Manny, Dodgers hope to shrug off controversy and just play ball

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It was meant as a friendly farewell from one of the game's true gentlemen, but it also served as a fitting reminder that the circus that accompanied Manny Ramirez to New York will be downgraded to carnival for Wednesday's second game, and to street fair by the series finale on Thursday. The game's biggest lightning rod made his maiden voyage into the storm that is the world's media capital for the first time since his return from a drug suspension and emerged unscathed.

That -- even more than the 8-0 win over the Mets -- was the best news the Dodgers could have gotten. For the sooner Ramirez and the Dodgers are able to find a return to normalcy, the sooner their left fielder will shake the sense of discomfort that Torre has seen in him since he came back, and the sooner Ramirez will be able to focus on being the loose clubhouse presence and dangerous middle-of-the-lineup hitter that can carry a team deep into the postseason. In other words, Manny can focus on being Manny.

Of all Ramirez's many accomplishments since coming to Los Angeles, this may be the most amazing of all: he has made everyone around him long for a return to the days where the biggest controversy surrounding him was his hair length or, at worst, how hard he ran out ground balls. Not that the Dodgers have been adversely affected by his absence -- they went 29-21 while he served his 50-game ban -- or struggled to adjust upon his return (they are 3-1 since he came back). But the Manny saga has nonetheless left an unmistakable and potentially distracting cloud hovering over the Dodgers, and it is one in which they will be eager to get out from under as they sprint toward the NL West title.

The Dodgers still must visit 10 more National League cities before this season is done, but aside from their always-charged visits to San Francisco, the worst of the vitriol Ramirez is likely to face has passed. To be sure, the games with the archrival Giants -- a fan base that knows a little something about scandal-ridden, slugging left fielders -- will be an unpleasant experience for Ramirez, but he is unlikely to encounter the combination of media pressure and a vocal, sizable contingent of enemy fans that he encountered in Queens. And despite Torre's insistence that "I thought the boos were pretty loud," Ramirez's reception was far more tame than had been anticipated. That is due in part to the fact that the crowd quickly forgot about Manny in order to turn their venom on the woeful home team, and the fact that Manny is both a native New Yorker and a Dominican in a city that has always cheered its Dominican sports heroes. "What can I say? I'm blessed," he said. "Wherever I go, fans like me."

Not all fans. To be sure, there were signs, literal and otherwise, that Manny is in fact still seen as baseball's new villain. There was the placard with the syringe on it behind home plate and the catcalls from the stands that Manny said he didn't hear. "It's not hard for me [to ignore the boos]," he said later. "I just have to play my game and move on."

That he did, delivering a pair of run-scoring base hits, then moving on to the clubhouse after being ejected by home plate umpire John Hirschbeck for throwing his elbow pad toward home plate after being rung up on strikes for the second time in the game to end the top of the fifth.

Ramirez insisted he was coming out of the game in the fifth inning anyway ("He told me that, too," Torre said. "I wasn't aware of that.") but he had already demonstrated that his swing and his eye did not suffer from his 50-game layoff. His two hits were vintage Manny, hard hit and to different fields, and he stated afterward that his first punchout came on a ball well off the plate, which it was.

If Ramirez looked comfortable at the plate, Torre feels he is less so everywhere else. "I don't think it's a growing sense of frustration, it's getting back in that competitive mode," said Torre. "I think he's still uneasy with all the attention he's gotten since he's come back. I don't think he's comfortable with that yet."

Ramirez, in his inimitiable Manny Being Manny style, laughed off suggestions that he was uncomfortable. But Torre, as astute a judge of player moves as any manager baseball has ever seen, insists his star is "uneasy." "He was very jumpy," Torre said of the past few days. "He wouldn't admit it but I could just see he was very uneasy."

As always he looked perfectly at ease in the batter's box, and is now 3 for 10 with a home run and three RBIs in three starts since his return. He has reclaimed his No. 3 spot in the Dodgers lineup and the No. 1 spot among the team's most dangerous hitters. "Did we miss him? Of course we did," said Dodgers first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz, a teammate of Manny's in Boston as well. "He's the big bopper we need in the middle of the order. We play better with him, we play more relaxed."

Perhaps Manny can relax now, too. Despite his protests to the contrary, it is clear that all he wants to do, as Torre said Manny told him when he arrived in L.A. last summer, is "play baseball and go home." The controversy he's engendered has peaked and will only dissipate the rest of the season. "Let's move on," Torre said in a message that could have been meant for everyone from the media to the fans to his own embattled star. "Let's move on."