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Manny Ramirez minor league circus comes to Albuquerque, New Mexico

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- J.J. Gutierrez, a 15-year-old baseball fan, didn't mince words when asked about Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez.

"He's a cheater," Gutierrez said. "But I still want to see him play."

Gutierrez and his father, Julian, were among a steady stream of fans who lined up four- and five-deep at the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes' box office Monday to buy tickets for this week's series against Nashville.

Ramirez is preparing to return from a 50-game suspension for violating baseball's drug rules. He is eligible to be reinstated on July 3, when the Dodgers are in San Diego and agreed to a stint in the minors to ease back into form.

"It's just a matter of competition," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said last weekend. "It's the idea of going out there and playing a game."

Ramirez has no shortage of drawing power for the Dodgers' top farm team.

Isotopes general manager John Traub said the 15,000-seat stadium is expected to sell out for Tuesday night's game, including outfield berm seating. Tickets for the remaining three games are going fast.

Fans began buying tickets Friday amid speculation Ramirez might be coming to Albuquerque. The club sold almost 7,000 tickets that day, compared to typical pre-game reserved sales in the hundreds for a midweek series in June.

"And then it got busy," Traub said. "Friday was nuts. Friday was a vacation compared to what followed."

Since Torre told reporters on Saturday evening that Ramirez had agreed to begin his minor-league assignment in Albuquerque, Traub said the Isotopes have sold about 20,000 tickets for this week's four home games.

Traub had a message for fans planning to buy walk-up tickets.

"If you want to see Manny, you can see Manny," he said. "But we're telling people not to wait until the last minute. If they do, they're going to be standing in line and they'll miss his first two at-bats."

Which might be the extent that Ramirez plays.

The Dodgers haven't said how many innings Ramirez will play in each game or, for that matter, whether he will complete the four-game homestand. He's tentatively scheduled to play for the Dodgers' Class A team in the California League next week.

The prospect of seeing one of baseball's biggest stars wasn't lost on fans who lined up at midday in Albuquerque. Chris Lawson of Rio Rancho, N.M., bought four tickets for Tuesday and plans to take his son.

"It's exciting. Manny's a phenomenal player despite the allegations or issues surrounding him," Lawson said.

Asked about Ramirez's drug suspension, Lawson said: "I wouldn't say he's a great role model. Hopefully, he'll learn from it. I mean, he's got great talent. He doesn't need the drugs."

Linda McNall made the 60-mile drive from Santa Fe to purchase five tickets. She's taking her daughters and granddaughters because "you just don't get a chance very often to see somebody who plays at that level."

As for the reason Ramirez will be in Albuquerque, McNall said she disapproves of players using drugs but can look past it.

"That's been dealt with in another way," she said. "He has been on suspension. They're dealing with it in baseball. I think that's OK.

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