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Saturday, July 4, 2009
The Dodgers' 82nd home game

By Tom Friend
ESPN.com

Interstate 5, 55 miles north of Petco Park -- Seven hours before Friday's first pitch, seven hours before Manny Ramirez would either be hailed or booed, Joe Torre was stuck. Torre's rental car was going 0.5 miles per hour -- 54.5 miles under the speed limit -- due to the darndest traffic jam he'd ever seen. The cars in front of him had Dodger bumper stickers, the cars to his side had Dodger flags and the cars behind him had Dodger ping-pong antennae balls … all of them rushing to be by Manny's side.

Two and a half hours later, a ragged, tired Joe Torre pulled into the stadium parking lot and realized he had driven to a new, bizarre place: the Los Angeles suburb of San Diego.

Manny Ramirez
It's 'Showtime': Ramirez, left, and Scott Boras, right, make their way inside Petco Park.
Tony Gwynn Way, 15 feet east of Petco Park -- Four hours before Friday's first pitch, four hours before Manny Ramirez would either be hailed or booed, 100 Dodgers fans crowded around the front entrance to the stadium. One was wearing a Hideo Nomo jersey, one an Eric Gagne jersey, one a Nomar Garciaparra jersey, one a Duke Snider jersey and 13 of them -- including a mother, a child and a grandma in a wheelchair -- were wearing Manny Ramirez jerseys.

A man named Adrian Yanez of Los Angeles -- also dressed in a Ramirez jersey, also fresh off three hours of the freeway gridlock -- could not help but laugh. He looked to his right and did not see one Padres fan. He looked to his left and did not see one Padres fan. And then he opened his palms skyward and said what everyone else was thinking: "Home game."

The Dodgers' clubhouse, in the bowels of Petco Park -- Four hours before Friday's first pitch, four hours before Manny Ramirez would either be hailed or booed, Manny himself stepped foot into the team's locker room for the first time in 57 days.

"Everybody just ignored him,'' said second baseman Orlando Hudson, pausing, pausing é and then cracking up. "Nah, come on, man! Everybody embraced him with love.''

The truth is, Ramirez hugged almost everyone he saw, including Dodgers special assistant Mark Sweeney, who used to play in San Francisco with a certain someone named Barry Bonds.

Bonds, as a matter of fact, had once come to San Diego and had a syringe thrown at him in left field. Might this happen to Ramirez?

"I liked Barry, I got along with Barry," Sweeney said. "But Manny's not Barry. Manny loves being around everybody. It's not like he just hangs with the Latins. He loves being around everybody. He's genuinely a little kid in a uniform. How can you throw a syringe at that?''

Hudson, meanwhile, is asked if Manny looks nervous. And Hudson cackled so loud, they probably heard him on Tony Gwynn Way.

"Come on, maaaaan,'' he said. "Nahhh. Manny's not nervous. He's gonna go out there and roll that pole.''

Manny Ramirez
Ramirez wouldn't part with the shades during his pre-game press conference.
Interview room, in the bowels of Petco Park -- Three hours and 50 minutes before Friday's first pitch, three hours and 50 minutes before Manny Ramirez would either be hailed or booed, Ramirez did what he hates to do: talk to the media.

Suspended May 7 for having artificial testosterone in his body -- and for using the female fertility drug human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG -- Ramirez knew he was going to field uncomfortable questions. In fact, he was so sure of it that he brought uber-agent Scott Boras to the podium with him. Torre was close by, too, standing in the corner of the room, uncertain if Ramirez would handle it all with decorum. He didn't.

Instead, Ramirez acted petulant, almost nonchalant. He wore mirrored shades and chomped on gum. His first words were "Showtime … Showtime,'' and he then made an attempt at saying I'm sorry. He apologized to his fans, his teammates and the person who signs his paycheck (Frank McCourt), but was curt as soon as someone broached the subject of PEDs.

"I'm not talking about that, sir,'' Ramirez said. "I just want to talk about the game.''

Asked why he was wearing shades during an indoor news conference, he answered, "Because I want to.''

Asked if he was nervous, he said, "This is not my first rodeo.''

Asked about his expected level of play, he said, "I am not going to fail.''

Then, he ended it by saying "Showtime'' again -- hinting that something entertaining was about to happen.

Batting practice, Petco Park -- One hour and 45 minutes before Friday's first pitch, one second before Manny Ramirez would either be hailed or booed, Ramirez stepped out of the Dodgers' dugout. The 25 TV cameras, parked on the third-base side, saw him first. And then the fans saw him second.

