Alex Rodriguez was the greatest player I had ever seen. When A-Rod played his first full season for the Mariners in 1996, “five-year old Sal” knew there was something special about him. Every time I would watch a Mariners game, Rodriguez made a tremendous play. Defensively, no shortstop had his range or his arm strength. At the plate, the rookie hit .358, with 54 doubles and 36 home runs. He even looked alert on the base paths. I was as enamored with him as an Orioles fan could have been. On my sixth birthday, my parents gave me an Alex Rodriguez jersey.
In 2012, fourteen seasons later, I still had never seen a rookie impress me like Rodriguez had. That changed with Manny Machado.
Every time the young man walked up to the plate, there was a chance something spectacular is about to happen. The 2012 Orioles were a good baseball team, but once they called Machado up to the majors, they became a playoff team. You know the story: the rookie sensation rose from Bowie, switched positions, played stellar defense and provided a spark offensively.
In baseball, coaches can help players develop physical parts of their game. Pitching coaches help hurlers learn new pitches, or develop better control of the ones they already have. Hitting coaches teach sluggers about pitch recognition, and they help keep their swings controlled and effective. In a game full of coachable components, there is one thing that cannot be taught, and that is confidence in the clutch.
Machado is clutch. Look no further than last season’s “pump fake” play against Tampa Bay, or his RBI in the AL Wild Card Game. This season, he’s at it again. I’m not a big fan of using stats to support arguments this early into a season, but his current numbers place him among the league’s top hitters. Just today, Manny ripped three doubles in a loss to the Padres, including one in the ninth inning. Down five runs in the ninth, and Machado is still working his tail off. There is a lot to be said about a guy that plays as hard as they can in every inning of every game.
His performance on the field is beginning to attract national attention. While Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have dominated the headlines, the Orioles’ third baseman is slowly slugging his way into the conversation. Baseball people everywhere are beginning to see what I saw last season, and what the Orioles must have envisioned when they drafted him.
The question remains, what will the Orioles do with Machado? A converted shortstop, the 20-year old has provided superb defense at third base. JJ Hardy is currently entrenched at shortstop, and he is coming off a season in which he won a Gold Glove. For now, the powers that be, have expressed no urgency in solving this “dilemma”. Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette are happy to let pundits ponder fake trades or draw up hypothetical scenarios about his future. Machado is playing great baseball right now, and why would they mess with a good thing?
In contradiction with most young players, Machado has displayed maturity when asked about the position switch. His “wherever the coach puts me” approach is endearing to a blue-collar fan base that’s been deprived of competitive baseball for over a decade. Each fan has their own opinion on the issue. Some feel that it is easier to find a long-term replacement at third base, and that Manny should slide to short once Hardy’s contract expires. Others think Machado is playing incredibly well at third base, and that moving him would only disrupt his game. A few fans even think Machado must play for the Ravens because there is no way Baltimore talk radio would be spending this much coverage on a baseball player.
It’s impossible to tell what position he will inevitably play, what off the field drama he will run into or even what statistics he will post when he’s 37-years old. While analysts are sitting in their parents’ basements, developing new numbers to find his actual worth, I’ll be watching this kid play the game the way it was meant to be played. Maybe he becomes a star shortstop, or maybe he continues to develop into an amazing third baseman. Either way, that decision won’t be ours to make. For now, we just have to sit back and enjoy watching Manny’s meteoric rise to stardom. One thing is certain about Manny Machado; his jersey will forever hang in my closet, right next to that navy blue Seattle Mariners jersey.