Friday July 3rd, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Like every other Hollywood diva who has been in trouble -- Winona, Paris, Lindsay, Nicole -- Manny Ramirez got his own T-shirt. It is white with royal blue script, the words "Free Manny" spelled in large block letters. Ramirez was so taken with the shirt he brought one into the Dodgers' clubhouse weeks ago and hung it in shortstop Rafael Furcal's locker. "I never moved it," Furcal said. "I never touched it." While Ramirez served his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, the T-shirt became a constant reminder of his presence, greeting teammates as they shuffled in and out of the showers.

Ramirez returns to the Dodgers on Friday night in San Diego and he will find out if freedom is all that it's cracked up to be. A player who traditionally likes to hide -- from unruly crowds, probing reporters, demanding authority figures -- will be on full display at Petco Park. He will not be able to sneak into the Green Monster for seclusion. "It's going to be a madhouse," Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson said. "I'd rather take a helicopter in and just set him down on the field."

San Diego is hardly known as a hostile environment, but this is the same place where a fan threw a syringe at Barry Bonds on Opening Day in 2006, and the Padres despise the Dodgers a lot more than they do the Giants. Despite the warm ovations Ramirez received during his minor-league rehabilitation stint, where the locals seemed thoroughly honored by his presence, expect him to be booed loudly Friday, though Dodgers fans making the two-hour drive down from Los Angeles will likely cause the reaction to sound mixed.

More revealing is how Ramirez will be treated in New York and Milwaukee, cities outside the National League West, where the Dodgers are headed after they leave San Diego. The Dodgers seem to be entering a dimension that only the rival Giants can fully comprehend, where their left fielder is cheered at home and jeered everywhere else. Ramirez may be more likeable than Bonds, but he has been no more forthcoming or contrite on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs.

For the Dodgers, activating Ramirez right now feels a lot like when they traded for him last July. He was at the center of controversy then, too, for strong-arming his way out of Boston and bashing the Red Sox front office in the process. He dealt with the ensuing drama mainly by laughing it off and slugging the Dodgers to the playoffs, a form of crisis management he will undoubtedly try to utilize again. "It was crazy when he first came here," said Dodgers first baseman James Loney. "We're built for some craziness."

Specifically, their manager is built for it. With the Yankees, Joe Torre managed Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens, all faces of the steroid era. Torre became famous for limiting distractions and deflecting attention from his players. The heat on Ramirez does not figure to faze him. Torre seems much more concerned about Ramirez's physical condition, and how much he will be able to contribute in the field, than his psyche. "He knows where he fits here," Torre said. "I just have to make sure he's honest with me about how he's feeling. That's the only conversation I'll have with him."

Ramirez will dominate headlines for the next couple weeks, but over the past 50 games the Dodgers demonstrated that they are much more than a one-man show. Since Ramirez left the lineup, they went 29-21, maintained the best record in baseball and actually increased their lead in the NL West to 7 1/2 games. Much of the credit goes to their surprising pitching staff, with the lowest earned run average in the majors, and to the outfielder who had the unenviable task of taking Ramirez's place.

Juan Pierre clearly does not possess Ramirez's power -- or his star power -- but he batted .318 in Ramirez's absence, stole 21 bases and prompted several teammates to push him for the All-Star Game. "In my book, he's an All Star," center fielder Matt Kemp said. Starting Friday, Pierre will return to his role as highly paid fourth outfielder and pinch runner. "I'll be back [to being] invisible," he said.

Still, Ramirez is showing up at the right time for the Dodgers. They have scored just eight runs in their past five games, looking like a team that could use an offensive infusion. With Ramirez, the Dodgers averaged 5.55 runs per game. Without him, they averaged 4.4 runs per game and their batting average sunk more than 15 points. But the Giants, second place in the NL West, could not take advantage.

"It shows how good we are," Kemp said. "With Manny we were good. Without him we were good. Now, he's going to give us that big push."

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