Manny Ramirez still enjoying baseball as minor league mentor

Gone are the trademark dreadlocks that once flew behind him like a flag. These days, Manny Ramirez sports a close-cropped salt-and-pepper look, with a little more of the former than the latter, while wearing a T-shirt with someone else’s name on it.

It isn’t a disguise. He’s not trying to hide who he is — like he could. This is just who Ramirez, one of the greatest power hitters baseball has ever seen, is now: a player and coach with the Iowa Cubs, the Triple A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.

Ramirez and his new teammates landed in Metairie on Tuesday for a five-game series against the New Orleans Zephyrs. After a doubleheader Wednesday, the teams will play at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

The hair was originally shorn last year at the behest of the Texas Rangers, who signed him to a minor league contract. Regrown, it disappeared again sometime over the past week. The shirt was an homage to teammate Chris Rusin, who pitched a no-hitter against the Zephyrs on May 7 and was recalled to Chicago on Wednesday.

Ramirez, 42, spent 21 seasons in the major leagues, playing for the Cleveland Indians, the Boston Red Sox, the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Chicago White Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays, hitting 555 home runs, including 21 grand slams. He won two World Series with the Boston Red Sox and played in 12 All-Star games.

But in 2009, he was handed a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a human growth hormone. Facing another suspension in 2011 for another positive test, he elected to retire. After asking for and receiving his reinstatement, which included another 50-game suspension, he signed briefly with the Oakland A’s but was released in June of that year. In July of 2013, he signed with the Texas Rangers but was released in August.

Ramirez said he was lured out of his nearly yearlong retirement just a few months ago when Cubs President Theo Epstein contacted his agent.

“I was at home when Theo called my agent, and they spoke about it, and that was it,” Ramirez said Wednesday. “They told me they’ve got a lot of young players, and if I want to come down and work with them, that I would probably get to play about once a week, and I took it.”

But he said being in the minor leagues is just as much fun.

“It is fun,” he said. “When you can come and help people, that’s what’s fun. It’s no different, because I knew how to have fun and enjoy myself when I was in the big leagues. And I know how to enjoy myself when I’m here.”

Ramirez’s teammates are enjoying having him around as well. On Wednesday, he put in some work with the team’s pitchers before spending a few minutes with a pair of reporters. Then he was off to do more work.

“It’s been great,” said infielder Chris Valaika, who spent some time last year as a Zephyr. “He comes to the field to work as a player, so he sets a good example for a lot of the younger guys that we have on this team. Then, on the coaching side, he’s in there in the cage after he’s done working. He’s talking and showing us things that have gotten him to be the player he is.”

Ramirez said: “It’s a blessing to be here and watch them going about their business. I’m just really happy to be here.”

And the fans are loving it, too.

Zephyrs broadcaster and travel director Tim Grubbs said Ramirez still creates a buzz in the stadium.

“You can definitely feel it,” Grubbs said. “The vibe is still there. He’s still Manny Ramirez. The fans still love him. When he was announced in Iowa, the crowd just roared.”

Ramirez has not been announced as a batter in Zephyrs Stadium because he’s on the disabled list with a right calf strain. But Grubbs said the fans at Tuesday night’s Zephyrs games were definitely hoping to get a glimpse of the legend.

“If we were a ship, we’d have sunk,” Grubbs said. “Everyone was over on their side trying to see him and hoping to get an autograph.”