A light but steady stream of people climbed the concrete steps to the Raley Field ticket window over the course of an hour, a good number for the middle of a windy Wednesday afternoon.
Now playing, the chance to see dreadlocked, disgraced, is-he-still-dangerous slugger Manny Ramirez as he dons a River Cats uniform and toes the dirt of a Triple-A batter's box this weekend.
Ramirez is 39 and coming off a second suspension for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. A year removed from his last at-bat in the major leagues, he seeks to write a coda to his tumultuous career. And he is expected to make his Sacramento debut tonight.
"I think it's probably just curiosity," said Bill Dickens, 33, of Sacramento, when asked about his tickets to tonight's game. "See if he's going to be what he used to be."
Ramirez was one of baseball's most feared hitters and most colorful characters in his prime, a kind of hitting savant whose 555 career home runs rank 14th all-time and whose moments of eccentricity were chalked up, simply, to "Manny being Manny."
Last spring, though, he retired rather than serve a 100-game suspension for failing his second drug test. Then he came out of retirement, and the suspension was reduced to 50 games. Now Ramirez waits for Wednesday, his 40th birthday and the day he becomes eligible to join the Oakland A's, while his big-league hiatus raises the question of what impact he can still have with a bat in his hand.
"You don't expect Manny to be what Manny was 10 years ago," said A's hitting coach Chili Davis, who played 19 big-league seasons. "He's 10 years older. He's missed a huge part of the last year in baseball.
"You just need him to be ready to compete on this level. And if we feel that he can do that, I'll be happy to have him here. Just his presence alone is worth its weight in gold."
First, Ramirez's Triple-A tuneup comes to Sacramento. While declining to provide figures, a River Cats spokesman said that "interest has increased" in tickets for this weekend's series against the Reno Aces after it was announced Ramirez would be with the team. The games have not sold out, but the River Cats are expecting heavy walk-up traffic at the ticket window this evening.
As a draw, said David Carter, a sports marketing expert and executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, Ramirez "is this novelty act that I think most people have tired of over time.
"But for a couple of days I think there'll be a faction of people that'll want to get a glimpse of this guy because they've heard so much about him, they've followed his career, seen the ups and downs," Carter said.
"I think it's like, the circus is coming to town, I don't want to miss it."
From 1998 to 2008, Ramirez was an All-Star every season. He gained folk-hero status in Boston after helping the Red Sox snap their World Series drought in 2004, and then win again in 2007. He once high-fived a fan in Baltimore after making a catch at the outfield wall before relaying the ball to the infield to complete a double play. He made a cellphone call from inside the Green Monster left-field wall at Fenway Park during a pitching change.
His final months in Boston, though, came with controversy. Ramirez had an altercation with teammate Kevin Youkilis, reportedly shoved to the ground a 64-year-old travel secretary and took himself out of the lineup with what the Red Sox claimed were questionable injuries.
By the time he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2008, Ramirez and Boston had reached irreconcilable differences.
He surged for the Dodgers in the latter half of that season, turning Chavez Ravine into "Mannywood," then tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in May 2009 and was suspended for 50 games.
Unceremonious departures from the Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox came later. Last spring Ramirez joined the Tampa Bay Rays but played in just five games before his second positive test for PEDs came to light.
During his first comeback from suspension in 2009, Ramirez played a stint with the Dodgers' Triple-A team in Albuquerque, N.M., which reported a standing-room-only crowd upward of 15,000 fans in his debut.
Coincidentally, Ramirez's first game with the River Cats last Saturday also came in Albuquerque. The game drew 11,081 fans above the Isotopes' season average, though not their largest crowd reported this season. When Ramirez stepped to the plate in the first inning, he was roundly booed.
Ramirez told reporters in Albuquerque that after he retired last year, "I was all over the place. And I went to the fans and they told me, 'We miss you. The game is not the same without you.' They can't wait for me to do what I do, playing the game."
It was not a unanimous sentiment outside the Raley Field ticket window Wednesday.
"He's not a big draw for me," said Francis Vansoest, 49, of Sacramento. "To me, if players used those things (PEDs), then any stats that they've garnered are tainted."
Then again, said Gil Torres, 36, of West Sacramento, "Everybody makes mistakes."
"We're all human beings," he said. "We're not perfect. He paid his price, he paid his due."
Skip Nance, a 53-year-old Sacramento resident, wondered, "How often, truthfully, do you get to see a player of that caliber come through Sacramento? You go to baseball games wanting to be entertained, and he's an entertainer."
The A's, a young team that needs more offense, hope he can be something more after signing Ramirez to a minor-league contract in February. River Cats players who saw Ramirez in spring training have raved about his work ethic. Ramirez himself has professed a renewed, stronger faith and focus, and says he wants to leave the game on a more positive note.
Whether he still puts fear in opposing pitchers, said A's outfielder Jonny Gomes, will likely "be an individual thing to whoever's on the mound."
"There is a human element to this game with age, and he is getting up there," said Gomes, who played against Ramirez in the American League East while playing for Tampa Bay.
"But obviously if there's one person out there who can do it, it'll probably be him. He only needs one believer in doing it, and that's himself.
"I think it'll have to take a while for actual present Manny Ramirez to strike fear," Gomes added. "But his reputation and his résumé will always strike fear."
Davis, the A's hitting coach who played until the age of 39, acknowledged that many hitters lose bat speed by that age.
"But (Ramirez is) a smart hitter," Davis said. "He's always been a smart hitter. And I'm waiting to see what he does."
Others, too, will watch with interest. This comeback, said former major league manager Jerry Manuel, will have to be taken into account when Ramirez's legacy is written.
"I think that'll be up to how he plays out the rest of his career," said Manuel, a Sacramento native who managed the White Sox and New York Mets. "He's always been a little different anyway. He'll be considered somewhat eccentric regardless."