SACRAMENTO -- Manny Ramirez found a seat on the dugout bench a few hours before the first pitch Friday night, creating a media clamor rarely seen at a minor league ballpark.
Fans filtered into seats. Vendors hawked MannyMania T-shirts and MannyDreadlock wigs (both $20 apiece). Opposing players craned their necks for a glimpse at the 12-time All-Star.
As for Ramirez? He was the calmest guy in the ballpark -- Manny Being Mellow.
Ramirez sounded in no rush to join the A's and made no promises that he would be physically ready next week when he will be eligible to be reinstated after serving a 50-game drug suspension.
"I'm just leaving everything to God. He knows when I'm going to come up," Ramirez said. "I ain't got no worries -- just take a day at a time and go and enjoy myself."
Raley Field, the cozy home of the River Cats, was supposed to be the last stop on the Ramirez comeback trail. The former American League batting champion is permitted to play in the minors, a spring training of sorts, as he inches closer to joining the roster of the power starved A's.
But early indications are that it could take a little longer for the designated hitter to shake off the rust. Ramirez has not played in the majors since retiring in April of 2011 rather than serve a 100-game suspension for violating baseball's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
That suspension was reduced to 50 games over the winter, clearing the way for
Ramirez has 555 home runs, a .312 career batting average, an American League batting crown -- and a rap sheet that includes two drug suspensions, clashes with managers and teammates and an incident in which he shoved the Boston Red Sox's elderly traveling secretary to the ground.
Why come back?
"Why not?" Ramirez said.
In theory, the slugger will be eligible to return to the big leagues Wednesday, his 40th birthday, and join the A's on their road trip in Minnesota.
Until then -- and perhaps a few games beyond -- he is a Sacramento River Cat. He is wearing jersey No. 11 and bouncing along his scheduled 10-game trek that has already included stops in Albuquerque and Round Rock, Texas.
It makes for an odd sight, a Hall of Fame hopeful with an estimated $207 million in career earnings toiling in a ballpark that features a heating and air conditioning ad on the center-field fence and a "Hit it Here" promotion from a tire company in left.
"Money's not everything, you know," he said. "As long as you do something you love, it doesn't matter. If you die, you're not going to take the money with you. So enjoy it, live in the present and move on."
Ramirez entered play Friday night with 4 hits in 16 at-bats, having missed one game because of a minor wrist injury. All of the hits are singles. He has also walked twice and struck out five times.
It was more of the same against the Reno Aces. Before an announced crowd of 9,725 at a ballpark that holds 14,014, Ramirez whisked a 90 mph fastball for a single in his first at-bat against Charlie Brewer.
But in his next at-bat, Ramirez tapped a 79 mph curveball weakly back to the mound for what would be an inning-ending double play. He also flied out to right field and popped out to shortstop, finishing his night 1 for 4.
That is hardly the performance of a player who is, as Ramirez described himself Friday, "one of the best right-handed hitters that ever played this game."
River Cats manager Darren Bush said the stats belie Ramirez's progress. In batting practice, he said, Ramirez is "showing power to all fields, really driving the ball." Bush said the next step is maintaining that rhythm and timing against live pitching.
Echoing what the hitter himself said earlier, the manager acknowledged that Ramirez might need more games with Sacramento than originally planned. "We'll have to wait and see," Bush said.
Ramirez, in his meeting with the media, was in no mood to chat. He offered clipped answers and scoffed at speculating about his future. "I don't know, bro, I just want to go and play," he said at one point, with an air of exasperation.
But by all accounts, Ramirez has been an endearing teammate. Michael Taylor, the former Stanford standout, said "he's been an affable, loving person in the clubhouse. ... To this point, he's been a model citizen."
Far from aloof, Taylor said, Ramirez is coaching teammates -- and vice versa. The 26-year-old outfielder said he had the "surreal" experience of having one of his boyhood idols summon him to the batting cage for hitting advice.
Ramirez asked Taylor if his hands were in the correct position.
"I said, 'Dude, I don't know anything you don't know,' " Taylor said.
While Ramirez's timing remains off at the plate, the slugger is "in great physical shape," Bush said. The manager said Ramirez puts in running work hours before each game and takes endless swings in the batting cages.
"Hopefully, these other guys are seeing that," Bush said, referring to his younger players. "They know he's one of the greatest right-handed hitters. Hopefully, they're seeing how much work he puts in to being that good."
In one of the few nods to his status, Ramirez gets his own hotel room on road trips, unlike his teammates who must double-up. Everything else is the same -- Ramirez is one of the guys, just waiting for his shot.
If the minor league life is wearing on Ramirez, it's hard to tell. He was asked if he would be OK sticking around Sacramento a little longer.
"That would be great," he said. "The more at-bats I take, the more ready I get."
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