Vahe Gregorian

Manny just wants to be baseball-playing Manny

Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers, is encircled by corn fields and furnished by such touches as a carousel whirling on a concourse behind the third-base line and the obligatory minor-league goofy contests between innings.

It’s a wholesome scene and a natural gateway to the major leagues as the Royals’ Class AAA team.

But it’s a surreal checkpoint to pass through for, say, a quirky 41-year-old with 555 major-league home runs and a tainted reputation as he seeks a chance at something like redemption with the Round Rock (Texas) Express.

Yet here was Manny Ramirez, shorn of the trademark dreadlocks as he looks to get back to “Manny Being Manny” — presumably not in the sense of the flakiness that catch-all catchphrase came to convey but in terms of performance.

“You don’t know what you have until you lose it, so I try to go out, put a great attitude and see if something will come out,” Ramirez said after going hitless in a 4-2 loss.

Speaking of not knowing what you have until you lose it, he apparently has such little issue with the Rangers’ mandate that he cut his hair that he took it beyond what was demanded down to his scalp.

“I love it. I feel great,” he said. “It doesn’t feel (so) heavy, so I kind of love it.”

So never mind that the Manny image on the scoreboard Thursday night actually was that of a fellow named Mark Kuhlmann, part of a gag on “Intern Appreciation Night” at the park.

Or that by going hitless in four at-bats on Thursday, a “Manny Markdown” promotion — 5 percent off for every out he made — meant 20 percent off in the team store after the game.

“Thanks, Manny,” the public-address announcer crowed after the game.

It’s all just part of the new journey, which he says he hopes will take him back to the major leagues but suggests he could handle fine if it doesn’t.

“Every day, I thank God for this opportunity, and just enjoy,” Ramirez said, adding, “you love the game because you’ve got it in your blood.”

The game was played in front of an announced crowd of 7,030 fans, a bit of an attendance bump attributable to his presence that included a sample of the divided feelings he inspires:

A man whose voiced carried to the press box shouted, “You’re a bum, Ramirez,” when he stepped to the plate in the first inning. Others stood and chanted his name and others, including TSA agents Brian Woebbecke and Steve Nink, just hoped to get a glimpse and his autograph.

“We don’t get a lot of big names like this in Omaha,” said Nink, who like Woebbecke doffed his cap to reveal a bald head as part of their sudden sense of kinship with Ramirez.

No word on the success of the autograph-seekers, including a man wearing a Ramirez T-shirt who arrived at the stadium three hours early. But if he didn’t come through on the way in, it was nothing personal.

He was just trying to get to work, especially as he still is adjusting to a few weeks off last month in transit from Taiwan.

“Sometimes people don’t understand that we’ve got to get ready for a game,” he said, smiling. “It’s like if you work in an office, and you’re trying to work, and I go over and bother you.”

This is the office environment Ramirez will be navigating to get back to the major leagues by way of the Express, the Texas Rangers’ Class AAA affiliate that arrived for a four-game series Thursday.

“He’s just one of the guys here,” Express third-base coach Spike Owen said. “And, obviously, saying that, you can’t forget about what he’s done in the game.”

Owen likely was referring to Ramirez’s numerous distinctions, which include being a 12-time All-Star and holding the major-league record for postseason home runs with 29.

He likely was not referring to what else Ramirez has done: get nabbed twice for positive drug tests, serving a 50-game suspension in 2009 and opting to “retire” when he was caught again in 2011 and handed a 100-game punishment.

Through various circuitous negotiations, Ramirez was able to whittle his debt down to 50 games, which he paid in full last year via a minor-league contract with Oakland’s Sacramento River Cats.

He started this season in Taiwan before getting homesick, then returned to the United States and debuted with the Express on Sunday as the Rangers took a chance. Through five games, he is hitting .188.

“I really don’t know what to expect with Manny,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels told earlier this week, adding, “we’re just going to let him play and evaluate it as it goes. We didn’t sign him expecting him to be a knight in shining armor.”

That’s a good thing for a couple of reasons. The specter of suspicion over him as a drug cheat never is far away, as the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reminded earlier this week when it reported Ramirez already has been subjected to a random drug test.

But the future, Ramirez says, is more important than the past.

“Everybody’s got a past. You got one,” he said, nodding towards one reporter, then another. “You’ve got one. I got one. Everybody’s got a past. So I look at myself (and say) the past is gone.”

And the future is a mystery, especially when it comes to Manny being Manny.