'It's my prime, baby': Why Manny Machado is the best he's ever been at age 30

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He's the old guy in the room now, and that is not an easy fact for Manny Machado to accept. At the All-Star Game in July, a week after his 30th birthday, he chirped: "It's my prime, baby. I'm young. I'm young!" And a month later in Kansas City, where his San Diego Padres were still trying to figure out who exactly they are 125 games into the season, he started telling a story from his rookie year, now a decade ago. He got booted from a training-room table simply because he was young. Those were different times, he said, back in the day. All of which, he quickly realized, is the exact sort of thing the old guy might say, dammit.

Thing is, while Machado may be older, he is also wiser. As he chuckles self-deprecatingly, it's proof that as seriously as he still takes baseball, the game has taught him to take himself less so.

That's why the laughs are accompanied by more smiles than he shared in his formative seasons. These days, Machado likes to golf and go boating and play chess. He points to the scars on each of his knees and speaks with pride about how they've held up for him, carrying himself like the wunderkind who, at 20 years old, wheedled his 6-foot-3 frame to make plays few other third basemen dared try -- in and back and especially to his right, into foul territory, fading toward the stands and still somehow finding enough in his arm to make the impossible real. All of it, put together, constitutes his inevitable descent into dadhood.

Machado swears that he's young -- he's young! -- even though baseball's newest dogma holds that 30 is a line of demarcation. For plenty, it does ring true. It is a sport filled with running back equivalents. Bats slow. Arms fail. Legs give. Gloves stiffen. The game is unforgiving.

But those spared of such ailments at 30 can still be in their prime, baby, and in that regard, Machado was not embellishing. The .306 average he carries into this weekend's series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which will culminate on Sunday Night Baseball, is the highest of his career. So is his .376 on-base percentage and 161 OPS+. He should reach the 30-home run threshold for the sixth time in his career. The Padres, for all their inconsistencies, are 73-59 and hold a three-game lead over Milwaukee for the third wild-card spot in the National League. Machado stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman as the biggest threats to Paul Goldschmidt's grip on the NL MVP award.

"This is the game we love," Machado said. "Have a smile on your face every single day and try to leave it on the field every single day. That's all we can control. This game is already hard enough. Lot of cameras, a lot of things that we have to adapt ourselves to, so, at the end of the day, it's just about hitting a baseball, catching a baseball, getting some outs and winning games for your ballclub. So just enjoy yourself to the fullest."

Being as good as Machado has been for this long -- first-ballot Hall of Fame good, 3,000-hit-club good -- and having no championship ring to show for it humbles a man, forces him to assess his priorities. So Machado is thinking bigger now, about his reputation, his place in the game, how he wants to be remembered -- his legacy. They're questions a younger version of himself would not have cared to answer and ones the current incarnation has plenty of time to sort out. Because for all he has done, Manny Machado feels like his career is just beginning.

The greatest comfort in Machado's career comes not from the financial windfall of the staggering 10-year, $300 million contract he signed with the Padres in February 2019, but that the first four seasons of that deal have been a resounding success. For those who don't perform, the megadeal becomes a player's defining characteristic, the prism through which his every failure is viewed. A dollar sign and nine numbers handcuff themselves to him.

Players who avoid such fates can train their time and attention elsewhere, to doing things like legacy-building. Enough snafus exist in Machado's past -- the bat throw against Oakland, the slide into Dustin Pedroia, the hustle comments with the Dodgers -- that growth was necessary to ensure youthful indiscretions don't define him. Whatever happened in his 20s, Machado sees his 30s as an opportunity to be his best self.

It's evident in the clubhouse to someone like Ha-Seong Kim. He arrived in San Diego last season as a 25-year-old star from South Korea. Despite the language barrier, Machado immediately embraced him, mentored him, helped acclimate him.

"Pretty much every day, every minute, he's trying to help me out and trying to improve my game to play better," Kim said. "So I want to do better because of him trying so hard to help me out. The guy never wants to quit. So that makes us play even harder, play better. He's the captain for sure."

In 2021, Machado slogged through the season with a shoulder injury and still played 153 games. This year, he recovered from a nasty-looking sprained ankle in mid-June and could again finish with at least 150 games played, which he has done in every non-shortened season since 2015. "He's posting," Padres manager Bob Melvin says, and there may be no higher compliment a manager can give.

