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02/20/12 9:30 PM EST

A's hoping they get to see talented Manny

One of these days, Manny Ramirez may look back on his career and be filled with regret. He might wish he'd worked harder, been a better teammate and built a reputation worthy of all that talent.

Let's begin there. He could have been one of the all-time greats. He was blessed with quick hands and lightning-fast reactions. He made a very hard game look easy.

He AVERAGED 36 home runs between 1995 and 2008. His OPS was 1.013 in that time. Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols were a bit better, but during Manny's best years, he was in every debate about baseball's best player.

Unfortunately, he may never get the credit he deserves for being a great player. Some will debate whether he was malicious or just a bit different. Regardless, there are former managers and teammates who believed he just didn't care about anything other than money.

Now, he's 39 years old and seemingly desperate to play. Maybe, just maybe, the A's are getting him at the right time. He's a no-risk gamble. He's no longer significant enough to be a distraction, so Billy Beane can only win. If Manny can still play, he'll be a great bargain. If he can't, he'll be sent packing.

The A's won't have to gauge Manny's moods, or wonder whether Manny will be a bad influence on their young players. Manny will either do the right thing, or Manny will be gone.

There's no way of knowing if he has anything left in the tank. He's three years removed from his last really productive season and four years removed from the last time he played more than 104 games.

It could be a good sign that he wants to play badly enough to take a contract that'll pay him only $500,000. To get that, he has to make the club first, and then serve a 50-game suspension before being eligible to play in the Majors.

Manny has made more than $200 million in his 19 seasons, and his reputation is that he's a cautious spender. If he's finally at the point where he's playing for love of the game, he might be able to squeeze in another productive season or two.

There I go with the optimistic Spring Training stuff again. Manny has a long history of doing the wrong thing, and that's not even counting the two positive tests for banned substances.

He drove the Red Sox crazy at times with his lack of hustle and mysterious injuries. Once he landed with the Dodgers, he seemed to be a completely different person, and their coaches rave about how he behaved himself and set a great example in the clubhouse and on the field.

Only Manny would know whether he was campaigning for a new contract. Regardless, he ended up wearing out his welcome there, too.

The Dodgers came away convinced Manny was an asset as long as his team was in contention, but that doesn't explain his behavior with the Red Sox. So, maybe there's no way of knowing when Manny will decide to be Manny.

Now, his career is hanging by a thread. He'll be 40 years old by the time he serves a 50-game suspension, and who knows how long it'll take him to play himself into shape? The A's may not even need him, especially if some of those youngsters -- Collin Cowgill, Seth Smith, Josh Reddick, etc.-- are productive.

Again, though, Beane is risking nothing, and Manny is just two years removed from a .409 OBP in 265 at-bats. He homered just nine times that season, but there's no way of knowing if his heart was in it.

He has been one of those guys who made the game more interesting for those of us who cover the game. He was ALWAYS a story because he'd either seemingly turned over a new leaf or was doing something to call attention to himself.

After sitting out virtually all of last season after learning he'd tested positive again, this season would appear to be his chance to write a different kind of ending to a career that should have been so much more.

The A's have no way of knowing which Manny they'll get, and this time it doesn't matter. This time, it's all about Manny not being Manny.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.