what of the man himself? What was Manny's public attitude as he returned, all the way from his enforced exile to the National League West? Was he going to be deeply penitent, extremely regretful?
"Showtime!" Manny exclaimed, twice, as he entered a pregame media session. Some people might want guilty PED parties to be a little less, you know, bouncy, upbeat, jovial. But this was "Manny being Manny," the phrase that, for this career, explains everything and nothing. Ramirez was accompanied by his agent, Scott Boras, so you knew that this was really important.
Manny produced a media session that was like "The Greatest Hits of the Steroid Era." He apologized, but refused to say what his sin had been, exactly like Jason Giambi in the same circumstances. When asked about PED use, he performed very much like Mark McGwire had before a Congressional committee. McGwire said he was not there to talk about the past. Confronted with the same questions, Manny said that he was not here to talk about his medical records.
At the outset, Manny was confronted with the direct question: "How long did you take steroids?" He replied: "First, I want to say that God is good and good is God. I don't want to get into my medical records right now. I'm happy to be here. I missed the game. I'm ready to play. I was practicing in Triple-A, and I can't wait to enter the field. "
Ramirez said he was sorry he had let down the fans and his teammates. He seemed completely sincere, although he declined to provide the reason that the apology was needed. One of the most telling moments came when he was asked if he was surprised by the support he has received from Dodgers fans.
"No, because they know when I step on the field, I'm going to give it all that I've got," Ramirez said. "And they know I can play. I'm not surprised. They're the best fans in the whole world. I wish I could have been there a long time ago. I'm not surprised because I'm one of the best players who ever put on the uniform."
At least this suspension has not eroded Manny's self-esteem. All things considered, even counting two religious references, Ramirez came off as more flippant than penitent in this session. A more charitable way of viewing his remarks was offered by Dodgers manager Joe Torre.
"I think he's very uncomfortable with this," Torre said. "I was here, and I heard some of the answers and I just think he's uncomfortable. He didn't deny doing something wrong, and he apologized for it and he doesn't want to talk about it. He's trying to answer your questions, but he's uncomfortable with it. That's what I get out of it. It's an uncomfortable time for him. When he came into our clubhouse last August, he talked about all he wants to do is play baseball and go home. That's what he wants to do. I think he's uncomfortable with all the public stuff. He doesn't look shy with all the antics that you see from time to time, but that's my opinion."
That is a plausible explanation. Manny paid for his PED sins with a 50-game suspension and roughly $7 million in lost salary. But he still gets to return to the team with baseball's best record and the promise of better things to come. He still has Boras looking out for his well-being, fiscal and otherwise.
And if Friday night's road game is any indicator, he still has the complete loyalty and affection of legions of Dodgers fans. They set the tone for his return Friday night. Everybody knew it, including the man himself.
"It was great, man," Ramirez said. "It was the best. I want to thank all my fans. I think they drove from L.A. to watch the game and to watch me. It was unbelievable. Thanks to the fans of L.A. They made it easy for me to go and play."