Saturday July 4th, 2009

1. Well, this is what the rest of the career of Manny Ramirez looks like: the guy is more notorious than ever, which in today's culture just happens to mean he is more popular, "notoriety" having lost its true meaning. It was a very successful debut Friday night in San Diego for Ramirez as a confirmed user of a banned drug. Hitless? Yeah, so what? It was successful because Ramirez was cheered roundly by the thousands of Dodgers fans at Petco Park (Padres fans booed, but without much conviction, as if playing a role) and because Ramirez knew he got away with almost no accounting for his actions.

Ramirez did his 50 games, took a $7 million hit, kept silent for the most part and he is home free. He will not be called in front of Congress or the commissioner. We still don't know why he had an elevated level of testosterone or a female fertility drug in his system, whether he was a serial steroid user or had the unbelievably bad luck of getting caught the first time he sought help for his little "medical issue." We're still waiting for the first big league player to use his "mistake" as an opportunity to speak out for a drug-free game. Mark McGwire? Alex Rodriguez? Hello?

It won't be Ramirez. The road is clear ahead for him now. All the media talk about the "distractions" in the Dodger clubhouse is outdated nonsense, the walking-on-eggshells environment around the Giants with Barry Bonds no longer applicable because so many big stars have been tied to PEDs. Fans can't work up the anger anymore, and who can blame them?

It's on to just baseball now for Ramirez, and that success could take time. He looked different Friday night. His hair was longer, he appeared heavier, he wasn't wearing his mouthpiece and his swing was rustier. Ramirez missed pitches that in a week or two he should be crushing.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre pulled Ramirez in the sixth inning with a healthy lead, and maybe we will see more of Ramirez grabbing some pine. He turned 37 years old during his suspension. There are only five active players that old who have played enough to qualify for the batting title, and two of them are hitting under .200 (Jason Giambi and Brian Giles. The others are Raul Ibanez, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome).

Will Ramirez, now busted, act more like his baseball age? Or will he continue to be a hitting savant bucking the trend of baseball skewing younger? We just don't know, in part because even with a failed test, we don't know the extent of Ramirez's PED use. On Friday night, and for the foreseeable future, most people didn't care, either.

2. It's hard to make much sense of the fluky season by Mets third baseman David Wright, who has hit only five home runs, struck out a ton, and has a ridiculous .448 batting average on balls he puts into play. Wright did admit, however, that the spaciousness of Citi Field, his home ballpark, has caused a slight change to his approach.

"On counts like 2-0, 3-1, you're less likely to just zone in on one spot to really turn on something," Wright said.

It's the Petco Park effect all over: you can hit a ball square and it still might not go out, so why bother trying? "So you'll take your line drives in those situations and use the field," Wright said. "The outfield is so big you can drop hits in front of outfielders and balls in the gap are more likely to be doubles and triples."

Wright has three home runs at home and two on the road.

3. Remember when people put stock into being in first place on the Fourth of July? That was a couple of expansions and an expanded playoff format ago. Does it still hold true in a six-division world? Well, no. Some numbers on what it means to hold at least a share of a playoff spot on July 4 this decade:

• Of the 75 teams holding at least a share of a playoff spot, 42 actually made the playoffs, a 56 percent conversion rate, and that's after seven of eight leaders converted last year. Looking at 2000-08 division leaders only, they were slightly better: 65 percent.

• Since 2000, every franchise has held a playoff spot on the Fourth of July except four: the Orioles, Marlins, Astros and Pirates.

• Now the flip side: huge comebacks after the Fourth of July are rare. Only three teams, all of them from the AL, have been more than six games out of playoff spot on the Fourth and wound up in the postseason: the 2006 Twins (nine games out of the Central), the 2007 Yankees (eight out of the wild card) and the 2001 Athletics (eight out of the wild card).

The bottom line: the adage doesn't work as well any more. The races are still very much up for grabs among 23 of the 30 teams. Only the Orioles, Royals, Indians, Athletics, Nationals, Padres and Diamondbacks (all of whom are more than six games out of a spot) are essentially done. We've played half a season to eliminate just seven teams. It's a happy Fourth of July for almost every club in baseball.

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