Image credit: Manny Machado (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Before the start of spring training — so long ago, even the Orioles had reason to believe they might field a representative team — Manny Machado embraced the challenge of his free agent walk year. Baltimore had recently granted his request to move from third base back to his first love at shortstop, and Machado went to great lengths to prepare for the toll that all those forays in the hole and up the middle would take on his body.
Machado went on a health kick, revamped his diet and added strength and definition to his body over the winter. Among his personal sacrifices were eliminating pizza and chicken nuggets from his diet. Each day, Machado would drive past another McDonald’s and muster the willpower not to turn into the drive-thru window for a heaping bag of fat grams and sodium.
“Are you going to put cheap gas in your Lamborghini?” Machado said in March. “I feel like I’m a Rolls-Royce or a Lamborghini — whichever one. It doesn’t matter. It’s an expensive car, and you’re not going to put something cheap in there.”
The Lamborghini analogy is a fitting one for Machado. His sleek exterior masks lots of power under the hood. But sports cars can be temperamental. They don’t always go from zero to 60 in a flash. Potholes loom around every corner. And you never know when Jesus Aguilar’s big right foot will be lurking on the immediate horizon as a precursor to trouble.
Less than three months into his tenure with the Dodgers, Machado added another line to his bad boy image with a regrettable and misguided incident in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the Brewers. While crossing first base, he took a quick glance down, clipped Aguilar’s heel and added to his Grayson Allen-caliber catalogue of missteps. Major League Baseball fined him $10,000, but the hit to his wallet didn’t come close to the dings to his image and reputation.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter publicly opined that Machado does some things that are, for want of a better word, curious. And Brewers outfielder and NL MVP frontrunner Christian Yelich delivered a searing scouting report on the game’s new October arch-villain.
“He’s a player who has a history of those types of incidents,” Yelich told reporters after Game 4. “One time is an accident. Repeated over and over and over again, you’re just a dirty player. It’s a dirty play by a dirty player, and that’s what it is.”
The numbers speak to Machado’s record of achievement at age 26. He has four All-Star Game appearances, two top-five MVP finishes and two Gold Gloves at third base on his résumé, and his 142 home runs since 2015 place him in a tie with Mike Trout for seventh place among major league hitters.
Over that same span, Machado leads the majors with 2,808 plate appearances and 637 games—one more than his former Baltimore teammate Nick Markakis.
The rap sheet speaks to Machado’s immaturity. The first big blemish came in 2014, when he overreacted to a routine tag from the Athletics’ Josh Donaldson by throwing his bat in the direction of Alberto Callaspo at third base. Machado was branded with some “punk” tendencies at age 21, and they’ve lingered through the years because of a troubling aversion to running out routine ground balls. Even before the Aguilar incident, Orioles broadcaster and Hall of Famer Jim Palmer took to Twitter and criticized Machado for lollygagging.
Machado was refreshingly candid in an attempt at damage control. But the words came out all wrong.
“I’m not the type of player who’s going to be ‘Johnny Hustle’ and run down the line and slide to first base and—you know, whatever can happen,” he told Ken Rosenthal in a Fox Sports 1 interview. “That’s just not my personality. That’s not my cup of tea. That’s not who I am.”
Let’s cut Machado some slack and buy into the notion that he’s captive to his emotions and powerless to ward off the knee-jerk actions that cast him in a negative light. Or perhaps he secretly warms to the bad-boy narrative and derives motivation from all those boos raining down upon his head. He wouldn’t be the first great player with a flair for “what the heck?” moments in the field. (Does the name “Alex Rodriguez” spring to mind?)
So it’s natural to wonder if Machado’s October brain cramps could carry over into November and turn his free agent joyride into a magical mystery tour. Could the Yankees, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers and other potential suitors flinch over the PR ramifications of signing a player to a $300 million contract when he admittedly has lapses in concentration and engagement?
The Phillies have been widely regarded as a prime landing spot for Bryce Harper, Machado or—incredibly—both. Phillies owner John Middleton is anxious to jump into the fray and spend money on a superstar. But perception counts in a city that prides itself on its blue-collar sensibilities, and things could get a tad awkward when someone brings up those “Johnny Hustle” comments at the introductory press conference.
Still, Machado checks way too many boxes not to capitalize on the open market this winter. This isn’t Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano or Miguel Cabrera signing for mega-millions with the likelihood that they will become fading, one-dimensional players in their mid-to-late 30s. Machado is just entering his prime, and if his next team has to deal with some petulance here and there for 160 games of supreme all-around play every year, then so be it. Athletes mature at different rates, and there’s no rule that says he can’t reinvent himself as an older, wiser Manny Machado at age 27.
In the meantime, Machado will serve as a cautionary tale for the next superstar ballplayer who thinks it can’t hurt to take his eyes off the prize as the opportunity of a lifetime beckons.
Memo to Manny: It’s never bad policy to just hit the ball, put your head down and run.