Manny Ramirez will return to Mannywood on Thursday night as his comeback from a 50-game suspension for a positive drug test continues at Dodger Stadium against the Astros. The Dodgers open a nine-game homestand that continues through July 26, so there will be plenty of time for Ramirez's faux dreadlock-wearing fans to hail him from the Mannywood section of the lower left-field stands in fair territory. The promotion -- two T-shirts and two tickets for $99 -- is back on track for the first time since Ramirez was suspended May 7 for what turned out to be the use of a fertility drug called human chorionic gonadotropin. And like Dodger Stadium as a whole Thursday, the roughly 500 seats are expected to be sold out.
"We welcome him back with open arms, but we aren't glorifying his return," Charles Steinberg, the team's executive vice president of communications, told The Associated Press. "The magic of the return is the embrace from the fans that will see him again. We're keeping the focus on the team, of which Manny is an integral part." The homestand also includes a long-ago scheduled Ramirez bobblehead night next Wednesday, July 22, against the Reds -- a game that's also expected to have a fan in every seat. Manny has weathered his return both mentally and physically as well as anyone could have anticipated. After a five-game Minor League rehab stint, Ramirez returned to the Dodgers' lineup on July 3 at PETCO Park in San Diego, where at least half the crowd of 42,217 seemed to be blue-clad L.A. fans who made the trek 120 miles south down the San Diego Freeway. He didn't have a hit that night in four plate appearances. Manny's initial three-stop return before the All-Star break included sets in New York and Milwaukee, where Ramirez told waiting media what he said in San Diego: He wasn't going to talk about drugs or his suspension. He had already apologized to the fans, Dodgers ownership and his teammates, and he didn't need to explain anything further. The 50-game suspension was tough, Ramirez said. "But it's over. I'm moving on." And move on the slugger has. After a slow start, Manny's batting .379 (11-for-28) with three homers, two doubles, nine RBIs, a .471 on-base percentage and a .759 slugging percentage in the nine games since his return. He's been ejected from one game, but he's hit safely in his past six. That's a more torrid pace than the .348 batting average, six homers and 20 RBIs he had in 27 games on May 6, the last day he played before his suspension.
At that point, the Dodgers were leading the National League West by 6 1/2 games, and at the break, they led the second-place Giants by seven.
The change at the plate seemed to come last Wednesday in New York's Citi Field against the Mets, when Ramirez went the other way for a home run into the first row of the right-field seats -- an estimated 345 feet away in a new ballpark that is reputedly tough to hit homers in.
"That home run to right field stayed in the air a long time," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "That let me know his rhythm was coming back."
The Brewers caught the brunt of the Ramirez resurgence last weekend in Milwaukee, leading manager Ken Macha to say he wasn't surprised by Manny's output after a long layoff because he has been a consistently dangerous hitter throughout his career.
"I remember seeing him back in Cleveland," Macha said about a player who came up with the Indians in 1993 and left after the 2000 season to sign with the Red Sox. "At that time, I was the bench coach with Oakland, and I think he had maybe 40 at-bats against us one year and hit three ground balls. The rest of them, he had that stroke where he was hitting line drives or homers. So I've seen a few of those."
A year ago, the Dodgers were a 54-54 team, neck-and-neck with the D-backs for the division lead at the July 31 Trade Deadline. Only minutes before the witching hour, they obtained Ramirez from the Red Sox.
Ramirez went on to bat .396 with 17 homers and 53 RBIs during the last two months of the regular season, and then he hit .520 with four postseason homers while leading the Dodgers into their first NL Championship Series since 1988. They lost, though, to the eventual World Series-winning Phillies in five games.
This year, with Juan Pierre subbing for Ramirez in left field, the Dodgers went 29-21 sans Manny in the lineup, proving to themselves that they could thrive without their highest-impact player.
"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."
Since his return, Ramirez has revved it back up into full gear. On Friday night at Miller Park, Manny hit his 536th career homer, tying him with Yankees switch-hitting great Mickey Mantle for 15th on the all-time list. In typical Manny fashion, the milestone homer was really no big deal.
"It feels good, but it's just like another home run," Ramirez said after the game, a 12-8, 10-inning Dodgers victory. "It makes me proud, but it's just another home run that I hit. I didn't even know I tied him."
Next up is Hall of Fame Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt in 14th place with 548 shots.
"Manny's a special talent, there's no question. So was Mickey, obviously," Torre said. "With his ability -- and I know there's going to be some questions for the rest of his career -- I'm not sure you can question how many he hits. It's how far they go, I think [that's the performance-enhancing drug affect]."
Regardless, with the big return in San Diego and the homecoming in front of Los Angeles fans about to be under his belt, the Dodgers hope that life with Ramirez will begin to have a semblance of normalcy. Unlike in San Diego, the Dodgers aren't expecting a big national media throng nor a playoff atmosphere Thursday night.
They are anticipating a big home crowd, generating a lot of excitement for No. 99's return to Mannywood.
|"The magic of the return is the embrace from the fans that will see him again. We're keeping the focus on the team, of which Manny is an integral part."|
|-- Dodgers executive vice president of communications Charles Steinberg|
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.