The Mannywood saga hits a dramatic climax tonight (10 p.m. ET on MLB.TV), for today is the day when Manny Ramirez returns from exile and to the Dodgers following his 50-game suspension for violating MLB's drug policy."We're looking forward to having Manny back," manager Joe Torre said earlier this week, following with a second understatement. "I think he'll add something to our lineup." Although the Dodgers have held the National League West lead just fine without him, July 3 is a date everyone in Dodger blue circled on the calendar as a red-letter day, knowing it would mark the next chapter in a story that from its first moments has been one of triumph and tragedy, laughter and anger, joy and pain. At PETCO Park in San Diego, Ramirez will return to the field having served the punishment set out for him by his sport, and a new scene will play out in a riveting epic. Whatever one might think of how he got here or what he's done, a superstar, a member of the 500 Homer Club and a 12-time All-Star is back in action tonight. Former NFL quarterback Troy Aikman knows something about being a superstar and coming back, although any comebacks he had were from concussions and that sort of setback, not performance-enhancing drugs. A three-time Super Bowl winner, NFL Hall of Famer, TV analyst and now a minority partner in the Padres' ownership group led by Jeff Moorad, Aikman said Thursday he's among those happy to see Ramirez back in the fold. "I think it's great that he's back," Aikman said. "He's a big draw. The one thing you learn, if you don't know it as a player while you're playing, you certainly know it when you go into television: The stars are what drive the sport. And we need as many of the stars out there playing as we can get. Him coming back, that's good for baseball." Mannywood: There's a lot of this stuff you just can't make up. "Manny Being Manny" is what it became in Boston, and it used to be funny. Last summer, the Red Sox didn't think it was funny anymore. A year ago today, Mannywood wasn't even on the map, but there was a storm brewing. By July 3 of last year, Ramirez had gotten into a dugout disagreement with Kevin Youkilis and was accused of knocking a longtime club employee to the ground. Soon, he'd be accused of ducking out of a game by feigning a knee injury, and the Red Sox, it was later revealed, were considering suspending him. Meanwhile, the Dodgers were 41-44 on July 3 and were looking for a boost. At the 11th hour of the July 31 Trade Deadline, they got that and more in a deal that generally had Dodgers fans and Red Sox fans feeling good about what they got out of it, with young slugger Jason Bay landing in Boston in a three-way swap that included the Pirates. The most sensational trade in years propelled both the Dodgers and the Red Sox to the brink of the World Series. Ramirez batted .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs the last two months and then .520 with four postseason homers in leading the Dodgers into their first NL Championship Series since 1988. "He got us there. If he's not there, no chance," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. The intriguing plot continued through a winter of negotiating discontent that lasted all the way to spring, when Manny, his superagent, Scott Boras, and the Dodgers hugged it out at the Dodgers' new Spring Training facility in Phoenix with a two-year, $45 million deal that was close to what was being discussed all along. When the season began, Mannywood officially became the name of a cheering section at Dodger Stadium, with two tickets and a t-shirt for $99, matching his uniform number. Also, 90090 was registered as Dodger Stadium's ZIP code after No. 99 re-signed with the club.
NL West standings
The love affair was dressed to the nines -- and then Mannywood shook it to its very core on May 7. That's when Ramirez, batting .348 with six homers at the time, was suspended for using a performance-enhancing drug later identified in media reports as human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG), which he said was a female fertility drug prescribed by a doctor. After apologizing to Dodgers owner Frank McCourt and his teammates, Ramirez began working out and preparing for his return. Mannywood: It's a story that transcends geography. After taking a wrong turn that fateful day in May, the Mannywood saga took the proverbial left turn at Albuquerque made famous by Bugs Bunny. How it played in Albuquerque in general was one big hug for the one-named superstar, all before a national audience. "I had someone tell me just the other day, 'You know what, we know what he did, but he paid his price and he's playing for our team, so we're going to support him,'" said John Traub, general manager of the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate. "In our community, we don't get the chance to see anything like that very often." No, this wasn't your normal Minor League rehab assignment. It may sound like a circus, which in some ways it was, but Traub said something interesting happened in the middle of all of it. "We're always big on entertainment and the atmosphere in the stadium, being in the Minor Leagues, but it really became about baseball," Traub said. "Any time he was in the public eye, the focus was on Manny and what he was doing on the field. Everybody was sitting on the edge of their seats for every pitch, just to see what's going to happen." Ramirez's two-game visit -- part of five games he played in the Minors, with the other three coming for the Inland Empire 66ers -- provided a big boost for a franchise that reconnected an affiliation with the Dodgers that lasted three decades until 2000; parent and affiliate were reunited this season. With more than 54,000 seats sold over the games Ramirez played, Isotopes Park was buzzing like never before. "It was an amazing experience for all of us, I think, to be a part of something like that, something that really put Minor League baseball and our community in the spotlight," Traub said. The franchise plans to turn its Mannywood experience into more good, as well. Isotopes owner Ken Young last Friday presented a $10,000 check to the Taylor Hooten Foundation, dedicated to fighting the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In addition, Traub said the Isotopes uniforms Ramirez wore are safely tucked away, signed by Ramirez, and they will be auctioned off for charity in a silent auction at a later date. The visit did more than just show Ramirez was on his way back to Chavez Ravine. "I think it's a little bit of a window into what's going to happen when he returns to Dodger Stadium," Traub said. "It sounds as though they'll be very receptive there, just like our fans were here." Mannywood: It plays in every town a little bit differently. San Diego -- and New York, and Milwaukee, the other two Major League cities on this first trip back for Ramirez -- certainly figure to be different than Albuquerque or L.A. "It'll probably be a little more animated because of Manny's arrival," Padres manager Bud Black said of Friday's game at PETCO. "As far as for me and the team, more thought goes from the media standpoint and the fans nationally than it does for the players on the field." Like any team, the Padres' focus is on their team, their fans and their venue. "You've got a player who was suspended coming back from suspension," said Padres president and COO Tom Garfinkel. "He's not chasing his 3,000th hit or 700th home run. We want to beat the Dodgers. That's what's exciting about this weekend. Full crowds here at PETCO. We'll have the uniquely San Diego experience." Indeed, Harry Maker, a San Diego fixture known as Harry the Heckler, will be waiting for Ramirez in left field. "Oh, it's going to be a lot of fun," Maker told The Associated Press. "I was hoping that we could have at least one slugger in the game that wasn't tainted. Now Manny has just disappointed me, and he's going to have to pay for it. I am not going to let up all weekend long." With 150 media credentials requested and a sellout crowd, the Fourth of July fireworks won't be the only explosive attraction on Friday night at PETCO Park. Following the road trip, Mannywood itself officially will be open for business again on July 16, when the Dodgers host the Astros following the All-Star break. The promotional plan was temporarily shelved while he served his suspension, but it returns when he does -- by popular demand. Until then, it's going to be more hostile environs for Ramirez and the rest of his Dodgers teammates. In other words, just another scene in Mannywood. "Manny's used to distractions anyway, but I think the players will be happy to have him back and I think they understand what goes with that," Torre said.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, The Grind. National reporter Barry Bloom contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.