LAKE ELSINORE, Calif.—More than 20 years ago, legendary boxing trainer Angelo Dundee was asked about the "Ali Circus," the tumultuous cadre of freakish hangers-on who continually surrounded Muhammad Ali.
Dundee replied, "Nothing ever bothered Muhammad. After awhile, I got used to things being bizarre . . . Bizarre was normal."
Bizarre was once again normal on Saturday at the Diamond, home of the Padres' high Class A affiliate, the Lake Elsinore Storm of the California League. The Storm's opponent was the Dodgers' Cal League club, the Inland Empire 66ers, accompanied by virtuoso soloist Manny Ramirez.
A sellout, and one might argue, sell-out crowd of 8,099 was on hand, many present for the sole purpose of Manny idolatry. Several fans were bedecked in Manny jerseys and Manny dreadlock wigs. The majority of the crowd seemed blissfully unconcerned that Ramirez was nailed earlier this year by Major League Baseball for violation of its ban on performance-enhancing substances.
Ramirez is serving a 50-game suspension, and as his reinstatement looms, he has been "rehabbing" in the minor leagues. His first stop was at Triple-A Albuquerque, and last weekend Ramirez descended on the Cal League, obviously closer to Los Angeles.
Reporters from all levels of the journalistic caste system were present, including ESPN and prominent Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke down to a rather talkative young man whose side job is running a lacrosse Website.
The Dodgers are exceptionally P.R. and image conscious. Club vice presidents Kim Ng and Josh Rawitch have trailed Manny during his minor league stints. Ng and Rawitch were on hand, presumably, to make sure that no one, public or press, asked Manny any questions. Heaven forbid Ramirez would actually have to account for his conduct.
A contortionist performed on the field between innings, once displaying the remarkable and somewhat gruesome ability to slide his entire body through an unstrung tennis racket. No word yet if the Dodgers have hired the contortionist to explain why Manny was busted for possessing a prescription for a female fertility drug.
Two hours prior to the game, Ramirez joined his temporary teammates in stretching exercises. He wore a white undershirt, standing out distinctly from his blue-shirted cohorts. Of course, Ramirez need not wear a different shirt to stand out. His trademark dreadlocks now reach the mid point of his back, and he is the first hitter I have ever seen whose BP headgear is not a cap or helmet but a bright blue do-rag.
I stood a few feet from Ramirez and marveled at his 220-pound physique. During a game, Manny wears a baggy uniform which serves to hide his build from the TV cameras. The size, bulk and definition in the muscles of his upper body and arms are remarkable, reminiscent of a Michelangelo statue.
Ramirez is not a tall man—I'd guess he stands about 5-foot-10—but as he stood on the first-base line during the national anthem alongside the youthful Inland Empire squad, he appeared twice as broad across the chest and back as any other player.
During batting practice. Ramirez took four rounds in the cage, and his timing was discernibly off. He squared up a few pitches, but for the most part he was hitting lazy fly balls and topspin grounders.
After Ramirez completed his pregame outfield sprints, dozens of fans pressed against the railing of the stands along the first-base line begging for autographs. Manny started to head toward the dugout but suddenly veered over to the fans. Both Ramirez and the Dodgers realize a good P.R. gesture when they see one. Hordes of cameramen soon followed.
Ramirez batted leadoff in the Inland Empire lineup, penciled in as the DH. In his three plate appearances, he faced Nick Schmidt, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound lefty who was a first-round pick out of Arkansas in 2007.
Schmidt missed the entire 2008 season due to Tommy John surgery, and spent the first half of this season at low class A Fort Wayne. Ramirez was the first batter Schmidt faced at high Class A. Welcome to the Cal League, kid.
I stood directly behind home plate with a radar gun on each pitch in all three Manny plate appearances:
#1: Leadoff, top of first, no score. Schmidt backs Manny off the plate and gets a called strike on the inside corner with an 87 mph fastball. The next pitch is a change. Manny is slightly fooled, and his weight gets out on his front foot ever so slightly. He is still able to drive the ball deep into the left-field corner, where it slips over the fence, despite some topspin, for a solo home run.
It should be noted at this point that Plaschke wrote a column for the next day's paper called, "Cheat Thrills." Chock full of righteous indignation, his column claims Manny heard "not one boo" during the evening. On that point Plaschke was dead wrong. I was on the lower level for each Ramirez at-bat, and while cheers were predominant, there was no mistaking several loud boos every time Manny strode to the batter's box. One fan, with no fear for his personal safety, stood up and yelled "GO BACK TO BOSTON!"
#2: Top of the third, no outs, man on first, score 1-0 Inland Empire. Manny takes an 88 mph fastball and 76 mph curve for a strike, getting in an 0-2 hole. Schmidt then throws the mother of all waste pitches, sailing an 87 fastball off his catcher's glove to the backstop; 1-2 count, runner now on second. Schmidt delivers his best pitch of the night, a beautiful backdoor 76 mph curve that appears to catch the outside corner and freeze Manny.
The umpire calls the pitch a ball, squaring the count at 2-2. Perhaps only a hitter like Ramirez gets that call in his favor. Next is an inside 90 mph fastball for a ball to run the count to 3-2. That pitch was thrown in order to set up the full-count pitch, in which Schmidt attempted to back door the curve again. This time he clearly missed the plate, issuing Manny a walk.
Ramirez eventually scored a run. His baserunning episodes on the night could make up a slapstick comedy. He waddled from first to third on a double that any non-pitcher or non-catcher should have scored on; he later came home on a base hit.
On first base after his third at-bat, Ramirez misjudged a long drive to center that was snagged by Storm center fielder Brad Chalk. Running like a man late for a train, Manny stumbled over second base while retreating and was thrown out at first, despite a double-pump relay throw by second baseman Keoni Ruth. It can be said with authority that at this point in his rehab, Ramirez's bat is well ahead of his baserunning.
#3: Leadoff, top of the fifth, score 4-0 Inland Empire. Schmidt misses inside with both a 73 mph curve and 85 mph fastball, falling behind 2-0. I have no idea what the next pitch was or how fast it came in. I do know it went off the bat at 101 mph, a rocket that skipped off the pitcher's mound and into center for a single, forcing Schmidt to do an impromptu tap dance.
Manny's exercise for the evening ended after his baserunning misadventures. Entourage in tow, he played two more games at home against Rancho Cucamonga and is slated to rejoin the Dodgers on July 3 at San Diego.
A noisy mob of fans congregated outside the entrance to the visitors clubhouse. After emerging, Manny obliged a lucky few with autographs. Ramirez glumly worked his way through the crowd and then entered a large white SUV, riding shotgun.
Manny did not answer any questions from anyone. The circus was over.