Less than a year into his big league career, Manny Machado has discovered that the perks of playing in Baltimore go beyond crabcakes, the smell of pit barbecue and the thrill of hearing fans at Camden Yards chanting "Manny!" every time he clears the fence or makes an acrobatic play at third base.
Baseball tradition runs deep in the city, and special nights at the park have a certain red-carpet-at-the-Oscars feel to them. Machado glimpsed the phenomenon recently during "A Celebration of Earl Weaver" night, when he emerged from the dugout runway and came upon Cal Ripken Jr., Eddie Murray and Brooks Robinson standing in a group.
Machado was born in 1992 -- 17 years after Robinson won the last of his 16 career Gold Gloves -- but he's sufficiently well-versed in baseball history to respect his elders. His pulse quickened when the Human Vacuum Cleaner called out to him, shook his hand and praised him for his stellar defensive play at third base.
"Brooks introduced himself and said, 'Hey, man, you can pick it,'" Machado said. "He started joking around and said, 'Hey, make at least one error this year.' It was pretty cool when he said that. It's something you never forget."
Machado is creating some warm memories for posterity on both sides of the ball in Baltimore. He ranks sixth among MLB third basemen with a .304 batting average, and he joined Robinson this week as the second player in Orioles history to collect four hits in a game at age 20. He's riding a nine-game hitting streak entering Baltimore's game against Seattle Wednesday night at Safeco Field.
But it's Machado's defense that really has the baseball world buzzing. Combine a strong arm, great balance and a broad wingspan with a terrific work ethic, and the raw materials are in place for him to put a significant dent in Robinson's Gold Glove total.
Unless, of course, he spends most of his career at shortstop.
It's a question Machado and the team's braintrust would rather save for a later date. The Orioles are fresh off a 93-win season and their first playoff appearance in 15 years, and they're in the early American League East mix again with a 16-11 record. Personnel decisions have a way of resolving themselves over time, and the measured comments from manager Buck Showalter, general manager Dan Duquette and others make it clear they see little point in speculating on Machado's future long before they're forced to make a decision.
"I see him in the future playing good baseball for the Baltimore Orioles," Showalter told The Baltimore Sun. "Where he ends up being, we'll see. He's a good fit for us right now, and I've learned with people like Manny that you don't put any limitations on him or any undue expectations. I just want him to be himself and do what he does."
That's fine with Machado, who still inhabits the "gee whiz" phase that comes with entering the clubhouse and seeing his name above a locker stall. Fellow phenoms Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have moved to left field without a fuss, and he is similarly content to trust Baltimore management in determining where he fits best.
"You know what? That's something I can't control," Machado said. "That's up to Dan and to Buck, who writes out the lineup every day. Wherever I play, I'm going to be satisfied and give 100 percent. If you do what you need to do at a position, everything is going to take care of itself."
• • •
The Orioles selected Machado with the No. 3 pick in the 2010 draft (behind only Harper and the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jameson Taillon) with the expectation that he would one day flourish as a big, rangy, power-hitting shortstop in the Ripken-Alex Rodriguez mold. In his first full minor league season, which was split between Delmarva in the South Atlantic League and Frederick in the Carolina League, Machado showed all the necessary skills to be an upper-echelon shortstop. At 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, he's plenty agile.
"I saw him in Delmarva, and it might have been the five best days I've ever seen an 'A' ballplayer have in my life," a National League scout said. "He went in the hole and made the [Derek] Jeter jump play twice. He went up the middle, pirouetted and made a play. And there was a play where the second baseman gave him a half-[hearted] flip and I said, 'There's no way he's going to turn it,' and he barehanded it and threw a rocket to first base. I think he's going to be a superstar."
The Orioles summoned Machado to play third base this past August in the middle of a pennant race, and the move had an instant domino effect. While Machado and veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy were stabilizing the left side, the overall team defense improved, and the Orioles went 33-17 down the stretch. They remain a cohesive group this season with an outfield of Nick Markakis, Adam Jones and Nate McLouth from right to left, Chris Davis settling in nicely as the full-time first baseman and Matt Wieters running the show from behind the plate. Jones, Wieters and Hardy won Gold Gloves last season, and Markakis previously snagged one in 2011.
According to Baseball Prospectus, the Orioles rank first in the majors in team defensive efficiency rankings this season, and Machado is doing his fair share. He is tied for first among MLB third basemen with a plus-5 ranking in the Fielding Bible's defensive runs saved listings.
