FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At precisely 9:54 a.m. yesterday, catcher Doug Mirabelli came cruising around the corner of the Red Sox clubhouse and stopped in his tracks.
"Whoa!" said Mirabelli, who looked as though he had seen a ghost.
No ghost. Just Manny Ramírez.
Boston's enigmatic left fielder startled many of his teammates by showing up to camp yesterday morning with a bat in his hand and blood-red highlights in his hair. He arrived six days later than his fellow position players but one day ahead of the mandatory date established by the collective bargaining agreement.
Sox officials had been saying they expected Ramírez to arrive Thursday and they had given him permission to report late because his mother was ill.
Manny's itinerary made headlines when it was revealed that promoters of a classic car auction in Atlantic City said they were expecting him to appear at their event last Saturday. There were radio advertisements in the Philadelphia area touting the slugger's participation in the show, and Tony Averso, who was handling the Ramírez car that was up for auction, told the Globe's Gordon Edes last Wednesday that he had been talking with Manny daily about his appearance, and was expecting him until he received late word of his mother's medical condition.
Reporting late to camp because of a seriously ill mother is one thing. But cruising in a few days tardy because you wanted to see how much your customized '67 Lincoln Continental convertible sold for is another matter entirely. So which applies to Ramírez? Both? Neither? Only Manny knows, and he's not talking.
Ramírez ultimately did not attend the auction. In a series of uncomfortable exchanges with reporters yesterday, his agents both claimed they had no knowledge of the event.
"I have no idea what the deal was with the auto show," said agent Greg Genske. "I do know Manny never had any intention of being there."
"I don't know anything about it," echoed Manny's other representative, Gene Matos.
Manny declined to shed any light on his comings and goings, since he did not address reporters except when he first arrived at his locker and said, "Can you give me some space, please?"
While his teammates publicly support their talented comrade, they have moments when they privately grow weary of his antics. Yet once Manny arrives, and greets them with his usual good nature, all seems forgiven. Even so, general manager Theo Epstein issued a public challenge to his left fielder last week to be "accountable" to his team.
Why start now? Manny does what Manny sees fit. The Red Sox learned of Ramírez's intention to report late through his friend, pitcher Julian Tavarez, who revealed Manny's timetable in a television interview. Naturally, that was a tad disconcerting to his employers, who had the right to expect a phone call.
Asked if he and his client, in retrospect, could have avoided irking the ball club by being more communicative, Genske answered, "I think we've done an excellent job of communicating with the Red Sox. I'm not aware of them being miffed in any way."
"Want to hear the tape? I've got it in my trailer," retorted WBZ radio reporter Jonny Miller.
"Thank you all," answered Genske, then ended the interview.
It was business as usual in Mannyland. Everyone around him looked awkward and foolish trying to explain why Manny insists on being Manny while the player blissfully remained above the fray.
You can get away with it when you are a first-ballot Hall of Famer who hits a baseball as well as anyone of his generation. True to form, Manny appeared fit, happy, and relaxed yesterday. He took 10 pitches in live batting practice against righty Travis Hughes and sprayed a single to center field, a long fly ball to right, and a bullet line drive up the middle. He later stood in the box against Daisuke Matsuzaka for three pitches but never took the bat off his shoulder.
Manny later worked on his base running and even practiced sliding. According to his agent, there have been no discussions with the Red Sox involving a trade. Genske said Ramírez, who bailed last August with a sore knee, is healthy "and very, very excited to start the season." He also said Manny's mother was dealing with a "very, very serious medical issue" during the offseason, but declined to say when.
Manager Terry Francona walked his usual thin line in discussing his slugger. He said he was happy to finally have everyone in camp and was glad Ramírez seemed happy and energized. Francona said he never worries about Manny's production, even when he shows up late.
"That's never a question," Francona said. "I know him well enough to know he's going to put up the numbers.
"My concern is you're trying to form a team. There are more than just numbers that go into your team. At the same time, you do the best you can every day with the players you have. That's my responsibility."
Francona said he wouldn't get bent out of shape over Manny's reporting date, though he did note Manny was the only player in baseball to arrive as late as he did. Has he simply learned to accept Ramírez's laissez-faire approach to the game, even though it flies in the face of his own disciplined philosophy?
"I think it's better to speak in generalities," said the manager. "I can hammer a guy. I can do that anytime I want. But I know what my job is. My job is to win games, not to point out every flaw in everybody's personality. [I could] go get him right now . . . But we're trying to win. That's what we're trying to do."
Manny will help them win. He always does. You can mark him down for a minimum of 120 RBIs and a slew of home runs, and a batting average that rarely dips below .300. But you also can mark him down for some Mannyisms that will leave everyone in the organization biting their lip until it bleeds.
Blood-red highlights. The color suits Manny just fine.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.