ROUND ROCK, Texas — Manny Ramirez didn’t waste any time getting in the swing of things in his latest bid to return to the big leagues.
The 41-year-old slugger hit the first pitch he saw for a single in his debut for Class AAA Round Rock on Sunday, three days after joining the Texas Rangers on a minor league contract. He went 1 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout in a 4-0 Express victory against the Omaha Storm Chasers.
Batting cleanup and facing a top Kansas City pitching prospect in right-hander Yordano Ventura, Ramirez hit a soft line drive to right field leading off the second but was stranded at first. He grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the third — again hitting the first pitch.
With the cheers growing louder for each at-bat, Ramirez struck out swinging on a 94 mph fastball from Ventura to end the fifth. He walked against reliever Michael Mariot in the eighth and was taken out for a pinch-runner.
“The future is greater than the past,” Ramirez said after the game.
A kinder, gentler Ramirez said he feels no pressure and has no timeline two years after his last appearance in the majors with Tampa Bay.
The 12-time All-Star who once forced his way out of Boston and twice was suspended for testing positive for banned drugs said before the game he was “so happy to get a chance to play the game I love.”
“We all do a lot of things when we are young, but if you can make it through the fire, you are changed, made better and ready for anything else,” said Ramirez, who was sporting much shorter dreadlocks after getting them cut to conform with Texas’ minor league rules.
He shaved the sides of his head because he said it makes him feel cooler in the Texas heat.
Ramirez retired in April 2011 when he was with the Rays rather than face a 100-game ban for his second suspension. He served a 50-game ban for a positive drug test while with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2009, and his second suspension was later reduced to 50 games.
The lifetime .312 hitter was in Los Angeles because he forced his way out of Boston, where he won two World Series. He didn’t want the Red Sox to pick up the option on his contract so he could sign a more lucrative deal elsewhere.
While Ramirez is 14th on the career home run list with 555, he has 28 since the start of 2009 because of injuries and the drug suspensions.
He was 1 for 17 without a homer for the Rays when the drug suspension hit. A comeback attempt with Oakland last year failed — he hit .302 at Class AAA Sacramento with no homers and asked for his release.
Ramirez recently finished a three-month stint in Taiwan. He hit .352 with eight homers and 43 RBIs for the EDA Rhinos, but wanted to return to his family in New York and then put out the word that he preferred to play either in the U.S. or Japan.
“I am just happy, my wife is happy,” Ramirez said. “I am working very hard and we’ll see where it goes. But it is a fun ride.”
Jake Brigham (3-1) and Joseph Ortiz combined on a four-hitter as the Express earned a split of the four-game series and dropped Omaha six games behind first-place Iowa in the Pacific Coast League’s American Conference North.
Brigham gave up four singles, walked two and struck out four over seven innings. Ortiz set down all six batters he faced to record his first save.
Omaha didn’t have a runner advance past second base.
Ventura, who struck out nine and didn’t walk a batter while allowing three runs — two earned — on seven hits in five innings, struck out five of the first seven hitters he faced through two scoreless innings.
But Round Rock scored two in the third inning, as Mike Olt led off with a hit, moved to third on a Leury Garcia single and scored on a Greg Miclat single. Yangervis Solarte then grounded into a force out at second but shortstop Chris Getz threw errantly to first while trying for a double play to allow Garcia to score.
In the fifth, Solarte’s two-out RBI double made it 3-0.
After Ramirez walked in the eighth, pinch-runner Jared Hoying scored on a Joey Butler double.
Ramirez has 2,574 hits in 19 big league seasons, primarily with Cleveland, Boston and the Dodgers, along with short stints with the Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay.
He ranks third all-time with 21 grand slams and is the all-time leader with 29 postseason homers. He has led the American League in hitting (2002), homers (2004) and RBIs (1999).
Ramirez played two games with Albuquerque of the PCL in 2009 while on a rehabilitation assignment from his first drug suspension. He also played 17 games with Oakland's Class AAA affiliate in Sacramento last year while serving out his second suspension, but then asked for and received his release in June.