"Honestly, for me, every single year is just the grind of the season," Machado said. "How it wears you down, how it brings you up. You think you're never gonna get a hit again, and then now you're on fire. That's the beauty for me every single year. It's the wear and tear of knowing that I grinded through 160 games and, you know, you made it. You made it to the end."

While Machado's 10-year deal could set him up to be a Padre for life, that success in the first four years also could mean there's another chapter in store. At the end of the 2023 season, Machado can opt out of the final five years and $150 million of his contract -- a fact that no doubt will lead to plenty of conversations between Machado and his agent, Dan Lozano, before then.

It's too early for Machado to address the possibility, but the presence of a potential test case this winter could offer valuable insight. Arenado, who is 31, like Machado will be next year, can opt out of the last five years and $144 million of his deal. He has suggested he will not opt out, but that sentiment came before his MVP-caliber season. Aaron Judge will hit free agency at 30 this winter and command $300 million-plus. Whatever the market holds, Machado has shown a willingness to test it, weather it -- he signed with the Padres after spring training started -- and leverage it to his advantage.

There's no question Machado could fetch a far more lucrative deal as a free agent, and yet the feeling of unfinished business in San Diego is palpable. In early August, the Padres traded for Juan Soto, another future Hall of Famer and bonafide superstar, only for their all-world shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., to get suspended after he tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Dampened were the Padres' chances to bring San Diego its first major men's professional sports championship.

San Diego has done its fair share of losing, and Machado has learned that winning there would do a great city a great service -- and be one hell of a legacy-building block. To stay in San Diego and do something only one longtime Padre has accomplished would be something else altogether.

Since Machado burst onto the scene as a baby-faced rookie in 2012, he's been consistently great -- but the stats he's amassed in the decade since seem to have flown under the radar. Currently, he's 18th among active players with 1,568 hits. The next-closest hitter at Machado's age is Xander Bogaerts, who's at 1,381. Machado is more than halfway to 3,000 hits -- territory seen before only by Mr. Padre, Tony Gwynn, as well as Rickey Henderson in his second tour of duty there -- and to do so with power and truly elite defense is why it's more than fair to call Machado a future Hall of Famer.

Pitchers know that he's the best first-pitch hitter in baseball, with a lifetime average of .360, and they still can't do anything about it. This season, Machado is punishing first pitches at a .463 rate and slugging .732. And his 38 first-pitch hits this season have been key to catalyzing an offense that has proven needy at times.

Losing had become too commonplace for the Padres before they signed Machado -- and, frankly, after. They chased a strong COVID-19-shortened 2020 season with a mess of a 2021 season. If the regular season ended today, they would face a dangerous St. Louis team on the road for all three games of a wild-card series. Though that is far from guaranteed, with Milwaukee and its talented pitching staff two games back of San Diego in the loss column.

"We haven't hit that hot streak yet," Machado said. "You just put a little bit more tension on yourself and everything gets tight. So once that rubber band loosens up, I'll be ready to fire. And I think, little by little, guys are coming into their own. When we do that, I think we've still got a pretty good lineup.

"Last year we worried too much about wild card, wild card, wild card, trying to get in. We lost focus of what's in front of us right now. This year, that's what we've been trying to do. Things haven't been really going our way. Whenever that time comes later on down the road, we can worry about that. Let's just take care of what's in front of us."

The old Machado might've panicked. The old-er Machado learned that it does no good. Baseball is not a sport that rewards alarmism and dread. Either the Padres have enough, with Machado and Soto and Kim and Jake Cronenworth and Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish and Blake Snell and Josh Hader, or they don't. And if they don't -- if this season winds up in failure like the last -- then Machado will have a very long winter on the boat, on the course, in front of the board, thinking through what his next move might look like.

Or maybe the Padres win the whole thing. They are baseball's great enigma -- talented as all get out and still nearly 20 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. With Tatis gone for the remainder of the season and Soto still finding his footing in San Diego, Machado is the Padres' unequivocal face -- still of the baby variety, almost a carbon copy of what he looked like when he debuted.

The face is not the only vestige of that Manny Machado that remains: The swing, the body, all the physical elements are similar. The rest are here to be tested, to be challenged. Is he a leader? Is he capable of carrying a team to a championship? Is he deluding himself when he says he's young? And just how much longer is he in his prime?

We'll know soon enough. What's certain is that important games will be played. Machado will post. Hits will fall. And the old(er) man will try once more to ensure it's still prime time.