Round Rock is a small, quaint, central Texas town about half an hour north of Austin on I-35. Among plenty of Whataburgers and Dr Pepper advertisements, there’s Dell Diamond, home of the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate, the Round Rock Express. It is the area's biggest attraction. While the experience of watching a game there is delightfully rife with all the charming bells and whistles characteristic of minor league baseball, some additional form of entertainment is necessary to supplement the rotating cast of no-names and kinda-names competing on the field. At Dell Diamond there's a different promotional event between every half-inning, including a hype crew that tosses T-shirts and stuffed baseballs into the stands. An especially long home run to right field runs the risk of hitting a rock climbing wall, landing in a bungee jump pit, or splashing into a swimming pool. Before the game begins, the PA announcer plays "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" on a harmonica (UPDATE: this was actually a video of an elderly Stan Musial), and on the JumboTron a "rock"-themed pop culture montage features clips of Dwayne Johnson riling up a rabid wrestling crowd and Sean Connery welcoming Nicolas Cage to Alcatraz.
On Sunday night, they had Manny Ramirez, who was making his debut as a DH for the Express after spending the first part of 2013 in Taiwan with the EDA Rhinos of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. It's yet to be determined whether Ramirez's eccentricities are better suited for Taiwan or a conservative Texas suburb that named its baseball team after Nolan Ryan. While the team's faithful are enthusiastic at the opportunity to see one of baseball's biggest personalities play in such an intimate setting, it's going to be hard to top this as far as excitement goes.
The Express have one of the most dedicated followings in minor league baseball. This year they've drawn more in attendance than any other team in the Pacific Coast League, and on Sunday evening a hearty 8,910 fans turned out under an overcast sky to see Ramirez. Batting fourth, he came up in the bottom of the second inning to a spirited ovation. Some fans stood up, others held their camera phones in the ready position. After the initial swell of cheers subsided, someone drunkenly yelled "Man-nay!" as the slugger dug into the box. Ramirez roped the first pitch he saw from hard-throwing Royals prospect Yordano Ventura into right field for a single, and there was more standing and more cheering. At first base he was quick to share a laugh with Ben Broussard, a former big league journeyman himself. (In case you've been wondering what ever happened to Ben Broussard, he's playing first base and batting cleanup for the Omaha Storm Chasers.) The next three Express hitters struck out and Ramirez strolled back across the field to the dugout, his trademark nonchalant swagger fully intact.
Ramirez's last at-bat on U.S. soil before his single Sunday came in 2012 as a member of the A's organization. With Triple-A Sacramento he hit .302 with no home runs before being granted his release after 17 games. Before that, in 2011, he had one hit in 17 at-bats with the Rays. He then failed a drug test and opted to retire instead of serving the suspension. After a stint in the Dominican League this past winter, he signed with the Rhinos and headed to Taiwan. He posted an impressive line of .352/8/43 in 49 games before calling it quits and heading back to the States on June 15. A little more than two weeks later, the Rangers, who have been in desperate need of an extra bat all season, signed him to a one-year minor league deal in hopes that the 41-year-old could recapture some of the "Mannywood" magic he brought to the Dodgers in 2008 and 2009. Rangers GM Jon Daniels called the signing a "no-risk flyer," which is good because at this point it's all but impossible to know what to expect from the 12-time All-Star. In a show of commitment to the club, Ramirez curtailed his Rasta/Predator mane of dreads down to a more trim but still unclassifiable high fade/neck-length mini-dread combo in order to comply with Rangers' minor league policy. "Attitude is everything," he told the press following his Round Rock debut. "Just keep your mind positive and good things will happen."
The Express plated the game's first two runs in the bottom of the third before Ramirez ended the inning with a weak ground ball to short. Two innings later, shortstop Yangervis Solarte doubled in another run to make it 3-0, priming the crowd for Ramirez's third at-bat. After a conference on the mound to calm down Ventura, Ramirez struck out on four pitches, the fourth a high 98 mph fastball that caused a violent swing and miss. It was Ventura's last pitch of the night, and as he left the mound he yelled and puffed out his chest at having just overpowered the Hall of Fame–caliber hitter. During the inning change, Jimmy Buffett's "Cheeseburger in Paradise" played as contestants tried to hurl body-size novelty french fries into a body-size novelty Whataburger fry holder.
Ramirez came to the plate a final time in the bottom of the eighth, this time exercising a little more patience to work a 3-2 count. "Make Some Noise!" flashed in alternating red and white on the Jumbotron, prompting a "MAN-NY! MAN-NY! MAN-NY!" chant from the crowd. He took ball four in the dirt and moseyed down to first base. A pinch runner was sent out and Ramirez gave Broussard a quick pat on the back before heading to the dugout for good. A few rows from where I was sitting, a man in a baby blue T-shirt with "RAMIREZ" and "99” ironed on the back stood up to take one last iPhone photo.
After Ramirez's last at-bat, the man sitting across the aisle from me — who a few innings earlier had been a willing participant in a funky chicken dance led by one of the Express hype men — asked me how many years Manny had played in the big leagues. "Almost 20," I told him. He found this surprising, and clearly had no idea we were talking about one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. He was just amused by all the fanfare.
"So he doesn't really need to be playing anymore?" was his next question. I paused for a beat before realizing he was talking about money.
"No, he doesn't," I said, now amused myself. "I don't think he's here for financial reasons."
Ryan Bort (@ryanbort) is a freelance culture writer from Dallas.