I was going to put together some thoughts detailing the circus-like atmosphere here at Dodger Stadium today/tonight, but given the late hour and how much else I still have to write (like tonight’s game story), I figured I’d just post tomorrow morning’s story for the hard copy of the paper for your perusal now. Enjoy…
LOS ANGELES — His face and name are displayed all across this megalopolis, from the billboards hovering over the interstates to the signs around Dodger Stadium welcoming fans to “Mannywood.”
In a town that knows how to hype celebrities, he sits right there on the “A” list with other stars of sports and Hollywood who are recognizable by first name alone. Kobe. Jen. Brad. Angelina. And Manny.
Since his arrival on the West Coast last summer, the gregarious, larger-than-life Manny Ramirez has transformed the Los Angeles Dodgers from merely a good, solid ballclub to perhaps the major leagues’ best team.
As Dodgers president Dennis Mannion put it: “His bond, his magic and his charisma with the fans is overwhelming.”
All of which made Ramirez’s fall from grace Thursday — a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy — the kind of news event that captured the attention not only of the sports-viewing public but of all those celebrity-obsessed gossip shows and websites that dominate this city.
The scene at Chavez Ravine leading up to the Dodgers’ game against the Washington Nationals — who gladly handed over the spotlight of negativity to the opposition for a change — was something of a circus. The news of Ramirez’s suspension, first revealed during the morning rush hour, had plenty of opportunity to circulate and take on all kinds of new angles by the time players, media members and fans descended upon Dodger Stadium for Thursday evening’s game.
It culminated in foul territory behind the plate at 4:30 p.m., with a semicircle of dozens of cameras and reporters engulfing manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti as the two addressed this bombshell.
“I was sick and saddened,” Colletti said of his initial reaction when he learned late Wednesday night his star left fielder would be suspended for two months.
Torre spoke over the phone with Ramirez earlier in the day and sensed genuine regret from the player who had come to embrace his role in the Dodger clubhouse and in the Los Angeles community.
“He really loves it here,” said Torre, who addressed his team during a closed-door meeting before batting practice. “He loved the fact that these fans just get turned on by him. His personality really matches up with them. He was devastated.”
As all this played out under the Southern California sun, the rest of the Dodgers took BP only a few feet away and the Nationals began emerging from their clubhouse to stretch. Some glanced over at the unusual proceedings with curiosity. Others just tried to ignore it, though everyone had a reaction upon hearing the news.
“Anyone who’s played with him, it’s a little shocking,” said Washington reliever Joe Beimel, who played with Ramirez in Los Angeles last year. “Hard to believe.”
The Manny saga grew as the day wore on, beginning with a morning report on the Los Angeles Times’ website revealing that Ramirez would be suspended after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. That was soon followed by press releases issued by MLB (announcing the suspension was for violation of the league’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program) and then by Ramirez himself, who claimed to have received medication, not steroids, from a doctor in Miami for a “personal health issue.”
“Unfortunately, the medication was banned under our drug policy,” Ramirez said in his statement. “Under the policy that mistake is now my responsibility. I have been advised not to say anything more for now. I do want to say one other thing; I’ve taken and passed about 15 drug tests over the past five seasons.”
The 36-year-old outfielder’s story, though, quickly was called into question by a stream of news reports. Yahoo! Sports cited a source who said the drug Ramirez was prescribed was to treat erectile dysfunction. ESPN.com and the Associated Press countered by reporting Ramirez was caught using HCG, human chorionic gonadotropin, a women’s fertility drug that can be used by men seeking a testosterone boost after coming off a steroids cycle.
No matter what Ramirez was guilty of taking, he won’t be back on a major-league field until July 3 at the earliest. He stands to lose about $7.7 million of his $25 million salary, part of the massive contract he signed with the Dodgers during spring training after a protracted dispute with the McCourt family which owns the storied franchise.
The specifics of those contract talks, though, had recessed into the nether reaches of everyone’s minds in Los Angeles after Ramirez exploded out of the gates to hit .348 with six homers and 20 RBI. His contributions helped spur the Dodgers to the majors’ best record, including a record-setting 13-0 mark at home entering Thursday night’s game.
“I want to apologize to Mr. McCourt, Mrs. McCourt, Mr. Torre, my teammates, the Dodger organization, and to the Dodger fans,” Ramirez said in his statement. “L.A. is a special place to me and I know everybody is disappointed. So am I. I’m sorry about this whole situation.”
The Dodgers moved quickly to remove many of the Ramirez references sprinkled throughout the ballpark and the city. There were only trace signs of his visage by game time, not to mention a suspension of the “Mannywood” promotion that allowed fans to buy two tickets and two T-shirts in the left-field corner for $99.
“We looked at Manny as a whole and how Manny is affected throughout our business operation,” Mannion said. “And we made that decision this morning.”