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Refocused Manny seeks career encore

Slugger hopes change in mindset leads to positive finish with A's
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona state route that loops around this part of the desert is hundreds of miles away from the now-defunct rowdy section of Dodger Stadium known as Mannywood. It's even farther away from bustling Lansdowne Street behind Fenway Park's Green Monster in Boston.

The 101, as it's known to the locals, is a scenic drive that will carry you past Camelback and McDowell Mountains, the casinos, and nearly every city in the Phoenix area in about 30 minutes.

On Friday morning, a slow section of the freeway served as the background to a game between the A's and the Rockies during extended spring camp at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, and it was the backdrop to Manny Ramirez's new reality.

Ramirez, who is more than halfway through a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy a second time, can't join the A's big league club until May 30, which just happens to be his 40th birthday. Ramirez, says you won't recognize him when he eventually returns.

He certainly looks different.

This Ramirez has a salt-and-pepper gray goatee and a head of mostly grey hair hidden underneath his famous dreadlocks. His jersey in Arizona is No. 98, not the No. 1 he wore during Spring Training or the No. 99 he sported during his days in Los Angeles. Ramirez's shoes, which have No. 14 stitched across the back, were obviously made for someone else. Ramirez gets dressed in the A's complex at Papago Park next to players who are young enough to be his sons, and he's fine with that.

This is Manny being Manny, but it's not the Ramirez that everyone remembers. The old Manny was a dominant offensive force during his peak years. He hit 555 home runs in his 19 seasons, but he also burned bridges after 7 1/2 years with the Red Sox, and almost every team he played with after Boston. The aged Manny just wants to be a good person. He hopes you believe him, but he doesn't care if you don't.

"When you walk with the devil, the walk starts great but ends up badly," Ramirez said. "You walk with God, and although the road starts rough, it ends on a good note. There are a lot of players like me out there. I walked with the devil. You're out in the street and it feels great, but where does your soul go? Nowhere good. I made mistakes. I was dead on the inside."

Ramirez said he was born again as a Christian last year, not long after he was suspended for violating the drug program for the second time and immediately retiring during the first month of the season while with the Rays in 2011. Five months later, he was arrested on domestic violence charges in Florida after allegedly striking his wife, Juliana, in September. The charges were dropped by Broward County State Attorney's office in March because Juliana would not cooperate in the investigation. Ramirez pleaded not guilty to slapping his wife.

Ramirez applied for reinstatement from retirement in December, and Major League Baseball eventually reduced his 100-game suspension to 50 games. He signed a Minor League deal with Oakland in February and has been seeking redemption ever since.

"The steroids and what happened with my wife and not being there for my family, all that had to happen to me for me to fall," Ramirez said. "I would have just kept on going. The life of a big leaguer is full of temptations. You have millions of dollars, alcohol, drugs and all the women you want. You can lose yourself. I got lost."

Ramirez's regimen in Arizona leaves no time for such distractions. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m., walks out the front door at 5:45 a.m. and is on the field with the rest of his teammates for stretching at 7 a.m. Two and a half hours of field work are followed by pregame snack with Manny and usually a question-and-answer session with the 19-year veteran.

"Some big leaguers would come in here and act like they are better than us, ignore us. But that's not how Manny is," said A's prospect Yordy Cabrera. "He talks to us about hitting like a coach, but he also talks about his mistakes and what we should expect in the big leagues. He's sincere. He's not what I thought he would be."

If the prospects need reminders of what Ramirez once was, all they have to do is look at the white Porsche Panamera Turbo parked behind the Ford passenger vans that take them to and from games. Ramirez may be just one of the guys, but he's still a star attraction. In games, Ramirez leads off each inning and then heads back to the cages for more work after five at-bats.

On Friday, a few fans asked Ramirez through the fence, "If he was going to take one deep" and "play the outfield like a Gold Glover" during his final swings before heading into batter's box for his first at-bat. Ramirez ignored them and later grounded out to the pitcher. The observers scoffed and blurted out, "How would you like to be a young kid and have an old man that hasn't been good in four years take all of your at-bats?" within earshot of Ramirez.

"People will talk, and what they say represents what they have in their heart," Ramirez said. "People will judge and make up their minds, but that says more about them than it does about me. It's a blessing to still be playing baseball. I feel great. I'm at peace. I'm not going to worry about people who don't believe me."

How much Ramirez can contribute is up for debate. Some observers have noted that he has struggled to recognize breaking balls and, as a result, has been caught flailing at pitches. He sometimes looks "a tick behind" on fastballs.

"These pitchers are young," Ramirez said. "They throw one up and then low and then outside and then who knows where, and then they throw a strike. They are still learning. I'm still working on timing and trying to see as many pitches as I can."

How Ramirez fits in with the A's is also to be determined. Oakland's offense could use a boost, but the club already has seasoned options at designated hitter with Jonny Gomes and Seth Smith.

"If Jason Giambi is still doing it and Chipper Jones is still doing it, why can't I?" Ramirez said. "Guys like Miguel Tejada and Vladmir Guerrero still don't have jobs, but I do. And I feel like I am here for a reason. It's not just about hitting home runs. Maybe I can impact these kids. Maybe they choose a different road after seeing my mistakes."

Ramirez took five at-bats Friday, picked up his bat bag and began a slow walk to his Porsche. The fans who openly questioned Ramirez's future followed him to the parking lot and asked for an autograph. He declined, got into his car and made his way to the 101.

"You see those fist bumps, handshakes and all that stuff we do in the dugout? All that stuff is fake," Ramirez said. "It's not real. The only thing real you have in your life is God and family."

Jesse Sanchez is a national reporter for Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB.

Oakland Athletics, Manny Ramirez