From the thump of tunes in a happy clubhouse, to the boom of the latest songs over the public address system during batting practice to the rhythm of bat hitting ball, baseball and music go hand-in-hand. So, you can imagine Orioles third baseman Manny Machado’s surprise when he learned his manager Buck Showalter’s smartphone was tuneless.
Machado, who gave his teammates and coaches high-end headphones and speakers, said Showalter looked confused by his gift. “He opened it up. He said ‘What is this? What is this?’” said Machado “I said, ‘Open it up.’ He goes, ‘Headphones. What do we use it for?’ I figured out he has no music on his iPhone. So I was trying to get him updated a little bit.”
Showalter recounted how Machado tried to get him to subscribe to an online music service, with little success. “What’d you say? Pandora. He said ‘Just go to Pandora,” said Showalter. “I’m like, ‘I know about Pandora’s Box. He got quite a kick out of that. He’s still laughing at that.”
Machado has not only given his team the gift of music, he’s provided the fans with the sound of base hits ringing off his bat. The Hialeah, Fla. native, who just turned 21, was called up from the minors last August, and hit a respectable .262 for the balance of the 2012 season. So far this season Machado has sparkled so much that he’s been selected to the American League All-Star team as a reserve.
Machado finished the pre-All Star period batting .311, 10th best in the American League. His 127 hits are good for second in the majors behind Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera, who will start at third Tuesday ahead of him. The Elias Sports Bureau, Major League Baseball’s official statistician says Machado has more hits before the All-Star break than any player before turning 21 in baseball history. And with 39 two-base hits to date, Machado is also on pace to set a single season mark for doubles.
As the third overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft, Machado’s rise to stardom isn’t completely unexpected. It’s the pace at which he’s reached this lofty place that has caught many baseball observers off guard. Take ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian, a veteran baseball reporter and analyst, for instance. “I’m absolutely dazzled by how good he is,” said Kurkjian, who covered the Orioles for the Baltimore Sun in the 1980’s. “I knew he would be a good offensive player. I didn’t see him being this good this quickly and going for the doubles record before he turns 21 years old.”
Kurkjian said he is doubly impressed with how well Machado, a lifelong shortstop, has made the adjustment to playing third base. His conversion has been so thorough that there are debates within baseball circles whether the Orioles should just leave him at third permanently.
“Personally, I would put him at shortstop whenever the time comes,” said Kurkjian. “But now’s not the time. J.J. Hardy made the All-Star team. He’s a really good shortstop. But I think it’s easier to find a productive third baseman than it is to find a productive shortstop and you have both of them right now in Manny Machado.”
Indeed, on July 7, the day after he was named an All-Star, Machado made a stunning defensive play in one of baseball’s meccas, Yankee Stadium. With two out in the sixth, Machado backhanded a sharp grounder from Yankee third baseman Luis Cruz, bobbled the ball slightly, then, while running deep into foul territory, he whipped a strike to first that arrived a half-step ahead of the very surprised Cruz.
The feat has almost universally declared the defensive play of the year in all of baseball, but Machado was actually angry that he initially misplayed the ball. “I should have caught it,” said Machado. “But I stuck with it and it was a good play. But onto the next. Take it pitch by pitch and that’s something that’s helped me out a lot this game.”
Machado’s play has helped keep the Orioles in the very tight American League East race, in third place, 4 ½ games behind first-place Boston and two games behind Tampa Bay. But he’s hardly the only factor. First baseman Chris Davis, who will start in Tuesday’s game, having amassed more fan votes than any other player in baseball this season, has been on a home run tear this season. Davis’ 37 homers has tied an American League record for most home runs before the All-Star break, and he is well on pace to shatter Brady Anderson’s team single season mark of 50 homers.
After a slow start, center fielder Adam Jones, who will also start in the All-Star Game, has continued to blend exceptional defensive play with solid offense. That also goes for shortstop J.J. Hardy, the Birds’ third All-Star starter. The fifth Oriole All-Star, starting pitcher Chris Tillman, was a late addition to the American League squad, but is tied for fourth in the league with wins (11). Tillman is the first Baltimore starter to be named an All-Star since Mike Mussina in 1999 and could be considered the ace of the staff.
Despite the return of Wei-Yin Chen from the disabled list last week and the recent acquisition of Scott Feldman from the Chicago Cubs, the Orioles will likely look for more pitching before July 31. That’s the date that trades can be conducted without having to pass players through waivers.
Meanwhile, the usually reticent Showalter has taken something of a shine to Machado. The manager says that he especially wants to keep the youngster from getting frustrated with what he perceives to be bad strike calls from umpires, who haven’t afforded the rookie the respect that more veteran hitters receive.
To his credit, Showalter said, Machado has largely stayed in the moment, avoiding gloating over success or wallowing in rare failures. “The mind’s a crazy thing,” said Showalter. “Once it (mistakes) get in there, that’s a lot at that level. The guys are so talented, but what separates them a lot is how strong they are mentally. I think that’s what I’ve been impressed with Manny. He’s been really strong mentally. He doesn’t handle failure very well in a good way. He doesn’t like to be embarrassed.”
Machado has had few embarrassing moments in his brief career perhaps because he does appear capable of taking the game in bite-sized bits, rather than trying to swallow it whole. “You take it pitch-by-pitch, at-bat by at-bat,” said Machado. “Whatever happened in your at-bat, don’t take it onto the field. Get in there, go into the dugout, think about it for a second and go back out there and play your game. You know no matter what you do in the game, you go 0-for-4, you still impact the game in some way on defense, helping out your team, making a great play or making something happen. Just take it pitch-by-pitch and day-by-day."
And with more experience at dealing with cold stretches, Manny Machado plans to be even better next year. Now, that would be music to Orioles fans ears.