Manny begins trek toward regaining form

Manny begins trek toward old form

SAN DIEGO -- A journey of 100 at-bats begins with a single at-bat, and for Manny Ramirez on Friday night that at-bat came in the first inning of his return engagement at PETCO Park.

After sitting 50 games for an infraction of Major League Baseball's Drug Policy, Ramirez milked seven pitches from Padres starter Chad Gaudin to draw a key walk during what turned out to be a five-run first inning.

Manny Ramirez

"I thought the walk was pretty amazing," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said after his team closed out a 6-3 victory. "It lets you know what kind of hitter he is, how well he knows the strike zone. He had a 2-2 count and worked the walk. I'd have been a little jumpy if I was him.

"Otherwise, I think he looked OK. There's no question he's rusty. The only way you play this game is to practice it, and he really hasn't had a lot of practice."

Ramirez went 0-for-3 in the wake of his walk in front of a sellout crowd of 42,217, which included a huge contingent of Dodgers fans cheering every one of his moves. He grounded out in both the second and fourth innings and popped out to short center before exiting the game after the top of the sixth. In the field, he caught one fly ball and played a single flawlessly.

That's Chapter 1, over and done.

"It was great," Ramirez said afterward. "I felt a little nervous at first, but once I came to the plate, I was fine. Our guys are playing great. I just try to do my job and follow those guys, play hard and do good things out there."

Unlike last season, when Ramirez carried the Dodgers into the playoffs with a rousing offensive outburst in the two months after he was traded by the Red Sox, now it's evident that he's once again a needed component like he was on the Boston teams that won the World Series in 2004 and '07.

The Dodgers are 30-21 since May 7, the day Ramirez began his suspension, and at 51-29 own the best record in the Majors.

"The team was successful when we played without him," Dodgers backup catcher Brad Ausmus said. "These guys have done a very good job, and our record shows we don't need Manny to be a winning team. However, I think we all prefer that Manny be here."


"The fans will boo. They booed him [Manny] even before all this stuff happened. When you're good, you get booed. I want to get booed."
-- Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp on Manny Ramirez

It was like a mini-carnival Friday night, 120 miles to the south of Dodger Stadium -- where the club doesn't play again until July 16, just after the All-Star break.

Until then, it's a traveling circus as the Dodgers move on to New York and Milwaukee before the break on this nine-game trip.

To be sure, Ramirez will get his fill of jeers as he gets farther away from friendly Southern California.

"The fans will boo," Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp said. "They booed him even before all this stuff happened. When you're good, you get booed. I want to get booed."

But at PETCO Park on Friday night, it sounded much like a Padres road game. If some fans were looking for retribution, it didn't happen.

"From right field, it sounded like it was 50-50," said Tony Gwynn Jr., who, just like his Hall-of-Fame father, is playing that spot right now for the Padres. "The bottom line is, when you're not winning ballgames, less people come out to see you play. We don't like it. We've got to win more games. What it boils down to is a team like the Dodgers are a nationally known team."

"There was a lot of noise," said veteran second baseman David Eckstein, who is in his first year with the Padres. "There's a good rivalry between the Dodgers and Padres. I think with them jumping out early, it kind of set the tone for the game."

Actually, the tone was set before the game, when Ramirez came out to take batting practice. There were some raucous cheers from the early arrivals, and as Ramirez went out to left field to take some fly balls, a cordon of San Diego's 27 finest policemen lined the stands in the left-field corner just to make sure there were no incidents.

There weren't any. The San Diego fans were discrete, and the Dodgers fans were there in enough force.

"We're not that far from L.A.," Torre said. "I drove down, and there were a lot of cars with [Dodgers] banners hanging out of the windows today. It was like driving from Atlanta to Florida when they were going to play that football game [the 1999 Super Bowl in Miami], and you saw all the banners hanging out of the cars.

"It was surprising to me. I thought the Dodgers fans would welcome him, but it was a lot friendlier today than I thought it was going to be."

It wasn't a surprise to Ramirez, though, who said prior to the game that it wasn't surprising "because I'm one of the best players who ever put on the uniform."

"It was great, they were the best," Ramirez said about the Dodgers fans. "I want to thank them for driving down from L.A. to watch me and watch the game. It was unbelievable."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.