‘I’m at my best, baby’: Why Manny Machado is in his best shape at 30

He is now the old man in the room, and that is not an easy fact for Manny Machado. At the All-Star Game in July, a week after her 30th birthday, she sang, “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 exactly who they are 125 games into the season, he began to tell a story from his rookie year, now a decade ago. He got kicked off a training room table simply because he was young. Those were different times, he said, in the past. All of which, he quickly realized, is exactly the sort of thing the old man might say, dammit.

The thing is, while Machado may be older, he’s also wiser. As he laughs self-deprecatingly, it’s proof that while he still takes baseball seriously, the game has taught him to take less of himself.

That’s why the laughs are accompanied by more smiles than he shared in his formative seasons. These days, Machado likes to play golf, go boating, and play chess. He points to the scars on each of his knees and talks proudly about how they’ve endured it, behaving like the 20-year-old wunderkind who coaxed his 6-foot-3 frame into plays few third basemen dared. try, inside and back, and especially to his right, in foul territory, fading into the stands and still finding enough on his arm to make the impossible a reality. All this together constitutes his inevitable descent into fatherhood.

Machado swears he’s young — he’s young! — even though baseball’s newer dogma holds that 30 is a line of demarcation. For a lot, it rings true. It’s a sport full of running equivalents. Bats get slow. The arms fail. The legs give up. The gloves harden. The game does not forgive.

But those who were spared such ailments in their 30s can still be in their prime, honey, and in that regard, Machado wasn’t exaggerating. The .306 batting average he’s taking into this weekend’s series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, which will culminate in Major League Baseball Sunday, is the highest of his career. So is his .376 on-base percentage and 161 OPS+. He should hit the 30-homer threshold for the sixth time in his career. He’s head to head with Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts Y Freddie Freeman as the biggest threats to the National League MVP award for which Paul Goldschmidt is considered the favorite.

“This is the game we love,” Machado said. “Have a smile on your face every day and try to leave it on the field every day. That’s all we can control. This game is hard enough already. Lots of cameras, lots of things we have to adapt to, so that, at the end of the day, it’s all about hitting a baseball, catching a baseball, getting some outs, and winning games for your baseball club. So have the most fun.”

Being as good as Machado has been for so long (good for first ballot Hall of Fame election, good for joining the 3000 hit club) and not having a championship ring to show off humiliates a man. , forces you to evaluate your priorities. So Machado is thinking big right now, about his reputation, his place in the game, how he wants to be remembered, his legacy. These are questions that a younger version of himself would not have bothered to answer and that the current incarnation has plenty of time to answer. Because despite everything he has done, Manny Machado feels that his career is just beginning.

The biggest consolation 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 rather that the first four seasons of that deal have been a resounding success. For those who don’t perform, the mega deal becomes the defining characteristic of a player, the prism through which all of their failures are viewed. A dollar sign and nine numbers are handcuffed to it.

Players who avoid those destinations can spend their time and attention elsewhere, doing things like creating a legacy. There are enough blunders in Machado’s past: bat toss against Oakland, the slide towards Dustin Pedroia, the hasty comments with the Dodgers: That growth was necessary to ensure youthful indiscretions don’t define him. Whatever happens in his 20th, Machado sees his 30th as an opportunity to be his best self.

It’s evident in the clubhouse for 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, guided him and helped him acclimatize.

“Almost every day, every minute, he’s trying to help me and trying to up my game to play better,” Kim said. “So I want to do better because he tries so hard to help me. The guy never wants to give up. That makes us play even harder, play better. He’s the captain, for sure.”

In 2021, Machado spent the season with a shoulder injury and still played 153 games. This year, he recovered from a nasty-looking ankle sprain in mid-June and could again finish with at least 150 games played, which he has done in every unshortened season since 2015. “He’s doing his best,” says Padres manager Bob Melvin, and there may be no higher compliment a manager can give.

“Honestly, for me, every year is just the grind of the season,” Machado said. “How it wears you down, how it lifts you up. You think you’re never going to take a hit again, and now you’re on fire. That’s the beauty for me every year. It’s the wear and tear of knowing that I completed 160 games and, you know, you did it. . You made it to the end.”

While Machado’s 10-year deal could make him a Padre for life, that success in the first four years could also mean another chapter is 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 will no doubt lead to many conversations between Machado and his agent, Dan Lozano, before of that date.

It’s too early for Machado to address the possibility, but the presence of a potential test case this winter could offer valuable insights. Arenado, who is 31, like Machado next year, can opt out of the final five years and $144 million of his contract. He has suggested he won’t back out of the deal, but that sentiment came before his MVP-caliber season. Aaron Judge He will hit free agency at the age of 30 this winter and is looking for more than $300 million. Regardless of what the market holds, Machado has shown his willingness to test it, weather it (he signed with the Padres after he started spring training) and use it to his advantage.

There’s no question that Machado could get a much more lucrative deal as a free agent, and yet the sense of unfinished business in San Diego is palpable. In early August, the Padres traded for John Soto, another future Hall of Famer and bona fide superstar, only to have his world shortstop, Fernando Tatis Jr., suspended after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. The Padres’ chances of leading San Diego to its first major men’s professional sports championship were dashed.

San Diego has been through its share of losing, and Machado has learned that winning there would do a great city a great service, and would be a great building block for his legacy. Staying in San Diego and doing something that only a lifelong father has accomplished would be something else entirely.

Since Machado burst onto the scene as a baby-faced rookie in 2012, he’s been consistently excellent, but the stats he’s racked up over the decade seem to have flown under the radar. Currently, he ranks 18th among active players with 1,568 hits. The next closest batsman to Machado’s age is Xander Bogaerts, who is 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 there, and to do it with power and some truly elite defense is which is why it’s more than fair to call Machado a potential future Hall of Famer.

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

Losing had become all too common for the Padres before they signed Machado and, frankly, after. They followed up a strong COVID-19-shortened 2020 season with a 2021 season disaster. 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. That’s far from guaranteed, though, with Milwaukee and its talented pitching staff just one game behind San Diego in the loss column.

“We haven’t gotten to that hot streak yet,” Machado said. “You just put a little bit more tension on yourself and everything gets tight. Then once the rubber band loosens, I’ll be ready to shoot. And I think, little by little, the guys are picking themselves up. When we do that, I think we still have a pretty good lineup.

“Last year we worried too much about the wild card, 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. It really hasn’t gone the way we want it to. Anytime that time comes later, we can worry about that. Let’s deal with what’s in front of us.”

Old Machado might have panicked. The older Machado learned that this is useless. Baseball is not a sport that rewards scaremongering and fear. Or the Padres have enough, with Machado and Soto and Kim and Jake Cronenworth Y Joe Musgrove Y Yu Darvish Y Blake Snell Y Josh Hader, or not. And if they don’t, if this season ends in failure like the last one, then Machado will have a very long winter on the boat, in the field, at the board, wondering what his next move might be. I like it.

Or maybe the Padres win it all. They are baseball’s great enigma: talented like everyone else and still nearly 20 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West. With Tatis out for the rest of the season and Soto still finding his place in San Diego, Machado is the unmistakable face of the Padres, 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. He’s a leader? Is he capable of leading a team to a championship? Is he kidding himself when he says he is young? And how much longer is he in his prime?

We will know very soon. What is certain is that important games will be played. Machado will surrender. The hits will fall. And the old man will try one more time to make sure it’s still prime time.

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‘I’m at my best, baby’: Why Manny Machado is in his best shape at 30