It is New York’s first sunny Sunday afternoon of the summer and a small crowd has gathered around the tiny field at Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.
But the children of the Victor Lebron Little League play a game that only vaguely resembles baseball.
The elfin left fielder squats, head down, just a few feet behind second base. As the catcher throws back to the mound, the ball glances off the hitter’s bat, prompting a debate over whether it was a foul ball. And in one dugout half a dozen boys, blissfully uninterested in their ballgame, spin in circles or, backs to the field, engage passersby in conversation.
Twenty years ago Manny Ramirez played in this park, a fact all the boys recite with pride. They are less proud of the fact that Ramirez, back in New York with the Dodgers to open a three-game series with the Mets tonight, is coming off a 50-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball’s drug policy.
“I see him differently now,” 11-year-old William Cepeda says. “I like him less because of the bad things he’s doing now.”
In the other dugout, 11-year-old Marcos Rodriguez agrees.
“Because he did steroids, I don’t like him that much,” he says with a sad shake of his head. “I still like him. But not as much as I liked him before.”
This is Ramirez’s home turf. He grew up across the street in a six-story walkup on West 168th Street. About a mile away is George Washington High, where he became a local hero despite the fact he didn’t graduate (he later got a GED).
For the kids following in his footsteps, however, there’s a limit to how much they want to emulate him.
“He doesn’t want to be growing up idolizing someone that is doing something bad,” says Carlos Delgado, pointing to the field where his 12-year-old son, Brian, is playing. “It’s not good at all. My son, he watches TV and he sees what’s going on and he says, ‘That’s a bad thing.’ And I said, ‘Yes it is.’
“But he’s very popular still,” adds Delgado, who is not related to the Mets first baseman of the same name. “He’s almost like a legend around here. He grew up here so he represents Washington Heights.”
A tightknit, densely developed neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan, Washington Heights has evolved over the years, its population going from predominantly Irish to Jewish to Greek, then to Cuban and Puerto Rican.
Today the mile-square district of storefronts and five- and six-story brick apartment buildings is almost completely Dominican -- but that too is changing as gentrification begins to drive rents up and working-class families out.
Yet there has always been one constant here, and that’s baseball.
This, after all, is where Alex Rodriguez was born, where Vin Scully grew up, where Rod Carew lived and where Lou Gehrig went to school. Three of those four are in the Hall of Fame. And Rodriguez could be, too, one day.
Ramirez, who was born in the Dominican Republic, was 13 when his family moved to Washington Heights, his father finding work as a livery driver, his mother toiling in a factory. And so he is revered in Washington Heights only partly for his baseball exploits, which include 12 All-Star selections, 534 home runs, American League batting, home run and RBI titles and two World Series rings.
“I like Manny a lot because he’s Dominican. And we support our own,” says Felicia Then, a waitress at La Caridad, a Dominican restaurant a few steps from Ramirez’s old apartment.
“He made an error,” she continues in Spanish. “But it’s a forgivable error. He didn’t kill anybody. This is his community. He lived here. He ate here.”
But he doesn’t visit here much anymore.
Early in his career, when Ramirez was with the Cleveland Indians, he came back to Washington Heights frequently to visit and play the video games at Peligro Sports, a storefront sandwich shop owned by boyhood friend Jose Mateo. But as the neighborhood grew increasingly more dangerous, the Indians warned him to stay away and he returns only rarely now.
“He doesn’t show up like he used to,” complains Claudio Guzman, one of a dozen men watching a dominoes game on a sidewalk a few blocks from Highbridge Park. “That’s one of the things we miss. We ask questions between our friends over here. ‘Why doesn’t he show up? Why doesn’t he come back?’
“I don’t know. Maybe he got busy doing other things.”
Down the street at the high school, baseball coach Steve Mandl misses Ramirez as well. For years, he says, he’s had to deflect questions from players who ask why Ramirez doesn’t come to see them or why he hasn’t donated some of the millions the Dodgers are paying him this season to the cash-strapped program that gave him his start.
“I’m his biggest fan in the world. Sometimes I don’t think he realizes it anymore,” says Mandl, sounding more hurt than angry. “He’s so far removed in years from the community and the school, that he’s just a name. ‘Oh, Manny was here.’ But other kids still idolize him and still look up like, ‘Wow. He was from here?’
“Most of the kids would welcome him with open arms and love for him to walk in.”
That’s because, for all of Ramirez’s faults, many people here refuse to turn their backs on him. The drug suspension hasn’t changed that.
“It surprised everyone,” Juan Cabrera says from behind wire-rim glasses. “He didn’t need any of that to hit. Manny can hit better than anyone.”
Sitting at a table just inside the door at La Caridad, straining to be heard over loud merengue music, Cabrera says he has been watching Ramirez play baseball since he was a boy.
“For me, it was an error what Manny did,” says Cabrera, who, like many in the neighborhood, will be watching Ramirez tonight. “The neighborhood’s supporting Manny. Because he’s from here.”
Support for Ramirez at Dodger Stadium could hinge on how he plays. Mannywood, after all, can be a fickle place. But in Manny’s ‘hood, Cabrera insists, there is little difference of opinion. Even at the Little League field.
“It’s kind of cool that a player from Washington Heights made the major leagues,” 13-year-old Ezequiel Ospina says shyly.
Mandl hears such stories and shakes his head.
“Some people are really disappointed. But the nature of people, the nature of the game, the nature of the way our society is, he’ll come back,” Mandl says. “He does something great or something foolish, they’re going to talk about that.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, it will be forgotten.”
AT NEW YORK METS
Time: 4 PDT.
Where: Citi Field.
On the air: TV: Ch. 9; Radio: 790, 930.
Probable pitchers: Clayton Kershaw vs. Mike Pelfrey; Wednesday, 4 p.m. PDT -- Hiroki Kuroda (3-4, 3.91) vs. Oliver Perez (1-2, 9.97); Thursday, 4 p.m. PDT -- Randy Wolf (3-3, 3.49) vs. Livan Hernandez (5-4, 4.56).
Update: The Dodgers get their first look at Citi Field, the Mets’ new $900-million home, and they picked a good time to visit since the Mets come into the series having lost three in a row and eight of their last 10. In addition, the Dodgers are probably happy they won’t be going back to Shea Stadium since they last won a season series there in 2004. Kershaw is coming off an erratic performance against Colorado in which he gave up one hit in five innings but walked five and left without a decision. For the Mets, Pelfrey has become a reliable starter and is coming off his best outing of the year, one in which he shut out Milwaukee for 7 2/3 innings in a 1-0 win.
-- Kevin Baxter