SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- The question isn't what Manny Ramirez wants to do with the rest of his life. Manny always takes care of Manny. It's what the former Boston Red Sox slugger can do -- if anything -- for the Athletics for the remainder of their surprisingly competitive 2012 season.
Desperation fosters strange alliances, and granted, Ramirez in a River Cats uniform seems about as improbable as it gets.
The man is almost 40 years old. Gray hair frames his face and the familiar dreadlocks that hang halfway down his back. He has been suspended twice for violating Major League Baseball's drug policy, has retired once and can't take a swing in the big leagues until his current 50-game ban is lifted on May 30.
But if you're Billy Beane and you're staring at the A's ghastly offensive stats every night, taking a look at Ramirez is worth the aggravation.
There isn't much risk here. If Ramirez flunks another drug test, he goes home. If he messes up another clubhouse, he goes home. If he can't catch up to fastballs or wait on breaking pitches? If he doesn't become the A's best hitter before he finishes his first batting practice in Oakland?
He can go back home and the A's can resume their search for someone, anyone, to hit above .270.
The A's offense would be laughable if it wasn't so pathetic. Josh Reddick (.270) and the second-most productive hitters (Adam Rosales and Kila Ka'aihue) are separated by 20 points. Their first five-tool prospect since Carlos Gonzalez is ailing and out of the lineup. The team batting average (.210) is last in the major leagues.
Bob Melvin is doing it - keeping his club around the .500 mark and in second place in the American League West - with a combination of mirrors and a pitching staff that features the young (Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Tyson Ross and Brandon McCarthy) and the old (Bartolo Colon) and continues to exceed preseason projections.
If the A's could scratch out a few hits and drive a few balls more than once in a while, this could be an interesting season.
So why not let Ramirez run with the River Cats and see if he has anything left? And Manny being Manny, he fully expects to wipe the rust off his bat and at some point soon work his way over to Oakland.
"I expect this because I'm one of the best right-handed hitters ever to play this game," he said, laughing, before his Raley Field debut Friday night. "The more at-bats I get, the more ready I'll be. Take your time, work on what you need to work on, and we'll see."
Ramirez is absolutely right about one thing. Before testing positive a second time for performance-enhancing drugs and retiring five games into the 2011 season, he was a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
A career .312 hitter, he has 555 home runs and is one of only 25 players to reach the 500 mark. He ranks third all-time with 21 grand slams and first with 29 postseason home runs. Most memorably, he was the starting left fielder and a colorful, if quirky, figure on the Red Sox teams that won the World Series in 2004 and 2007.
Two suspensions and three teams later, he's back where he began, sharing a minor league clubhouse and attempting to reach the next level. There are a few obvious differences, of course. Ramirez doesn't have to share a room on the road. He's older than his manager (Darren Bush is 38). His media availability is limited and tightly controlled. But he seems to be enjoying himself and, based on early reviews, fitting in easily with his new teammates.
An hour before the first pitch, Ramirez sat in the clubhouse with a computer propped on his lap, studying video of his swing. Luke Hughes and Brandon Inge stood on either side, peering over his shoulder and asking questions.
"It's been surreal," said outfielder Michael Taylor. "We were in the cage the other day in Round Rock, and (Ramirez) was asking me where his hands should be. ... I'm like, 'Dude,' I don't know anything you don't know. (But) it goes to the fact that you never stop learning."
Ramirez, who has yet to produce an extra base hit, was 4 for 16 with five strikeouts before his Raley Field debut. But he hit the ball hard in his first two at bats, first lacing a single to center and then ripping a ball back to the pitcher for a double play.
"It's been a while since he's seen live pitching," said Bush, "(but) he can still flat-out hit. Watching him take BP, it's still a natural, smooth swing. It's a pretty swing."
Pretty works. But given those horrific A's offensive numbers, ugly works, too.