Reporting from San Diego -- The scene in left field at Petco Park on Thursday was like something out of the Old Testament -- and Manny Ramirez wasn't even there.
The first bizarre episode of what could be an eventful weekend took place on the eve of the Dodgers' series opener at the San Diego Padres' ballpark, as a couple of thousand bees swarmed the area in the outfield that Ramirez is expected to patrol tonight when he returns from a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug policy.
"I have no idea where they came from," said Luke Yoder, the ballpark's head groundskeeper.
Perhaps Ramirez sent them . . .
"If he could do that . . . " Padres closer Heath Bell said, his voice trailing off.
Well, the 52-minute delay in the Padres' 7-2 loss to the Houston Astros might be only the opening act of what Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson described as "the circus."
With Ramirez set to play in his first major league game in 57 days, the often half-empty ballpark will welcome a capacity crowd and as many as 150 credentialed members of the media.
What will unfold is anyone's guess.
"Hard to say," Jason Schmidt said. "I don't know."
On a rehabilitation assignment with the Dodgers' triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque, Schmidt recently recalled the way Barry Bonds was treated in these parts when they played together for the San Francisco Giants.
Schmidt was the Giants' starting pitcher on that April day in 2006 when a fan at Petco Park threw a syringe in the direction of Bonds, who, like Ramirez, was a left fielder.
Schmidt, now with the Dodgers, said he was fairly certain Ramirez wouldn't get such rough treatment.
"It's not quite the same," Schmidt said when comparing their situations.
He said he thinks that because of the number of high-profile players linked to steroids in recent years, fans are no longer as outraged to hear about a player's alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
In fact, Schmidt said, "People are probably tired of hearing about that."
Ramirez hasn't detailed the circumstances that led to his suspension, including why a drug test he took in the spring showed elevated levels of testosterone or why he had a prescription for a female fertility drug that is banned by baseball.
Despite the silence, Ramirez's immense popularity appears intact, so much so that the image-conscious Dodgers will reopen the Mannywood section in left field named in his honor.
Schmidt said that if Ramirez is booed on the road, it probably will be because he's the Dodgers' best player. Instead, Schmidt expects him to receive the kind of ovations Bonds routinely received at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Schmidt added that Ramirez won't be scrutinized the way Bonds was as he chased Hank Aaron's home run record, and that will help.
Coach Mark Sweeney, who also played with Bonds in San Francisco, said that Ramirez also would be less of a distraction to the Dodgers than Bonds was to the Giants.
Manny creating quite a buzz
11:09 PM PDT, July 2 2009
The reason: Ramirez's personality.
Sweeney said he considered Bonds a friend but that not everyone else in the Giants' clubhouse did.
"As a team it's a lot easier to handle the situation when the conversation is positive. Up there, you had a lot of different opinions with Barry," Sweeney said.
"Manny seems to really click with a lot of the guys here."
That was clear Wednesday. Laughter and smiles were everywhere in the Dodgers' clubhouse.
Hudson, though, had one complaint: the number of Manny-related questions he and his teammates would be asked in the coming days.
"Personally, I wish they would bring me on a helicopter and drop me on the field," said Hudson, who nonetheless responded to every inquiry.
On the other end of the clubhouse, Rafael Furcal explained to reporters how the "Free Manny" T-shirt in his locker was placed there by Ramirez.
"Everybody is happy to get Manny back," he said. "Everybody's been waiting for him."
Infielder Mark Loretta was talking about what Ramirez's return would mean to the suddenly low-scoring Dodgers when he realized he had to be more careful with his word selection.
"I can't say shot in the arm," he said.
Loretta laughed and shook his head.
"What a world we live in," he said, laughing some more.
The kidding aside, Ramirez could be returning at the right time for the Dodgers, who extended their lead over second-place San Francisco from 6 1/2 to 7 1/2 games over the course of his suspension on the strength of their pitching.
The Dodgers have scored only eight runs in their last five games and ended a 16-inning scoreless streak Wednesday in their 1-0 victory over Colorado. They hit 24 home runs in their first 29 games but went deep only 35 times in their 50 games without Ramirez.
"With Manny coming back, maybe that relieves some of the stress we've shown trying to score a run," Manager Joe Torre said, adding that he was confident Ramirez would regain the form that made him a 12-time All-Star.
"I think his ability goes far beyond what caused the suspension," Torre said.
However, Torre and General Manager Ned Colletti cautioned that Ramirez might not hit immediately. There were indications that the highly regimented Ramirez was irritated that his workout routines -- a key to his hitting consistency -- were disrupted by the numerous distractions on his five-game tour of the minor leagues.
Last week, Ramirez said his main priorities are to regain his timing and lower-body strength. He said he lost 11 pounds in a two-day period last month when he came down with flu-like symptoms, but that he regained the weight.
"I have to get my legs back," he said. "I have to get used to the speed of the game.
"But my strength is still there."
So, too, are the fans, and he seems to know that.
Last week, reminded of how fans in Los Angeles were in love with him, he said, "They still are. They still are."