- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

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 sports fans but of the celebrity gossip shows and Web sites that dominate this city as well.

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 time 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 a semicircle behind the plate at 4:30 p.m., with dozens of cameras and reporters engulfing manager Joe Torre and general manager Ned Colletti as the two addressed the 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 on the phone with the 36-year-old outfielder earlier in the day and sensed genuine regret from the player who had come to embrace his role in the Dodgers’ clubhouse and in the Los Angeles community.

“He really loves it here,” said Torre, who addressed his team in 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.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the Dodgers players took batting practice a few feet away, and Nationals players came from their clubhouse to stretch. Some glanced over at the unusual proceedings with curiosity. Others just tried to ignore them, 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, Ramirez’s teammate in Los Angeles last year. “Hard to believe.”

The saga began with a morning report on the Los Angeles Times’ Web site 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 violating the league’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program and then by Ramirez, 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.”

Yahoo Sports, however, 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 human chorionic gonadotropin, a female fertility drug that can be used by men seeking a testosterone boost after coming off a cycle of steroid use.

No matter what Ramirez took, 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. Ramirez exploded out of the gates this season to hit .348 with six home runs 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.

“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 quickly removed 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.”

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