He’s the bomb


The man in the old Dodgers cap stood with his hands in his pockets.

For an hour, Michael Maldonado waited, staring at the closed windows of the box office. The 51-year-old utility worker said he missed work Monday morning to be first in line. By the time the windows opened at 8 a.m., 14 people were behind him.

“It’s a big deal,” Maldonado said.

For $18, Maldonado was able to secure two passes to witness what he described as a once-in-a-lifetime event: Manny Ramirez playing for Maldonado’s hometown Albuquerque Isotopes.

Maldonado isn’t bothered about why Ramirez is here. Yes, Maldonado knows the Dodgers outfielder was suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy and has to play in some minor league games to prepare for an anticipated return to the major league lineup on July 3.


“He’s a big-time player,” Maldonado said. “I’m very overwhelmed.”

Nearby, John Traub smiled.

The general manager of the Dodgers’ triple-A affiliate, Traub has been involved in minor league baseball for 17 years. He said he has never seen anything like the hysteria that overtook Albuquerque when news broke that Ramirez could be headed its way.

“Not in the least,” Traub said.

Team spokesman Steve Hurlbert said the Isotopes have sold more than 40,000 tickets for their four-game series against the Nashville Sounds that starts today and ends Friday.

The team has averaged 7,715 fans per home game this season.

The club says each of the 11,124 permanent seats at Isotopes Park will be filled for the game tonight, the first of as many as four that Ramirez could play with the Isotopes. With the availability of tickets for grass seating behind the right-field wall, the Isotopes are expecting a crowd of 14,000 to 15,000.

Wednesday and Thursday could also be sellouts. Friday could be close.

(Class-A Inland Empire, Ramirez’s next expected stop, has already sold out its game Sunday and is close to selling out its game Monday.)

This is without any official word of Ramirez’s plans beyond tonight. His tentative schedule calls for him to play in the first three games of the series against Nashville, according to baseball sources familiar with the situation who weren’t authorized to discuss the matter.

Ramirez is expected to return to Los Angeles on Friday, hit at Dodger Stadium on Saturday and complete his minor league tour with two or three games with the Inland Empire 66ers, who are based in San Bernardino.


He is expected to start for the Dodgers in San Diego on July 3 in the opener of a three-game series with the Padres.

Ramirez’s preliminary plans were first reported on The Times’ website Thursday night. Traub said that when he showed up for work the next day at 7:30 a.m., there were already 10 people in front of the ticket office. When the windows opened at 10, there were 50.

Traub said that the Isotopes sold almost 7,000 tickets last Friday alone.

On Saturday, the Isotopes opened their box office two hours earlier than usual. The number of open ticket windows increased from two to nine.

“We were surprised because we couldn’t give them confirmation,” box-office director Chrissy Baines said.

The Isotopes received confirmation of sorts on Saturday afternoon when Dodgers Manager Joe Torre told reporters in Los Angeles that Ramirez would report to Albuquerque today.

The Isotopes immediately shared that news with fans at the ballpark, making an in-game announcement over the public-address system.


“You heard the buzz in the crowd,” Isotopes Manager Tim Wallach said.

The preparations aren’t complete either.

Boxes of Manny merchandise are expected to arrive at the ballpark this morning. There will be more points of sale for food, and the number of on-site police officers and security guards will be more than doubled.

The Dodgers will be heavily involved. In addition to hitting coach Manny Mota and assistant general manager Kim Ng, the Dodgers sent their head of security to New Mexico. They also dispatched team spokesman Josh Rawitch, even though a source close to Ramirez said the All-Star outfielder does not intend to speak to reporters this week.

The only other player perceived to be in the prime of his career to drop by these parts in recent years was then-Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, who made a rehabilitation start as a visiting player on opening night of the 2005 season.

Stars of the future have been rare sightings.

From 2003-08, the Isotopes were the triple-A affiliate of the Florida Marlins, who preferred to send their most promising players directly from double A to the majors.

Miguel Cabrera never played in Albuquerque. Neither did Dontrelle Willis.

Some fans said that’s why they never cut their emotional ties with the Dodgers, who had a minor league affiliate in the city in 1963 and ’64 and again from 1972-2000.

Tom Lasorda managed here. Davey Lopes, Mike Marshall, Pedro Martinez and Mike Piazza played here.


“I can guarantee that three-quarters of Albuquerque are Dodger fans,” said Frank Marquez, a 50-year-old lifelong resident of the city who wore a replica of Ramirez’s jersey to the Isotopes’ game on Sunday.

“You can see it inside. Everyone’s wearing Dodger shirts. That never happened with the Marlins.”

Marquez said that he has no doubt Ramirez will receive a standing ovation tonight.

“I can guarantee that,” he said.

Steroids or no steroids, Marquez added, Ramirez is one of their players.

Isotopes infielder Blake DeWitt said he got the sense that would probably be the case when he participated in a baseball clinic for kids on Saturday.

“Every little kid was asking, ‘Is Manny here yet?’ ” said DeWitt, who played in 117 games with the Dodgers last year.

Because many of the Isotopes players were in big league camp during spring training or have been in the majors, reaction in the clubhouse has been subdued.

But only to a point.

“I still want to see him here,” shortstop Chin-lung Hu said.

Outfielder Jamie Hoffmann, who received his first big league call-up last month, said he never imagined he would play his first game with Ramirez under these circumstances.


“Crazy, huh?” Hoffmann said. “It’s weird how things work out.”



(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)Playing here can be a real blast

Team name: Albuquerque Isotopes.

Named after the Springfield Isotopes, the fictional minor league team in “The Simpsons.” One of the co-creators of the nickname is Ken Levine, an Emmy-winning writer who hosts “DodgerTalk” on 790 AM.

Record: 35-35.

The Isotopes lead their division by 2 1/2 games.

Tonight’s pitchers: Charlie Haeger (8-4, 3.90) vs. Manny Parra (0-0, 1.50) of the Nashville Sounds.

Where: Isotopes Park. Nickname is “The Lab.”

Isotopes manager: Tim Wallach.

A five-time All-Star in his 17-year major league career, Wallach played for the Dodgers from 1993-95 and part of ’96 and was their hitting coach in 2004 and ’05.

Best position player: Infielder Blake DeWitt.

Best pitcher: Haeger.

Mascot: Orbit.

Described on the Isotopes’ website as a “large goofy alien,” Orbit is often mistaken by fans for a dog or bear. “We are currently working to get to the bottom of this identity problem,” the website reads. “Soon we will have a definite answer.”

Attendance: The Isotopes have averaged 7,715 fans per home game this season. Isotopes Park has 11,124 permanent seats but, with berm seating for special events, can hold about 15,000.


-- Dylan Hernandez