Which Manny is the real Manny?

The path to redemption begins here, in the shade of the visitors’ dugout on a scorching-hot Texas afternoon, 1,766 miles from his big-league club.

Two dozen reporters are pointing their cameras and microphones in the slugger’s face at this minor league ballpark. And Manny Ramirez — gray hairs poking out of his Oakland A’s do-rag, words of contrition and of God coming from his mouth — embarks on this ritual of apologies and self-flagellation that marks an imminent comeback to Major League Baseball.

Who is Manny Ramirez, anyway? Nineteen years since the smiling Dominican made his debut with the Cleveland Indians, we still don’t know. Does “Manny Being Manny” mean a one-of-a-kind sports personality, harmless and fun, or a self-indulged ballplayer who reflects this me-first era? Is Manny the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care fan favorite or the moody, brooding prima donna who has twice been suspended for failed drug tests and once accused of slapping his wife? Is he the ultimate middle-lineup muscle or the worst type of clubhouse cancer, a surefire Hall of Famer or another example of a reputation ruined by the Steroid Era?

Maybe he’s one; maybe he’s the other. Or maybe he’s an enigma, a peculiar combination of all these things, and someone we’ll never fully understand.

For now, though, sitting in the dugout before one of his first games as a Sacramento River Cat during a rehabilitation stint, Manny Ramirez is trying on a personality that’s entirely new: a newly minted Christian, humbled by his mistakes, badly wanting to make right during a comeback that will technically begin with his official reinstatement by MLB on Wednesday, his 40th birthday.

“I was looking in the mirror. I said to myself, ‘I need to change. I want to be different,’ ” Manny says in the dugout. “It’s hard to be a Christian. When God comes inside your heart, you don’t do things that you used to do. I just want to be different. It feels great, when you don’t do what you used to do.”

This doesn’t seem like the Manny who has reached turbulent ends during most of the stops in his baseball career. In the dugout, Manny looks every reporter directly in the eye. He smiles that goofy smile and answers every question, no matter how absurd (such as: “Do you feel like you’ve paid your debt to baseball?”). He talks about his wife as his inspiration to become a Christian. There’s no handler by his side, no public-relations team to sculpt his every word, just a Dominican minister who travels everywhere with him but is now sitting in the air-conditioned clubhouse, away from the cameras’ glare.

But then Manny says this: “When you make a mistake, you gotta pay the price. That’s what I’m doing. I’m going through a process.”

That, of course, is the rub. This might truly be a new Manny, or this might just be some inauthentic process he’s forced to go through. There’s no way of knowing, and for many baseball fans, twice-busted Manny doesn’t deserve the benefit of the doubt.

All we really know is that, after two drug suspensions and a tarnished legacy, this opportunity for redemption will be his last.

Baseball fans are sick of the cheats. The Steroid Era took many things from us — Roger Maris’ 61 home runs, Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs. But it took away much more.

The saddest casualties of the Steroid Era are not players like Manny Ramirez, whose once-good names became entangled with the steroid mess, the Mark McGwires and the Roger Clemenses and the Barry Bondses and the Alex Rodriguezes. These are the perpetrators, not the victims.

The victims are the players whose Hall of Fame careers are free of steroid associations yet who remain tainted by the mere fact they played during this era. The victims are named Ken Griffey Jr. Or Greg Maddux. Or Randy Johnson. Or Frank Thomas. Or Derek Jeter.

Players like Manny Ramirez ruined more than their reputations. They dirtied their colleagues’ reputations, too, and in so doing, dirtied the purity of America’s pastime and the trust we once had in it. We don’t trust our politicians. We don’t trust our corporations. And now we don’t trust our ballplayers.

Yet we still want to forgive, and it’s all too easy to forgive a big, goofy manchild like Manny, he of the two-sizes-too-big jersey and the 2-foot dreadlocks and the two sons named Manny Jr.

We want to believe a fallen athlete’s words of contrition aren’t just part of some process but instead the product of a changed man. We want to pretend that the Steroid Era is in baseball’s past, not something that continues to taint its present.

So we buy Manny’s story of redemption. We laugh when we hear stories of Manny driving up to spring training in a sports car, already wearing his batting gloves. We chuckle about Manny getting on the minor league bus and reaching out to honk the horn, because that’s just Manny Being Manny. We hear of Manny carrying his own luggage at the airport, and we turn that into a symbol of Manny Being Humbled.

Who knows? His redemption might be true.

“God gave me an opportunity to come back, and that’s why I’m here,” Manny says in the dugout. “It means a lot. This is the game I’ve been playing since I was a little kid . . . I got another opportunity to go and do what I love to do.”

Give him this: At least he’s saying all the right things.

“I know a lot of people, they think, ‘Oh, the Hall of Fame, blah, blah, blah,” Manny says. “But you know something? The Bible says that it’s better to be in the Book of Life, and that’s where I want to be . . . So what if you got a Hall of Fame career and your soul is gonna be lost?”

When he talks, it’s with the zeal of the converted. But again, the question: Which Manny is the real Manny? Is the real Manny the one who mugs for fans’ cameras and signs a handful of autographs next to the minor league dugout moments before the game begins? Or is the real Manny the one who, before one road game as a River Cat, tells three children in the outfield stands, ages 4, 5 and 9, that he doesn’t sign autographs for children and then walks right past them?

But when he’s in the dugout or on the field, he looks like the same old Manny with that same perfectly balanced swing. He hits a seeing-eye grounder between first and second for his first hit at a River Cat, and his teammates tease him by requesting the ball as a souvenir. In the dugout, Manny talks with the hitting coach about keeping his weight back. And he greets every teammate who scores a run with the “beast mode” celebration made popular last year by the Milwaukee Brewers. Cheater or not, he’s a difficult player not to fall in love with.

When his River Cats were on the field last week in Texas, Manny, the team’s designated hitter, put down his bat and walked to the end of the dugout. I was standing in the photo well, staring at him and scribbling notes. Manny gave me a confused look, then came over to talk, mid-game.

“It’s different, not playing in so long,” Manny told me. “But that’s the only way you get back.”

This is a humbling trip for Manny, signing a contract for barely above the big-league minimum, seeking one more chance to play out his baseball career with a semblance of grace and dignity. We don’t know whether we should believe there’s really a new Manny. We don’t know what’s going on in his heart, and we don’t know how the Manny experiment will play out for the A’s or for Manny’s place in baseball history.

But as one of the greatest hitters of his generation picks up his bat in this minor league dugout and practices that familiar swing, again and again and again, making sure he stays balanced and keeps his weight back, this much we know for sure: Right now, Manny Ramirez is having fun again.

You can follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave, become a fan on Facebook or email him at reidforgrave@gmail.com.