JUPITER, Fla. – Manny Machado isn’t trying too hard, isn’t hoping to look or sound either too engaged or too disinterested. Isn’t really thinking about what’s going to sound right or wrong, or doesn’t seem to be. He’s leaning against a wall behind the bleachers, feeling a bat in his hands as he talks and shrugs and occasionally gestures, sometimes finishing a thought by tapping the bat on the concrete at his feet. He is hopelessly comfortable, or seems to be, with who he is, with where he was, wherever he’s going. Wherever that is.
A seventh season in Baltimore ahead, he’s also approaching the decision of his professional life. Also, he’s 25, and if you’ll recall being 25 you’ll also recall feeling at once superhuman and wholly vulnerable to the day rent was due. Without the second part, that leaves only superhuman. Bulletproof. And if Machado feels even the slightest apprehension over his walk-year, his leaving Baltimore, that subtle dip in batter’s box production leading to more, his wading into free agency, over some tomorrow out there that has zero to do with his next at-bat, let’s just say that wouldn’t sound like him.
“This is the best I’ve ever seen him in spring,” his manager, Buck Showalter, had said on day in Sarasota. “I mean, think of all the good that’s going on in his life. He’s always wanted to go back to his position. He’s playing there. He knows he can play it. What would be wrong with him?”
All that’s at stake for Machado is where – Boston? Philadelphia? Bronx? One of the Chicagos? Texas? – and for how long and how much, but not yet. Not nearly yet. What’s good enough for now – what’ll have to be – is a warm Florida sun and a few swings closer to that seventh season in Baltimore, an interesting new haircut set atop a leaner body carved for the middle of the diamond, a greater appreciation for those old ballgames at Hialeah’s Goodlet Park the farther he gets from them and, sure, that new bat in his hands. It’s so simple now, even as free agency as a concept turns from a summer parade into a winter dog fight.
He’s back at the dawn of another season, back at his beloved shortstop and, in case this is necessary, batting .419 in spring training. While plenty talk about timing and rhythm and “almost there,” he’s hammering the ball and striking out three times in 46 plate appearances. None of which counts unless it just feels better to hammer the ball and hardly ever strike out, which it does.
So I ask about when it gets sideways for him, assuming it ever does. That moment on that day when a person wonders what he’s really good at – work, parenting, being a friend, mowing the lawn, hitting sliders, all that, what does he think about then? What works for him? What sets him straight?
He thinks for maybe a second.
“How hard it was,” he says. “All the struggle that I had to go through to get to where I’m at right now. I don’t think it could be any harder than that. Financially. Love. You can name so many of the struggles growing up that you have to deal with living in Miami.
“So, every time I get into a dark place, you just kind of look back to those days that you didn’t have anything. Now you look around, I have a beautiful wife, I have a beautiful home, I have nice things. I have good people around me. I have their families. I come into this clubhouse, everyone is happy to see me. You look at those things and I think that’s more important than anything. You can go out there and struggle or have bad games or have bad things going on at home, you look back at those things and it brings you back to life.”
He taps the bat on the concrete.
“Always,” he says. “Always. Remember where I come from. Remember Hialeah, Goodlet, HAA [Hialeah Athletic Association baseball]. Just remember those days.”
He smiles like he could be there now, like it has brought him back to those fields tucked into the corner of Red Road and 103rd Street, out east of Miami. Those days led to these days, and these days don’t have to look all that different.
“You know what, it really hasn’t changed,” he says, except, “We get paid pretty good.
“Other than that, I think it’s the same game. I try to think about it like if I was playing, you know, tee ball, and coach pitch and then kid pitch. Going to tournaments. Driving up to Orlando. Driving here. I played here a bunch of times. The games never change. It gets better. Better players. Better quality bats, better quality baseballs, gloves. It’s a different game, but at the same time it’s the same game you gotta play. You gotta catch the ball, hit the ball. The game’s never changed for the hundred and something years it’s been going on. That’s what drives you every day.”
He’ll play for what’s next, sure. But, also, to be the best shortstop in the game, better even than Lindor or Correa or Seager, take your pick. To be the best player in the game. To hand it all over to agent Dan Lozano next winter and see what comes.
“I love what I do,” he says. “I love my job. I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. I love coming in the clubhouse every day. Seeing everybody. Talking to everybody. Going out there and catching my grounders, getting ready for a game. Then going out there and playing. Yeah, you go oh-fer, you might be mad and stuff like that, but sometimes you’re just grateful for being out there and playing, doing what you really love every day. Instead of sitting behind a desk or something. Nothing against them, those are long days. That’s real work. We’re doing what we love every day.”
“Things will fall in,” he says.
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