SAN DIEGO --- Manny Ramirez will be back in big leagues tonight after a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy. His return should be nothing short of a spectacle.
It's the start of the Fourth of July weekend, and thousands of blue-clad Los Angeles Dodgers fans are expected to be at sold-out Petco Park to support the dreadlocked slugger in the opener of a three-game series against the San Diego Padres.
Harry the Heckler will be there, too.
"Oh, it's going to be a lot of fun," said Harry Maker, who for years has been ragging on opponents from his seat in left field. "I was hoping that we could have at least one slugger in the game that wasn't tainted. Now Manny has just disappointed me, and he's going to have to pay for it. I am not going to let up all weekend long."
Ramirez's ban was based on evidence he used human chorionic gonadotropin, a fertility drug that's banned by baseball, a person familiar with the suspension said after the suspension was announced on May 7, speaking on condition of anonymity because those details were not released. HCG is popular among steroid users because it can mitigate the side effects of ending a cycle of the drugs.
Ramirez, who playfully said, "I'm baaaaack!" after re-signing with the Dodgers during spring training, largely avoided reporters during his minor league rehab assignment. It's uncertain whether he'll formally address the media before today's game.
When he visited Dodger Stadium in early June, he said he was ready to move on and didn't want to be a distraction.
"I didn't kill nobody, I didn't rape nobody, so that's it, I'm just going to come and play the game," Ramirez said.
"Manny's used to distractions, anyway, but I think the players will be happy to have him back and I think they understand what goes with that," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said Wednesday. "But this game is full of distractions. And if we don't win games, we're certainly not going to use that as an excuse. That's for sure."
"I think the Dodger-Padre series down here always brings a little bit more energy but I think this will be heightened because of Manny, because he is one of the true lightning rods in the game today," San Diego manager Bud Black said. "I guess our fans and the game itself will benefit from that."
There's always plenty of Dodgers fans in the ballpark when the NL West rivals play at Petco Park.
"I wouldn't be lying to say that when he steps to the plate here he's going to probably feel like he's at home," said Padres reliever Cla Meredith, who's been disappointed with the dwindling crowds during San Diego's dismal season. "There's no doubt about it."
Meredith, an ex-GreenJacket, seems fascinated by what he called "one of these rare occasions" in which a player has drawn interest "over this event that's really negative and detrimental to himself and the game. It's really kind of taken on a new life of its own. I've never seen, really, something like this."
"Fans like him," he said. "And so he's never really had too much negative stuff about him. He's kind of done his own thing in his career ... And fans are drawn to him. I can see why."
THE MANNY FACTOR
Dodgers' record with Manny Ramirez in 2009
Dodgers' record without Manny Ramirez in 2009