The Manny circus is getting an early start this season

It was the best national anthem rendition I have ever heard, “better than the game,” Russell Martin says later of 16-year-old Charice, “tears in my eyes when she really gets going,” Manager Joe Torre says.

Then Vin Scully embraces a wounded veteran, who hands him the first pitch -- as good a tag-team performance as you will ever see -- Scully tossing the ball to Torre, the old catcher, who is so thankful he doesn’t drop it.

“It was easy to pick up,” Torre says of the five-foot toss, and so hard at this point to ruin the kind of afternoon that has always been so traditional and special to baseball fans.

It’s the home opener, and yet it does begin with controversy in the air, a report in USA Today that Manny Ramirez, who has put the buzz back into Dodgers baseball, would really like to play in Cleveland.

Kobe once said he was all for playing on Pluto, and while that may not be as extreme as moving to Cleveland, it’s a pretty good idea around here not to take seriously what our local athletes have to say.


No one knows this better than Ramirez, who almost never has anything serious to say.

“I was joking,” Ramirez says. “I was talking to Jim Thome in spring training and saying wouldn’t it be sweet to be together again one day in Cleveland.”

The rest of baseball, though, is ready to pounce on Manny being Manny, believing the moment will surely come. The conclusion now is obvious -- it won’t be long before Manny takes three strikes from Frankie Rodriguez to speed up his way to Cleveland.

Personally, I like the Lakers’ chances of making it to Cleveland before Ramirez.

But ESPN, which is as good as any media outlet in making something out of nothing, touts it as a news story and throws the Cleveland question at Torre -- seven games into this 162-game schedule.

Torre suggested the reporter check with Ramirez, a crazy idea, I know, but then the e-mails began to arrive, saying “I told you so.”

“So much for your wonder boy Manny and the Dodgers ‘pegging’ him correctly,” wrote Matt Mierzwinski. “He’s already talking about a Cleveland reunion.”

“He’s playing you for a fool,” is how Steve Holmes put it, while sending along a copy of Bob Nightengale’s story in USA Today.

Nightengale quotes Manny as saying, “I would like to play for Cleveland one more time, to go back where I started . . . I think to go back where you started is everyone’s dream.”

The way he’s hitting, I told Ramirez before the game, why would Cleveland have any interest in him?

That’s what one of his teammates was telling him on the plane ride home from Arizona on Sunday.

“They were telling me [Alfonso] Soriano has five home runs, and I have five hits,” Ramirez says with a hearty laugh.

Joke after self-deprecating joke, Ramirez is the same guy watching TV on Saturday in the clubhouse when Jason Bay hits a home run.

“Boston finally has a left fielder who can hit,” he tells everyone.

Before Monday’s game, it’s more yuks, Ramirez announcing, “I’m going deep today.” Then with a comedian’s pause, adds, “in the count.”

Someone suggests Juan Pierre might hit a home run before Manny the way things are going -- Pierre surprised when asked how long it’s been since he last hit one.

“September,” Pierre says. “When was the last time Manny hit a homer?

“Oh yeah,” Pierre says, while quickly answering his own question. “Last October.”

“Spring training,” Manny says.

“Doesn’t count,” he’s told.

“In my mind it does,” Manny says, while leaving everyone laughing.

His teammates expect as much every day, yet there are still members of the media willing to bet there will be an incident to disrupt this Dodgers’ season.

That’s why reporters follow him to the elevators after an 11-1 win to learn more about his Cleveland plans.

He reacts with puzzlement, figuring this afternoon he can beat traffic while everyone surrounds Orlando Hudson, Chad Billingsley and Andre Ethier.

“We were just joking,” he says, and really, who cares where he plays a year or two from now when his Dodgers contract expires and he finishes as a DH?

Right now he’s the life of a Dodgers party, “everyone better in our lineup because he’s here,” Martin says.

“Every pitcher thinking he better not walk me or it’s 2-0 after Manny comes up,” says Hudson.

How long has it been since anyone could count on such fun in Dodger Stadium?

“Manny’s the guy who has put the Dodgers back on the baseball map,” Ethier says.

Unfortunately, the hunger elsewhere to feast on Manny’s next mistake, misunderstood joke or ill-advised comment will be there for the rest of the season. Monday’s USA Today much ado about nothing story about Cleveland is the first of so many more speed bumps to follow.

In time it might be drowned out by cheering fans in Dodger Stadium, but then that would mean Ramirez will have to hit the ball out of the park to keep everyone’s interest. If not, then I’m all for sending the guy to Cleveland for the rest of his life.

TORRE HIT for the cycle during his career, shocking to those who can’t imagine him running all the way to third base.

“The outfielder must have fallen down,” someone says, while unaware that Torre had 59 triples in his career.

That’s why folks watch sports -- to see the unexpected.

ONCE THE game had been played, TV broadcaster Jim Hill and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt took the field together to play catch. Hill likes to tell everyone he was a professional football player. Now I understand why he’s never said anything about playing baseball.

IF OSCAR DE LA HOYA announces today he’s finished as a boxer, doesn’t that make him the last one to know?