|Manny Ramirez, like Mike Piazza and many others, is making a late-career stop in Oakland. (AP)|
PHOENIX -- Early morning, Oakland clubhouse. Breakfast cereal. Coffee. Chatter.
Lots of chatter.
Which of these players is not like the others?
Which of these players does not belong?
Easy. The fact that Manny Ramirez is here, on the far end of this room, occupying a corner locker, is absolutely unconscionable.
He is a two-time, performance-enhancing drug cheat (that we know of, maybe more). He consistently has left a mess for others to clean up everywhere he's been. He knocked Boston's traveling secretary, then 64, to the floor during an argument in 2008. He was arrested on a domestic assault call last September when he allegedly slapped his wife.
"Hey, how are you doing?" Manny asks, smiling, when he sees me.
"You look funny in green," I tell him.
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He laughs. I laugh.
Then we talk.
Yes, he allows, he was surprised to get another chance.
"But you know something?" he says. "When you're in God's path, all things are possible."
It's true. Manny has found God since we last saw him.
Many people do not believe you should be getting another chance, I tell him. And frankly, I continue, I'm one of those people.
"When you come to God, he says to you that whatever you did in the past is erased," he says. "You become a new man in the eyes of God.
"You see what's going on in this world. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. A lot of bad stuff. If you don't have God in your heart, you're not going anywhere. You could have money, you could have 700 home runs, but you're not going anywhere."
I believe in second chances. But Ramirez got his when he returned to the Dodgers following his first suspension in 2009.
I believe in redemption. But when he was suspended again last April, after Tampa Bay extended a hand in good faith and was pulled into his sewer, a major-league baseball field should no longer be a place where Ramirez seeks it.
He wasn't even man enough to face the Rays then. He called and asked that his belongings be boxed and shipped to him.
"Do you go to church?" Ramirez asks me. "What the Bible says is you are not supposed to judge. You have to look at yourself first. It's right there in the Bible. Read it.
"The Bible says if you steal, that's bad. If you use drugs, that's bad. If you're married and you have another woman, that's bad. If you take your friend's woman, that's bad.
"If you follow those basic paths, you're going to be good. The past doesn't matter. If you go to the Hall of Fame and you're not a good person when God calls ... if you go to the Hall of Fame but lose your soul, what are you going to accomplish? You're going to burn in hell.
"Last year I was with Tampa. Where I am now is Oakland. Everything you do passes."
Few have ever known that truth more than Manny. As long as there is one enabler -- and in this case it's Billy Beane and the Athletics -- accountability can be stiff-armed again.
I know the A's rationale. This is completely low-risk. At most, they'll only owe him a pro-rated share of the $500,000 he signed for, maybe $380,000, because he will be on the suspended list until May 30. They can boot him without paying him at any time, for any reason. If he can't play, if he's a bad influence, whatever, they can dispatch him. I get it.
But how they look themselves in the mirror each morning, I don't know. This is the kind of message you want to send to your young players? To your fans? To your community? That you'll open your arms to a selfish, me-first guy who consistently breaks rules? On the diminishing chance that, at 39, he can still hit?
Every at-bat he gets this spring will be an at-bat taken away from one of Oakland's younger hitters, around whom the A's supposedly are rebuilding.
He should be on deck right now to serve a 100-game suspension, by the way, not a 50-gamer. But baseball let him slide basically over time served, and took mercy on him because he's such a dope. When he bailed on the Rays last season after learning of another dirty test, he immediately retired. The Rays still had 157 games left. Had he simply gone away and not placed his name on the retired list, he already would have served that 100-game suspension.
So baseball, figuring that because of the "retirement" he now will have been sidelined for 207 games instead of 100, reduced the suspension to 50 games.
"That's why, if you don't have God in your heart, you do stuff like that," he says. "You make decisions emotionally."
The math works fine. But still, it is an awful precedent to set, and the take away for many around the league is that Manny gets another rule bent in his favor.
"The way I look at it is, he's breaking the rules," one player who requested anonymity told me. "The rules already have been broken now."
On the other hand, "he did his suspension, and he's obviously going to do his suspension this year," A's catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "He's here to play baseball."
"Your hair can be whatever frickin' color you want it to be," veteran Jonny Gomes said. "When you hit 550 homers in The Show, you can have an upside-down, backward Mohawk and wear a unicorn T-shirt. If you've hit 550 home runs, you've got some knowledge."
Anyway, back to Manny.
Since returning from his first suspension in 2009, he's batted .277 (150 for 542) with 22 home runs and 86 RBI in 172 games. With Tampa Bay last year, he was 1 for 17 through five games.
He's older now, and been away so long.
Can he still hit?
"Why not?" he says. "What's impossible for the man is not impossible for God."
Obviously tied in with that question is another that is closely related.
"Are you off the juice now?" I ask.
"I'm here," he says.
He got religion five or six months ago, he says. The timeframe coincides approximately with his arrest following the quarrel with his wife.
"It's become a blessing, man," he says. "That you can't even describe. All doors open where I go. It's unbelievable. When you're on God's path, it's unbelievable."
A moment later, we're briefly interrupted when a clubhouse guy approaches and, I swear, tells Manny some flowers have arrived for him in the executive offices, from somebody in Boston, and where does he want them?
"Go ahead and bring them down," Manny tells the guy, smiling.
So much baggage, so much dirty laundry left in Boston ... Los Angeles ... Tampa Bay ... and yet, still, so many flowers and no apologies. No regrets.
"Naw," he says. "I don't think so. Stuff happens in your life. God lets that happen so you can learn and become a better person."
He's so at peace it does not even rile him that, across the Valley, Ryan Braun beat the same system that tripped him up.
"That's not my problem," he says. "His last name is Braun. Mine is Ramirez. I worry about Ramirez. That's what I do."
One year ago in the Rays' camp in Florida, I remind him, he playfully asked me to put in a good word for him. Then, a few weeks later, he tested positive.
Is that going to happen again?
"Only God knows," he says.
No, that's not true, I tell him. You actually can know what you put into your body.
"You're right," he says. "You're right, there.
"But God knows what you're thinking before you're even thinking about it."
Honestly, I can't help but like Manny, despite everything. I always have. I hope he stays right with God, and I hope he lives happily ever after with his beautiful wife and children and finds sustained peace, happiness and health.
But I still think he should find all of that elsewhere. It is a privilege, not a right, to play major league baseball. And he's left so many messes and burned so many people, he long ago should have lost that privilege.
Right is right, and wrong is wrong.
And this is wrong from every angle.