- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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LOS ANGELES -- Dodgers manager Joe Torre got the call about Manny Ramirez's 50-game suspension for the use of a banned substance from Dodgers owner Frank McCourt late Wednesday night. "Somebody punched a hole in the balloon," Torre said at a press conference at Dodger Stadium on Thursday afternoon.
They had been flying so high. Thirteen straight home wins to start the year and a 6½-game lead in the National League West.
Everybody was hitting. The pitching staff was coming up big. Ramirez was ad-libbing the Mexican hat dance for fans in the left-field corner (a section of the stadium the team recently had named and marketed as "Mannywood") on Cinco de Mayo and slugging his way to a 1.133 OPS through the first 29 games.
Then came the news.
"I was waking up and my phone rang and a friend told me what had happened," said Tony, a longtime Dodgers fan who bought his first season tickets this year, as he was walking into Dodger Stadium on Thursday. "It hurt. It still hurts right now and it's gonna keep on hurting, I think."
You could find people in L.A. who were angry at the news Thursday. A caller on sports talk radio called Manny stupid. A poster on an L.A. Times discussion thread said this is "Just Manny Being Barry." A local columnist blasted him for being a "cheater." A father and son walked stone-faced up to the outfield gates of Dodger Stadium with a handmade poster that read "Go Dodgers! Go Away Manny!" A guy behind me in line for a hot dog talked about new Mannywood supergraphics hanging on the sides of buildings on Flower and Figueroa streets downtown and said "That s--- has to come down."
But most folks were just sad.
Jaime Jarrin, the Dodgers' Spanish-language broadcaster for the past 50 years, walked by the batting cage on the field before the game and barely whispered: "Hello, my friend. This is a hard day, no?"
Chris, who wore a Sandy Koufax jersey and had come to the game with his wife and three children, looked out over the center-field grass from Autography Alley and remembered playing ball when he was younger, when it had nothing to do with drugs or money, when it felt simple. "It feels different than it did then," he said, pausing for a long breath. "Now you always wonder what's coming next?"
Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti, after a reporter asked whether he had ever had any inkling that Manny might be using a banned substance, whether he had ever heard any rumblings, quietly shook his head.
Bertha, whose grey curls and wrinkled cheeks told me she'd seen it all in her time, clutched a new No. 99 jersey outside the Dodgers team store and said with half a smile, "He plays with so much joy. I want to tell my grandkids I know he has a good heart maybe tomorrow."
Dodgers first baseman James Loney, who celebrated his 25th birthday Thursday, stood in the dugout before heading out to stretch, shrugged his shoulders some and lifted his eyebrows above the lenses of his sunglasses. "What can we do?" he asked. "We can't do anything. We can just play today. And again tomorrow."
Luis, who comes to the park for every game dressed up as Manny -- complete with hat, head scarf, dreads, shades and baggy white uniform -- stepped out of his car on Stadium Way, tapped his heart with his fist two times and said, "I feel it here."
Catcher Russell Martin whistled a tune but couldn't sustain it, and eventually just grabbed a bat and headed to take batting practice.
Assistant general manager Kim Ng hugged Xavier Paul, the rookie the Dodgers called up to take Ramirez's spot on the roster for the next two months, and told him to take a deep breath.
A guy sitting in field-level seats down the left-field line wore a black T-shirt with white block letters on the back that read simply, "Say It Ain't So."
My 7-year-old daughter, T -- who came to the game with me and who sleeps with a Manny-autographed ball in a clear plastic box on her bed stand -- turned to me in the third inning and asked, "Wasn't he strong enough to do without them, Dad?"
Anger is easier. Cleaner. More cathartic.
Sadness surrounds you, lingering in the hot evening air. It makes you think. It's something you try to get through.
People were down Thursday night, but a whole lot of them still wore their Manny jerseys, T-shirts and wigs to the ballpark.
Maybe that's blind fandom and cynical self-interest: As long as he comes back and hits home runs it'll all be good. Maybe they're so sick of the steroids story they don't care anymore who took what or when or why, and their get-ups are a kind of wordless critique of those who remain fascinated with evidence, guilt, and punishment. Maybe they're just in denial, clinging to the way things felt Wednesday night, when Manny had seemed like the avatar of all their good fortune. Maybe it's all that.
And maybe it's some of this too: As sad, angry and disappointed as the fans are by what Ramirez has done, people around here are also seeing themselves in Manny right now.
I asked a punked-out girl sporting a studded belt around the waist of her Ramirez jersey why she wore it, as we rode down the escalator from the loge to the field level Thursday night. She answered, barely turning her head and with a quick, sharp tongue, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, "Come on, we've all done things."
I asked Torre what he felt when he learned Manny had tested positive and he said: "I go back to the person. As tough as it is for us, it's pretty tough for Manny, too. I know he's the one that did the wrong thing, and nobody's trying to cover that up, but it's something I know he's sorry about."
I asked Tony the newly minted season-ticket holder, as he was pulling his Dodgers cap down snug over his faux dreads, if he didn't feel betrayed. "I do, but I feel responsible, too," he said. "It's his mistake and he has to pay for it, and I hate that he did it. But maybe we did it to him, too. We wanted him to be more and more. We wanted home runs every time he stepped to the plate. We wanted him to be Superman, and aren't none of us Superman."
And then I asked Chris, the fan of Koufax, if maybe this was something that would push him away from the game and from the Dodgers once and for all, and he shook his head.
"He knows the rules and he broke them and that really disappoints me," he said. "But he's a Dodger and it isn't always easy but I'm a Dodger fan; I'm a Dodger too, you know?"
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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