Just forcing Manny to commute from Los Angeles on a combination of the 10, 71, 91, 215 and 15 freeways seems like punishment enough for failing a steroid-related test.
But if Manny is willing to play ball at The Diamond, a stadium just four freeway exits from my own palatial estate, I am willing to meet him the rest of the way. And besides, I’m always up for a good sideshow, especially when it involves hot dogs and ice cream cookie sandwiches.
Saturday night’s game features host Lake Elsinore Storm versus Manny’s team-of-the-moment, the Inland Empire 66ers who are based in San Bernardino. The game sells out days in advance, with even lawn seating going for $6 a pop, but I plan ahead and splurge the extra $4 for a front-row box seat directly behind home plate.
Hey, if actor Jack Nicholson can be a devoted Lakers super fan, faithfully sitting courtside night after night, then I, the Jack Nicholson of Inland Empire weekly humor columnists, can support my own home team, enduring seven to nine innings of a baseball game, give or take, depending on traffic.
The game doesn’t start until 7PM but the joint is already hopping by 5:30 when a near-capacity crowd watches Manny step into the cage for batting practice. Manny is easy to spot since he’s the only multi-millionaire in dreadlocks and a “Hello My Name Is . . . ” sticker on his uniform.
“Whooosh!” goes Manny’s bat, sending an eye-level screamer into center field. Onlookers hoot their approval and shake their homemade signs. “Thwack!” explodes another practice baseball. Then another. And another.
“Welcome back Manny!” shouts an eager fan in a curly black wig. I imagine a shudder going through Manny’s performance-enhanced torso, his idea of “back” not exactly being exiled to an 8,000-seat stadium, line-driving distance from a two-bit casino and an outlet for Pottery Barn.
Now granted, each of Manny’s swings is far more impressive than anything I will ever muster with a rented bat and stack of quarters at Fiesta Village. But out of Manny’s nearly two-dozen practice hits, only one baseball clears the outfield wall. I start to think maybe performance enhancers aren’t such a bad idea.
Once the actual game starts, Manny fittingly leads off as the designated hitter. On the second pitch and his first swing, Manny crushes a 23-year-old’s changeup over the left field wall. After one at-bat, Manny is batting a thousand for the 66ers and it seems that he might have a successful post-steroid future after all (as long as he keeps feasting on Class A pitching).
It’s an away game for Manny’s rent-a-team, but this may as well be Mannywood as the entire stadium rocks and roars during his homerun trot.
Let other writers point out the hypocrisy of sports fans unconditionally embracing a player suspended for cheating. Let them demand a public apology from Manny or remind the rest us about the harmful effects of steroids. I get the fascination with Manny. I really do.
Manny’s not a role model. He’s a motorcycle ride without a helmet. He’s a double hot-fudge sundae or a spur-of-the-moment trip to Graceland.
Maybe he’s not the responsible choice or a practical long-term solution, but life is already filled with enough responsibility and practicality. Sometimes after a long day of $3-a-gallon gas prices and radar-enforced speed limits, we just want to see someone hit a baseball really, really far.
And that’s what Manny is for us. He’s the exception to the rule that is slowing killing our outlaw spirit, day by electronically scheduled day, minute by overly regulated minute.
Manny has two more at-bats on Saturday, drawing a walk in the third inning, hitting a single in the fifth and then getting thrown out at first base because he apparently forgets how many outs there are.
Someone seated behind me says, “That’s just Manny being Manny.”
We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Contact Jeff Girod at firstname.lastname@example.org