Manny Ramirez's longer road back

WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The Sacramento River Cats held one of their regular kangaroo court sessions before Sunday's game, which explains why Manny Ramirez was walking around carrying a present bestowed upon him by his young teammates: a box of Just for Men.

They were trying to be funny, not mean, but it could have gone either way. Manny turns 40 on Wednesday, and he looks every minute of it. His dreads are gray under the scarf. His bat looks slow. His eyes, for 19 years sources of misery for pitchers, now seem more indecisive than discerning.

Manny's numbers at this point don't mean much of anything, but they are stark: 10 Triple-A games, zero extra-base hits. Eight singles and seven strikeouts in 32 at-bats. An OPS of .564. The more important indicators, for Manny and the A's, are things like pitch recognition, hand speed and his previously legendary ability to let a pitch travel in the zone before driving it with power to the gap in right-center.

So far, as evidenced by the A's decision to keep Manny at Triple-A past his 10-game rehab asisgnment, they haven't seen enough to believe he can compete at the big league level.

The closest he's come to an extra-base hit is a fly ball to the warning track on Monday afternoon. For the most part, he's been treating his at-bats as observational; on Sunday, for instance, he ran the count full on three of his four plate appearances. He says one of his goals is to see pitches. In that case, mission accomplished.

His suspension is over; the A's could have called him up in time to play Wednesday in Minnesota, but they chose to keep him in Sacramento. They say they want him to be ready to spend the rest of the year in a big league uniform, and nobody -- not even Manny -- is ready to guarantee that.

Everything might look the same -- the deliberate routine between pitches, the stance, the conscious tracking of each pitch into the catcher's mitt -- but it's clear there's a 40-year-old man at the controls. It's almost like watching Manny impersonate Manny. Of course, the world through Manny's eyes is a different world entirely. Where others might see struggle, he sees progress.

"I'm excited that I'm playing every day," he says. "The more I play, the better I'm going to get. I can't expect too much too fast. I have to be patient, keep working hard. The only way it's going to come is to make outs, strike out, work your way back."

Maybe it's not fair to expect much from Ramirez. His recent track record -- starting with the end of his time with the Dodgers in 2010 and extending through stints with the White Sox and Rays -- suggests a return to big league prominence is unlikely. We're prisoners of nostalgia, though, choosing to believe time can be suspended, or rewound, one last time.

Despite the failed tests and the bad behavior and the distasteful manner in which he quit on the Red Sox, there's something endearing about Ramirez. River Cats teammate Michael Taylor calls it the state of being "blissfully oblivious." (Many people have been paid good money over the years to describe Ramirez, and none has done it better than Taylor.) Manny's living in a Holiday Inn. He jokes with his teammates about his drug suspensions. And on Sunday, his rental car was parked in a fire lane outside the clubhouse.

"He's 40, but the way he is around here, you couldn't tell if he was 40 or 19," Taylor says. "I think he'll play as long as someone wants to give him a uniform."

He's apparently not above soliciting opinions from his new -- and presumably temporary -- teammates.

"The other day he was hitting and he asked me what I thought he should do with his hands, if it looked right," Taylor says. "That kind of blew me away. I'm like, 'This guy is asking me for advice?'"

River Cats manager Darren Bush says, "He's right there with the rest of them, doing what they do. Waking up at 4 for travel -- he's there."

The only time Manny's smile fades is when he is asked if unretiring and everything it entails -- the minor leagues, taunts from fans, doubts about whether he can still hit -- made this a difficult decision.

"No," he says. "Why?"

"Well, I don't know," I say. "Maybe because you walked away once before?"

"This is what I do," he says. "This is what I do. Everybody asks the same question: 'Why did you come back?' Because this is what I do."

For a moment, it seems he's forgotten the two suspensions, last year's retirement and the struggles in Chicago and Tampa -- the things that led him here, standing in the hallway outside a minor league clubhouse while one of his friends moves the car.

But then, in response to an unrelated question, Manny says, "You've got to pay your dues."

Asked if he's referring to himself, he says, "When you make a mistake like I did, you've got to pay your dues. You've got to go through a process for a few months -- that's the way it is."

He smiles and shrugs and heads for the batting cage, where a tee and a bucket of balls await. The suspension is over. The A's have decided to give it a little more time. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, Manny says he feels it coming back. He has to be patient, he says. The timetable is not his to set. Dues remain unpaid.

It's shaping up as a slow goodbye.