PHOENIX -- When Manny Ramirez walked into the Oakland Athletics clubhouse at Phoenix Municipal Park on Friday, it seemed as though he had never left baseball.
Greeting a few familiar faces with handshakes and hugs, Ramirez flashed the same playful smile that charmed fans from Cleveland to Boston to Los Angeles. And when he stepped into the cage for batting practice, his famously sweet swing appeared, and it took just a few pitches before he crushed a ball over the wall in dead center field.
Ramirez, sporting familiar dreadlocks, smiled and laughed as he met new teammates. As he jogged in to kiss his wife Julianna before meeting a large throng of media, it appeared all was right in Manny's world -- just another spring in the sun playing the game he loves.
Then reality hit.
Attempting a comeback after an abrupt retirement last season, Ramirez carries over him the cloud of a second positive test for performance enhancing drugs and a looming suspension that will see him turn 40 before can take the field in a regular season game for the A's.
Ramirez arrived at A's camp in Phoenix on Friday and took a remorseful tone in admitting personal and professional mistakes while professing a greater appreciation for baseball and family thanks to a newfound relationship with God.
"Sometime's when you don't got God in your heart, you do stupid things without thinking about it," Ramirez said. "When you start going to church and learning what really is going on you open your eyes and you realize that it doesn't matter how much money you've got, nice house, cars, if you don't got God in your heart, it doesn't mean anything. Now I appreciate my family more, my kids, the game. I'm just blessed to be here."
By the end of his 13-minute media session on the field, Ramirez was laughing and joking like the Manny everyone remembers. He exuded genuine excitement at the chance to play again, but he'll have to serve a 50-game suspension first, making his first possible game with the A's May 30 in Minnesota.
After failing a drug test last spring and facing a 100-game suspension, Ramirez opted to retire just five games into the season with Tampa Bay. He offered no apologies Friday for the failed test and spoke at length about the fear he would lose his family following his arrest in September on charges of domestic violence.
"Me and my wife had a little problem, and at that time I said 'Whoa, I've got to reflect on what's going on,'" Ramirez said. "I just made a huge mistake with the team, my family and I just fixed it, so we're here.
"Sometimes you're here and you don't appreciate what you have until you're about to lose it. So you've got to reflect and look back at how was your life and if you want your life to end that way. I'm just glad I found God, and I'm ready to go."
Its no doubt been an eventful year since Ramirez reported to camp with the Rays last spring, and Ramirez says after all that's happened, he's thinking differently. He first wants to prove to his two sons "when there's a problem, you can get up and fix it." After that, he wants to show he can still play.
"I'm happy that I've got a job," Ramirez said. "I've just got to go and compete and prove to people that I can still play. With God's help, were going to make the team."
The young, rebuilding A's signed Ramirez to a minor-league contract for 500,000. Manager Bob Melvin said he expects Ramirez to serve as a designated hitter but wouldn't rule out some time in the outfield.
Melvin met briefly with Ramirez on Friday and expressed his expectations, which he said Ramirez promised to meet. Melvin believes Ramirez will be a good influence on the young players with the team.
"He said all the right things," Melvin said. "He's here to help and thankful to be here. That was great to here."
Melvin said he only needed to see Ramirez's first round of batting practice to be convinced the 39-year-old can still hit.
"He looks like the same guy to me," Melvin said. "He truly is one of those guys that has the mechanics of the swing right away."
Ramirez admitted Friday that his actions -- on the field, in the clubhouse and with his family -- will speak louder than anything said Friday.
After 18 seasons of "Manny being Manny," he realizes fans and management are unlikely to have much patience for any more antics. It's his last chance to keep playing the game he loves, and there's little room for error.
Not even Ramirez knows where his swing will be come June after more than a year away from the game. It will take time to see if he'll be the model teammate he claims he'll be.
There are still plenty of unknowns in Ramirez's return to baseball but one thing is certain: There's a markedly different tone in Manny's world.
"I'm going to do what I always do: work hard, leave everything to God and move on," Ramirez said. "That's all I can do."