Commentary

Business as usual in Manny's return

Other than the hype and red caps, Ramirez's first game back was rather uneventful

Updated: July 4, 2009, 11:02 AM ET
By Eric Neel | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- There were some odd features to the Dodgers-Padres game Friday night at Petco Park, no doubt.

Both teams wore red caps in honor of the Fourth of July, for example, making the game -- won by the Dodgers, 6-3 -- look like a Texas Rangers split-squad affair in March.

The press box and the stadium seating were both SRO for an early July game between a division leader and an also-ran sitting 15 games back.

A five-run first inning by the visiting team inspired cheers and dances in the crowd.

And oh yeah, one of the great right-handed hitters of all time returned to action after a 50-game suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs, which of course you don't see every night.

[+] EnlargeManny Ramirez
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesManny Ramirez was the center of attention, but did nothing spectacular Friday.

But for all the turmoil surrounding Manny Ramirez's positive test and subsequent suspension in May, and for all the anticipation leading up to this cool Southern California evening in July, maybe the most remarkable thing about this night was that it wasn't very remarkable at all.

Ramirez held a pregame press conference and said he was sorry for letting his fans and his teammates down, he was eager to get back on the field, and he wanted to move on. Nothing new in that.

He played cards with his friend, Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal, in the clubhouse before batting practice, and they did their secret handshake in the dugout before lineups were announced. All business as usual.

Out on the field for warm-ups, he stretched his left leg when Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Brendon Huttmann asked everyone to stretch their right legs. And he pulled his right arm back behind his head when Huttmann called out "left arm." Gotta believe that's happened a time or two before.

Manny hit balls into the Padres' bullpen during batting practice. Los Angeles fans lined up three deep behind the Dodgers' dugout, hoping for a glimpse of him. He drew boos from Padres fans each time he stepped to the plate.

He intimidated San Diego's starter Chad Gaudin into throwing a 3-2 slider off the plate in his first at-bat, and later broke up a double play. He grounded out to shortstop. He chewed his chew and windmilled his bat and bobbed his knees in the box. He popped up to second base and he gave way to Juan Pierre in the bottom of the sixth inning with the Dodgers up 6-1.

Same ol', same ol'. Just a night at the ballpark, just a run-of-the-mill midsummer game.

We want to make something of a night like this. We want to think of it as some kind of reckoning -- the exiled transgressor meets the judgment of the people head-on. We want to imagine it as a measure, of the public's anger, of the people's indifference, of the player's regret or his teammates' wariness. We want a night like this to mean something, to reveal something. We want it to resonate, to have implications.

We want drama on a night like this. We want someone to be a hero and someone to be a villain. And we want the issues that have hovered over the game for these last several years -- issues of fairness and ethics, of legacy and legality -- to become more clearly defined or somehow better understood.

But that's not how it plays. Even with the matching red hats, it plays like just one game in a long season full of games.

The truth is we won't know for a good long while what Ramirez's return means for the Dodgers or for baseball.

Will he be the same hitter he was before the suspension? Will his young teammates once again feed off his energy the way they did last summer?

Will he try too hard to prove he's back and struggle, or will he be motivated by critics and doubters and go on a tear?

What will his legacy be? Is his the last chapter in the story of the so-called steroids era?

Will his apologies and the time he's served in suspension feel appropriate or unsatisfying over time? We don't know.

These are questions answered over the course of the next several weeks and months and seasons of Ramirez's career. The answers to these questions will be arrived at after the fact, in reflection. They were, no matter how closely you looked, nowhere to be found on a night like this.

Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Eric Neel | email

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Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.