How do you describe the taste of a crisp, ice-cold beer on a hot day? The feeling when you bite into the perfect juicy burger tucked into a crunchy toasted bun? That thing that happens when Manny Machado ranges to his right, backhands a sharp grounder, checks his footing, and, from what feels like impossibly far down the foul line, uncorks a bullet across the diamond to nail the runner?
It is hard to write about Manny Machado’s time as an Oriole because when someone plays the game of baseball with that much flair, confidence, and grace, words can come up a little short. In just under six full seasons with Baltimore from 2012 to 2018, Manny put together a career’s worth of webgems. There is Manny sprinting in from deep on the basepaths to barehand a soft Alfonso Soriano tapper, cocking his arm and firing to first as his momentum carries him tumbling to the grass. There’s Manny backhanding a short hop threatening to skip by him, pivoting almost a full 360°, hopping to his feet and firing to Jonathan Schoop for an easy 5-4-3 double play. There’s Manny spearing a certain-to-be double down the line, his momentum carrying him easily ten feet wide of the bag, and firing off a throw I’ve never seen any third baseman make.
Manuel Arturo Machado made his big-league debut with Baltimore on August 9, 2012, a gangly 20-year-old two years out of Brito Miami High. At the time, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft was raking in Double-A Bowie, slashing .444/.512/.889 with three doubles, two triples, three homers and seven RBIs over his last 10 games. With the redoubtable J.J. Hardy firmly installed for the big-league club at shortstop, the Orioles had sent infield coach Bobby Dickerson down to Bowie that spring to teach the natural shortstop Machado the fundamentals of third base. (He taught him well.)
That night, greeted by Baltimore faithful with a standing-O and chants of “Man-ny, Man-ny,” the rookie Machado faced a steady diet of curveballs from Kansas City’s Will Smith, going 2-for-4 with a triple, a run scored, and a couple of solid plays on defense. After the game, Orioles catcher Matt Wieters would say, with typical Wieters understatement, “He handled it well.” Orioles manager Buck Showalter explained that Machado had been called up early “because we think he can help us win more games potentially.” Buck was right: in Manny’s 51 games that season, the Orioles went 31-18 and nabbed a trip to the postseason, their first since 1997. Machado notched an RBI in the 2012 Wild Card game against Texas, a game the heavy underdog Orioles won to carve out a spot in team lore.
Machado and the Orioles were off to the races, a successful partnership that saw the Orioles become the AL’s winningest team from 2012-2016 and Manny blossom into one of the game’s best—if not the best—third baseman. During this run, he’d win two gold gloves (including the 2013 fan-selected Platinum Glove), earn four All-Star selections, and finish in the top-10 in MVP voting three times.
That is all the more remarkable considering Machado had two bum knees and reparative surgery on each, the left in 2013 and the right in 2014, a devastating injury that surely hurt the AL East champion Orioles, who went down to Kansas City that year in the ALCS. Fans were aghast that the infield wunderkind might not make it back, but it didn’t seem to hurt him much: in 2015, the year he returned, Manny led the league with 162 games played and 713 plate appearances. He also finished fourth that year in the MVP voting, with a .286/.359/.502 line, 181 hits, 35 home runs, 86 RBIs, 20 stolen bases, and a 132 OPS+. He even managed to improve on these stats in 2016, finishing the season with a .294/.343/.533 slash line, 37 home runs, 96 RBIs, 40 doubles, 188 hits, and another Top-5 finish in the MVP race.
Sure, there were sour notes breaking up the honeymoon: the ultimate absence of postseason hardware for the team after their successful run, Manny’s brawl with now-deceased pitcher Yordano Ventura, his tossed-bat altercation with the Athletics, and of course (after he left the Orioles for a half-season with Los Angeles), that unfortunate “Johnny Hustle” comment. Many chalked it up to his being immature, a passionate hothead who acted first and thought later. There might be truth to that, but after the scandal Manny’s former teammates stuck by their man: “I’ll defend that guy until the day I die” (Trey Mancini), “He’s my boy” (Adam Jones), “He really is an excellent teammate” (Mark Trumbo), “I think a lot of people judge on the one or two negative things that they’ve seen, and they don’t really know who he is otherwise” (J.J. Hardy).
Then, after Machado signed his monster $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres, there was that much-picked over comment that the Orioles “didn’t show me a little bit of love.” The thing is, he was probably right. The Orioles are notorious for letting budding stars walk, and they didn’t make a pitch to Manny when his asking price was still within reach. Anyway, Machado later clarified, of Baltimore, “I loved the fans. It was unbelievable playing in front of those guys every single night and day. They were always there cheering us on. Whether we were sucking or balling out, it didn’t matter; they supported us through everything.”
On-the-field greatness and/or judgment calls aside, two of my favorite Orioles memories will forever be associated with Manny. One is longtime Orioles broadcaster Joe Angel’s special Manny Machado home run call, Hasta la vista, pelota! The other is the good ole’ fashioned bromance (and increasingly out of control handshakes) Manny shared with Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop. Like a pair of two hyperactive puppies (well, supernaturally talented puppies) the two would rib each other, chat between plays, pretend to fight on the field, and push each other forward as athletes. It was the best of them both, and, for a while, of Orioles baseball in the ‘10s: loose but focused, competitive but easy-going, top-notch baseball being played just for the hell of it.