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Mixed emotions in Manny's return

BOSTON -- Watching Manny Ramirez take batting practice at Fenway Park was like taking a trip down memory lane.

His Dodger blue jersey was incongruous, but everything else about Ramirez in his first game at Fenway since the Red Sox traded him away in 2008 was the same, right on down to his disheveled appearance, with baggy uniform pants, no helmet and inverted back pocket hanging out.

Ramirez gave a few cheering fans a playful point of recognition before he stepped into the cage where he turned serious in the box. Before each pitch, he gave the plate a hard tap, made a single windmill with his bat and then squared up each ball, spraying liners to all fields.

Among his cuts Ramirez sent a one-hopper careening off the Green Monster a mere foot away from the open door he once disappeared into during a pitching change. He drilled a liner into the left-center field gap near the spot where he made the most needless cutoff in baseball history, diving to intercept an on-target throw made a few dozen feet away. And he launched a moonshot over the Monster and onto Landsdowne Street, evoking remembrances of arguably his most famous homer as a Red Sox, the walk-off winner blasted off Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez in Game 2 of the 2007 American League Division Series.

But not all of his return to Fenway -- a 10-6 Red Sox victory in which Ramirez, as designated hitter, went 1-for-5 with a single and two strikeouts, including the game's final out -- was a rosy encapsulation of his hitting prowess and quirky antics. When Ramirez approached the plate for the first time, the sellout crowd of 37,723 gave him a pretty evenly mixed reaction of loud boos and standing-ovation cheers.

No player is as polarizing as Ramirez.

In seven and a half seasons in Boston he batted .312 with 274 home runs and a .999 OPS, the third-best in franchise history behind Ted Williams and Jimmie Foxx. He was a key cog in the Red Sox's first two World Series titles in 86 years, even earning Series MVP honors in 2004.

But Ramirez quite literally pushed his way out of town. His aloof personality, injuries of questionable merit and late arrivals to spring training were perennially grating, and the final straw came when he shoved the team's 64-year-old traveling secretary over an apparent disagreement about tickets.

The fans' reception for Ramirez accurately portrayed the strained relationship between player and his former club. Ramirez didn't tip his cap or make any in-game acknowledgement of the fans, nor did he address the media other than to say "no thanks" when asked after the game if he'd answer a few questions. The Sox in turn made no public address announcement welcoming him back to town, offering only a scoreboard highlight video in the middle of the second inning which few fans seemed to notice.

"I don't think it was that bad," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said of the greeting given to Ramirez. But he later added, "I thought it was going to be better."

Mixed emotions remain so prevalent in part because both the Dodgers and Red Sox have received good returns on the trade. Both clubs reached their respective league championship series in 2008. Los Angeles has the best record in the National League and fourth best in the majors since the trade, going 163-120 (.576), including 114-77 (.597) in games Ramirez started. Boston, on the other hand, has the second-best record (.599) in that time span.

Before the game scores of reporters, photographers and fans with pregame field passes camped around the visiting dugout, waiting in anticipation for Ramirez to make his first public appearance in the park. Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp ascended the steps, hailing his arrival with the repeated proclamation of "Not Manny! Not Manny!" much in the way a Biblical leper would forewarn his presence with "Unclean! Unclean!"

The intriguing question, of course, hovering over Ramirez all week was whether Boston fans would treat him like a leper or a prodigal son. There was precedent for both: Johnny Damon was booed voraciously in his return as a Yankee, though as Dodgers manager Joe Torre -- at the time Damon's skipper in New York -- noted, "The Yankees uniform is a little bit different." Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, meanwhile, having returned with the Athletics and Mets respectively, were celebrated as returning heroes.

Ramirez's middling reception was due to his more acrimonious departure than Garciaparra's or Martinez's. It didn't help that Ramirez was quick to trash his Red Sox experience, telling the Los Angeles Times soon after his trade, "I was unhappy for eight years in Boston but still put up great numbers." And then his career was tarnished when he received 50-game suspension for use of a banned performance-enhancing substance in 2009. He was also implicated in a New York Times story that reported Ramirez was among those who failed a drug test in 2003.

On Friday afternoon Ramirez entered Fenway's visiting clubhouse almost exactly three hours before the first pitch, welcomed at his locker by teammate Ronnie Belliard ceremoniously pulling out Ramirez's chair, as if preparing the seat for royalty. The two of them and pitcher Vicente Padilla chatted in Spanish for a short time, but Ramirez said nothing in English other than after he looked at the clock at 4:25 and then announced, "We're going to have a meeting at 4:30. Media out."

Ortiz was the other half of Boston's power-hitting Dominican duo and seemingly Ramirez's best friend on the team, but even Ortiz downplayed the storyline of seeing his former teammate all week, saying the two rarely hung out away from the ballpark and adding, "I haven't talked to him in a while. I even had problems talking to Manny when Manny was here."

When the two saw each other on the field during batting practice, however, they were all smiles, giving each other the classic brotherly greeting of an interlocking handshake and half-hug. The two were linked again in the bottom of the first inning when Ortiz homered for the 274th home run of his Red Sox career, coincidentally tying him for fifth alltime in club history with -- who else? -- Ramirez.

Ramirez's own at bats were nothing special. He flied out lazily to center field on the first pitch he saw. He lined out to right field on the first pitch of his second at bat. He softly lined a single to center in his third plate appearance and then struck out looking in his final two times in the batter's box, the last of which ended the game with the tying run on deck.

And with that strikeout Day 1 of Mannypalooza managed to end on the one note Boston fans could agree on: a Red Sox win.

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