Machado made a splash with a display of Jeter-caliber field awareness against the Tampa Bay Rays in September, handling an Evan Longoria chopper, realizing he had no play at first base and whirling to catch pinch runner Rich Thompson scurrying back into third. Lest anyone think that was a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence, Machado nearly pulled it off again on a Matt Kemp chopper in a recent Orioles-Dodgers game.
"He's looking at the ball, but he's able to see what's going on behind him," said Bobby Dickerson, Baltimore's third-base coach and infield instructor. "All good infielders look for outs other than during the development of a play. We talk about it in the minor leagues: 'Once you don't have a play on this guy, look to a back base and you may have a guy there.' Manny is instinctive, and he hears things and he registers them and he sees the field."
Machado's coaches and mentors see subtle traits that add up to a rare feel for the game. Showalter talks about Machado's "clock," the internal mechanism that tells him just how hard he has to charge a ball or throw it to get the baserunner by a half-step. Dickerson cites Machado's ability to stay low enough to "see the bottom half of the ball." And, as former Orioles shortstop, current broadcaster and special assignment instructor Mike Bordick observes, Machado's shift to third base was relatively seamless because of his advanced baseball instincts and solid foundation. It all begins with great feet.
"He has a real good pre-pitch setup," Bordick said. "His feet come off the ground a little bit, and it energizes him so he has good first-step quickness. There are little, subtle moves you can make with your feet to create good angles and get good hops. It's all about creating hops. If your feet don't work, you're not going to be able to do it."
Hardy, by all accounts, has had a profound impact on Machado's mental approach. They communicate constantly on the field, and Machado's superior range allows Hardy to shade toward second base and turn a lot of ground balls up the middle into outs. Even though Machado has a flair for "Web Gems," Hardy has driven home the mindset that routine, day-in, day-out plays are every bit as meaningful as the showstoppers.
"Manny sees the importance of taking care of the ball when he watches J.J. play," Dickerson said. "Manny came here with a lot more flash, but you can see him slowly understanding the idea of, 'This ball means a lot, and we've got to make sure that we take care of it.' J.J. mentors him. Manny asks good questions, and J.J. gives him honest answers."
• • •
Hardy will be 32 when his three-year, $22.5 million deal runs out at the end of the 2014 season, and the Orioles might head in any number of directions. They can re-sign Hardy as their shortstop, bring him back to play third base and shift Machado to short, or simply cut the cord and move in a different direction. The free-agent and trade landscapes 18 months from now also will be a factor in their decision.
Or maybe the talent in the pipeline will determine the team's long-term direction. Jonathan Schoop, ranked No. 50 on Keith Law's list of baseball's top 100 prospects, has a chance to wind up at second, third or short. And shortstop Adrian Marin, Baltimore's third-round pick in the 2012 draft, is playing low Class A ball in Delmarva and could be part of the equation a few years down the road.
Finally, it's possible that another growth spurt will ensure Machado is best suited for the hot corner. "He might be 6-4 or 6-5 and 230 pounds, and he can just be over there at third, launching balls," Jones said.
Whatever route the Orioles take, it will be with a minimum of drama. From the moment Machado arrived this past summer, his teammates welcomed him into the clubhouse and threw a nurturing arm around his shoulder.
"There was no rookie hazing where he would be uncomfortable, and that helped him a lot," Bordick said. "The guys here realized what he was all about, and they made him feel like part of the team right away, and they got to the postseason with him. You have to give kudos to the veterans here for making him feel at home."
Machado helped ease the transition with his old-school sensibilities. He learned the value of hard work and a diligent approach from his mother, Rosa Nunez, and the benefits of keeping his mouth shut from his older sister and her circle of friends. In February, Machado confirmed that he is engaged to be married to Yainee Alonso, sister of San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso.
His teammates enjoy having him around for more than his range factor. McLouth, who is fluent in Spanish, recently walked past Machado's locker and jokingly described him as "feo" -- Spanish for "ugly." For a kid who received a $5.25 million bonus in the draft, Machado is refreshingly blue-collar. As Jones recently observed, some of Machado's best defensive plays come when he's 0-for-4 or 0-for-5 at the plate. Rather than taking a bad day at the plate into the field with him, he uses it as motivation to contribute in other ways.
"He gets it," Jones said. "If I'm talking, he shuts up. He understands the game and his role, and he understands that some people have been here longer. He's never tried to step on anybody's toes. He listens. He asks questions. He just minds his business and shows up every day ready to play."
In the illustrious tradition of Brooks, Cal, Eddie and the others, Machado is content to let his game speak for itself no matter where his name is on the lineup card. He's a true disciple of the Oriole Way.