Baseball: Manny draws big crowd but is a non-factor Tuesday

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE – The Manny Ramirez circus rolled into town Tuesday night, but despite its attracting boys and girls of all ages, it turned out to be mostly a side show.

Ramirez, an All-Star left fielder doing a pre-return stint in Triple-A before returning to the Major Leagues, made his Albuquerque Isotopes’ debut Tuesday night in front of a record crowd of 15,321 at Isotopes Park.

It was Manny-mania Tuesday in Albuquerque, which has long been a stronghold of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ramirez’s Major League club. Hundreds of fans at the game sported fake dreadlocks in honor of the Rasta-esque Ramirez, including the Isotopes’ mascot Orbit.

But Ramirez, who has hit 533 home runs in the big leagues during his 16-plus-year career, was wholly a non-factor in Tuesday’s game, going 0-for-2 offensively and not getting a single ball hit his way through 4-1/2 innings of play.

Albuquerque first-year manager Tim Wallach said after Tuesday’s game Ramirez had a decent showing.

“I think he looked good,” said Wallach, who himself was an All-Star at the big league level during his playing career in the 1980s and early 1990s. “He said he saw the ball well and he said he felt good.”

Ramirez’s presence took a lot of the polish off what ended up being a fine pitchers’ duel between Albuquerque’s Giancarlo Alvarado and Nashville’s Manny Parra. The difference in the contest was one seventh inning run off Parra that was scored well after Ramirez had been safely and quietly hurried out of the ballpark, giving the Isotopes a 1-0 victory over Nashville’s Sounds.

Despite a sizeable media contingent on-hand to witness Ramirez’s first outing while coming back from a 50-game Major League suspension, Ramirez barely spoke to reporters and was only incidentally available for photos during the Isotopes’ pre-game batting practice, which started nearly three hours before the 7:05 p.m. game time.

About 15 reporters and an equal number of photographers attended Tuesday night’s game – the average Isotopes game might garner the attention of two or three – from outlets such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, MLB Network and ESPN.

Ramirez walked out of the tunnel just a little more than 10 minutes before game-time to a standing ovation. Despite the controversy surrounding Ramirez, his reception was a warm, boisterous one throughout.

“There was obviously a lot of excitement,” Isotope center fielder Jason Repko said. “Anytime you have Manny with you, a positive atmosphere follows him around. He has a positive attitude, a great attitude and he brings a lot of excitement.”

Ramirez gained notoriety as a slugger early in his career with the Cleveland Indians, but was vaulted into legendary status during his stint with the Boston Red Sox, whom he helped to clinch World Series titles in 2004 and 2007, the first of which was the long-suffering club’s first Major League title in 86 years.

After on- and off-field grumbling in 2008, however, the Red Sox sent Ramirez to the Dodgers as part of a three-way trade between those two clubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In early May, Ramirez tested positive for taking a banned substance, for which he was slapped a 50-game suspension. Under the contract between MLB and its players’ union, a player suspended for using a performance-enhancing drug can play a handful of games at the minor league level to prepare himself for his return to the big leagues.

Prior to Tuesday’s outing, Ramirez had generally laid low during his suspension period. Too low, perhaps.

Ramirez looked slow and lumbering, even more so than usual for one of baseball’s slowest runners, not to mention rotund enough to call into question his listed playing weight of 200 pounds. Early in the game, following little more than a few short warm-up jogs, Ramirez appeared winded and possibly out of shape.

His two at-bats weren’t much better.

Ramirez was the lead-off batter for the Isotopes Tuesday — in the Majors, he’s usually third or fourth in the batting order. He struck out on six pitches in the bottom of the first against Parra, then hit a routine grounder to shortstop in the top of the third.

Parra, who would ultimately take the loss Tuesday night for the Sounds despite pitching well enough to win, went right after Ramirez in both at-bats.

In Ramirez’s first at-bat, Parra jumped ahead 1-2 in the count. Ramirez, for his part, watched two average, hittable fastballs go by without so much as twitching his bat.

Ramirez just fouled off an off-speed 2-2 pitch to the right side, then Parra followed with a 91-mph fastball which Ramirez foul-tipped into catcher Angel Salome’s glove for the third strike.

The slugger was more aggressive in his second at-bat, leading off the third inning.

After watching a low, inside slider, Ramirez took a hack at Parra’s second offering, which bounced straight to Nashville shortstop Alcides Escobar, who threw Ramirez out by two full steps.

Ramirez was scheduled to bat in the bottom of the fifth, but was strategically run off the field and into Albuquerque’s clubhouse while the sides were changing halfway through the inning, during the Isotopes’ “moonshot” promotion, in which three tennis balls are fired high into the air by an air cannon to an awaiting fan in left-center, who tries to catch them.

Wallach said Ramirez is scheduled to make at least two more appearances in Albuquerque, tonight and Thursday.

 He may also play Friday at Isotopes Park, the finale in the four-game set with the Sounds, but that determination had not yet been made.

Albuquerque’s Dee Brown substituted in for Ramirez in the bottom of the fifth and, ironically, would drive in the game’s winning run.

Isotope third baseman Luis Maza singled off Parra with one out in the seventh, then advanced to second on a throwing error. Following a walk and a fly out, Brown hit a sharp single into right-center to plate Maza for the only score of the game.

Brown said after the game he had no qualms about giving up his starting slot to Ramirez.

“It’s been pretty cool,” he said of the Manny parade through the Duke City. “It’s nice to have a full house. Obviously, I like it, having a full crowd.”

Alvarado (5-5, 3.10 ERA) picked up the victory Tuesday, going seven innings and giving up just four hits while fanning eight Sounds hitters. Parra (0-1, 1.38) was the hard-luck loser, also going seven innings and allowing just five hits.

Albuquerque closer Scott Strickland picked up his 12th save of the season, fanning a pair of batters in the ninth.

Both the Sounds (41-31) and the Isotopes (36-35) are on top of their divisions in the PCL standings. Tuesday’s win was the Isotopes’ eighth victory in their last 10.

“It’s always good to get on a winning streak,” Repko said. “We got back above .500 for the first time in a month. We like that, but we need to push past that and keep winning.”

Tonight’s game is expected to sell out again. Because of high demand, berm seating for tonight’s game went on sale Tuesday at noon, although berm tickets aren’t usually sold until the day of the game.