"Manny! Manny! Manny!'' the two thousand Dodgers fans chanted.

"Steroids! Steroids! Steroids!'' one man chanted.

The one man's name was Alan Renga, from nearby Pacific Beach, a Padres fan, and asked why he'd brought up the steroids, he said, "I can't let it be this one-sided.''

But it was one-sided. Dodgers fans lined the first-base line, including a woman from Rancho Cucamonga, who shouted, "Manny! Oh Gaaaaaawd! Manny!''

Dodgers fans also crowded the third-base line, the left-field line, the right-field line, and especially the bleachers behind left field.

"I can't believe this,'' said a Padres fan in the bleachers, Kerry Tamulis. "We were embarrassed to be wearing our Padres jersey in the parking lot. It was all Dodger fans. They were booing us.''

Out in those bleachers, they cheered Manny every time he shagged a fly ball. They cheered him when he bent over to field a ground ball. They cheered him when he ran in to take a few hacks in the cage. They cheered him when he popped a ball into the cage.

One of these fans, Ray Gutierrez of L.A., was asked what he'll do if a Padres fan dares to try throwing a syringe at Manny.

"We got Manny's back,'' he said. "We got his back.''

Broadcast booth, Petco Park -- One hour before Friday's first pitch, 45 minutes after Ramirez is officially hailed (and barely booed), Tony Gwynn -- Mr. Padre -- shook his head.

"This used to happen when we played the Dodgers at Qualcomm,'' said Gwynn, who would be announcing the game on Padres television. "It'd be 50-50 back then, and it ticked me off, made me want to kick their butts. But tonight's worse. Tonight's … 70-30?''

Home plate, Petco Park -- About 10 minutes after the first pitch, Manny Ramirez stepped up to the plate and was announced to the crowd of 42,217. It was absolute bedlam. The Dodgers fans gave him a standing ovation; an estimated 27,000 of them.

But wait … there was the syringe, after all. It wasn't in the left-field bleachers; it was right behind the Padres dugout, in the first row. A man had tied the syringe on a mini-fishing rod and waved it toward Manny. Immediately, it was confiscated by security.

Out in the bleachers, they simply held homemade signs. The anti-Ramirez signs said:

"Manny Roid-mirez'' and "Ram-Roid.'' All two of them.

Manny Ramirez
Many of Manny's fans traveled to San Diego for Friday night's game, welcoming him with open arms.
The pro-Ramirez signs said: "It's all about the 'dreads, not the Meds'' and "Welcome Back, Manny'' and "We Still Love You.''

Eventually, Padres starter Chad Gaudin got on with the business of throwing a pitch, and the first one nearly hit Ramirez in the stomach. But at 2-and-2, Ramirez looked at a borderline outside pitch and was fortunate to hear that it was a ball. Then, he walked on the next pitch.

"The walk was pretty amazing,'' Torre said. "It was 2-and-2 and he worked the count. I'd have been a little bit jumpy if I was him.''

On the next at-bat, Andre Ethier dribbled a ball to first, and Ramirez slid hard, breaking up the double play and forcing a throwing error (followed by another throwing error) that led to a Dodgers run. The floodgates opened then, and the Dodgers scored five runs in the first, after scoring eight runs in their previous five games.

His next three at-bats were outs -- a ground ball to second base, a ground ball to short and a pop out to the second baseman.

So Showtime turned out to be a hard slide into second base that left a divot on the baseline.

The only place to go is up.

Interview room, bowels of Petco Park -- Fifteen minutes after the Dodgers' 6-3 victory, 15 minutes after Manny has waved to his public, he feels ecstatic, feels relieved, feels "like 200 pounds are off my back.'' He says he didn't hear the boos, whatever boos there were, and he didn't see the syringe. He feels he's been less on a suspension and more on a sabbatical. He apparently heard from Torre that the freeways were a mess today -- all because of him -- and he's beaming now. He's not petulant anymore, not chewing gum anymore, not wearing sunglasses anymore.

"It was great,'' he said. "It was the best. I think I want to thank all my fans. They drove from L.A. just to watch the game and watch me, it was unbelievable.''

Across the way, catcher Russell Martin was saying he'd never seen a crowd like this in his big league career. "It was bizarre -- I mean, it'll be the opposite in New York next week," he said. "We played our 82nd home game tonight. How'd they buy up all those tickets?"

Gaslamp District, 75 feet outside Petco Park -- One hour after Ramirez has left for the team hotel, a Dodgers fan buys a ticket from a Padres fan for Saturday's game. The Dodgers fan offers $40, $20 over face value.

That's how. That's how.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.