SACRAMENTO -- Manny Ramírez found a seat on the dugout bench a few hours before the first pitch last Friday night, creating a media clamor rarely seen at minor league ballpark
Fans filtered into seats. Vendors hawked MannyMania T-shirts and MannyDreadlock wigs (both $20 apiece). Opposing players craned their necks for a glimpse at the 12-time All-Star.
As for Ramírez? He was the calmest guy in the ballpark -- Manny Being Mellow.
Ramírez sounded in no rush to join the Oakland Athletics and made no promises that he would be physically ready next week when he will be eligible to be reinstated after serving a 50-game drug suspension.
"I'm just leaving everything to God. He knows when I'm going to come up," Ramírez said. "I ain't got no worries -- just take a day at a time and go and enjoy myself."
Raley Field, the cozy home of the RiverCats, was supposed to be the last stop on the Ramírez comeback trail. The former American League batting champion is permitted 10 games in the minors, a spring training of sorts, as he inches closer to joining the roster of the power starved A's.
But early indications are that it could take a little longer for the designated hitter to shake off the rust. Ramírez has not played in the majors since retiring in April of 2011 rather than serve a 100-game suspension for violating baseball's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.
That suspension was reduced to 50 games during the winter, clearing the way for the Athletics to roll the dice one of the era's most talented and controversial players.
Ramírez has 555 home runs, a .312 career batting average, an American League batting crown -- and a rap sheet that includes two drug suspensions, clashes with managers and teammates and an incident in which he shoved the Boston Red Sox's elderly traveling secretary to the ground.
Why come back?
"Why not?" Ramírez said.
In theory, the slugger will be eligible to return to the big leagues on Wednesday (May 30), his 40th birthday, and join the power-starved A's on their road trip in Minnesota.
Until then -- and perhaps a few games beyond -- he is a Sacramento RiverCat. He is wearing jersey No. 11 and bouncing along his scheduled 10-game trek that has already included stops in Albuquerque and Round Rock, Texas.
It makes for an odd sight, a Hall of Fame hopeful with an estimated $207 million in career earnings toiling in a ballpark that features heating and air conditioning ad on the center-field fence and a "Hit it Here" promotion from a tire company in left.
"Money's not everything, you know," he said. "As long as you do something you love, it doesn't matter. If you die, you're not going to take the money with you. So enjoy it, live in the present and move on."
Ramirez entered play Friday night with 4 hits in 16 at-bats, having missed one game because of a minor wrist injury. All of the hits are singles. He has also walked twice and struck out five times.
It was more of the same against the Reno Aces. Before a less-than-sellout crowd in a ballpark that holds 14,014, Ramirez whisked a 90 mph fastball for a single in his first at-bat against Charlie Brewer.
But in his next at-bat, Ramirez tapped a 79 mph curveball weakly back to the mound for what would be an inning-ending double play.
That is hardly the performance of a player who is, as Ramirez described himself Friday, "one of the best right-handed hitters that ever played this game."
RiverCats manager Darren Bush said the stats belie Ramírez's progress. In batting practice, he said, Ramírez is "showing power to all fields, really driving the ball." Bush said the next step is maintaining that rhythm and timing against live pitching.
Echoing what the hitter himself said earlier, the manager acknowledged that Ramírez might need more games with Sacramento than originally planned. "We'll have to wait and see," Bush said.