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Great expectations rest on Orioles third baseman Manny Machado -- including his own

By Peter Schmuck, The Baltimore Sun

12:07 PM EDT, March 18, 2013

SARASOTA, Fla.

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Another day, another inquiring mind wanting to know what it's like to be baseball's next big thing.

Manny Machado is ushered into the large conference room at the Orioles' Ed Smith Stadium training complex, his attention quickly drawn to the portraits on the far wall. Brooks Robinson. Frank Robinson. Boog Powell. Cal Ripken. All in a row.

"Someday," he says almost sheepishly, "I want to be up on that wall."

Someday, he probably will, but first things first. There is the small matter of living up to the advance billing and Machado instinctively knows that he won't be able to do that if he takes his eye off the ball.

Or, at least, he knows as much as a fairly savvy 20-year-old can possibly know about life and success and all the craziness that may lie ahead if he meets the outrageous expectations that have followed him from tiny Miami Brito Private School to the major leagues. That's why he's trying so hard to keep his head down and blend into his new surroundings.

It won't be easy, not when he's being compared to $30-million-per year superstar Alex Rodriguez and already has made a sweet landing — at such a tender age — in the starting lineup of the Baltimore Orioles, which is why he wants you to believe that he's really not all that.

He certainly dresses up well, as you can see from the accompanying photo shoot, but if you send a search party to look for him in Miami next winter, don't bother with the nightclubs in South Beach or any of the other trendy spots in this pulsating city.

For one thing, he's not even old enough to drink there, and for another, he's going to be too tired from working out and trying to trying to be the next great Orioles Hall of Famer to dance those South Florida nights away.

"You know what? A lot of people that live in Miami, we really don't go to South Beach,'' Machado said. "We'll go to the beach, but really not South Beach. That's more for tourists who come in. People who live in Miami — I speak for myself and the people I hang out with — we're more just laid back. We work out from like 7 in the morning and we're not done until 2 or 3. At that point, I just want to go home and lie down and play some video games or something like that."

Machado is so not living La Vida Loca. He's two years out of high school and he's already engaged to his best friend's sister. Maybe someday he'll show up on "Dancing With The Stars," but right now he's taking his new stardom one step at a time.

He has dreamed of becoming a major league baseball player since he took his first steps. Family legend has it that when he was just a year old or so, he would watch baseball games on television and mimic the hitters using his baby bottle as a bat.

Now, he dresses in a section of the Orioles spring clubhouse that his older locker mates jokingly call "Mannywood" and tries to fend off the notion that he is anything more than a good young player just trying to make the team.

It doesn't work, of course, not when you wear the same number as ARod and come from the same baseball-rich area and play baseball well enough to jump into the starting lineup of a playoff team almost right out of high school.

"I try not to think about that,'' he said. "I try to be myself. It's good that you're getting compared to people like that — you soak it in — but at the same time, you let that out. I'm going to be me. I want to be the type of person that one day they are going to be comparing somebody else to me. I want to be that player. I want to be Manny Machado."

He has done a pretty good job of that so far. Just ask one of the other players who arrived here as the next can't-miss Orioles Hall of Famer.

"I think the big thing, and I think Manny's got it under control, is that you have to realize that your expectations and what you want to work on and develop is most important,'' said catcher Matt Wieters, who has met just about all the expectations that followed him to Baltimore after he was the Orioles' top draft choice in 2007. "Everyone can put expectations and lofty goals on you, but you've got to know that Manny wants to be as good as he can be, and if he keeps working like he is, he's going to get there."

The same thing is happening right now to pitcher Dylan Bundy, who has been celebrated far and wide and is supposed to be the Orioles' next next big thing.

"It's great to be in the spotlight like that,'' Bundy said, "but you just kind of not listen to it. You need to go out there and play your game, play how you know how to play and let the other stuff take care of itself."

This is where it's obvious that there has been a head-on collision between assumption and reality. Machado has been talked up since high school as the next ARod, who is one of the most talented players in the history of baseball, but there are all sorts of reasons why that's not a fair comparison.

Rodriguez lives his life in the tabloid press ... and on the edge of baseball propriety. He dates movie stars. He has admitted to steroid abuse. He publicly negotiated his last giant contract while the Yankees were in the midst of the 2007 playoffs. He was once America's baseball sweetheart but now is among the game's steroid-era pantheon of tarnished superstars.

Machado still counts him as a friend and mentor, an association that probably will give some people pause, but he seems to recognize that there are life lessons to be learned from both the good Arod and the one who can't stay off the back page of the New York Post.

"Life is always about making adjustments and learning the right things to do,'' Machado said. "You learn from your mistakes. You miss a ground ball, you learn from that. That even goes outside the game — who you hang out with…where you go. These are all things you look at with mature guys, like Alex, for instance. You see those things, you learn from them. You don't just pick one or the other. You learn from all the great things he's done and you learn from his mistakes. That goes for baseball-related things and things that aren't baseball-related."

Clearly, Machado isn't satisfied with just seeing whole field. He also wants to broaden his horizons and has spent the last couple of offseasons traveling to Europe.

He recently visited Italy with his fiancee, Yainee Alonso, and her brother, San Diego Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso, and marveled at the beauty and history of one of the cradles of Western civilization.

"There was so much to take in,'' Machado said. "We went to Venice, Florence and Rome. We saw the statue of David. We saw the Vatican. The Sistine Chapel. You walk into that room and it's unbelieveable how that guy (Michelangelo) did all that."

No one should be surprised that he was impressed with the statue of David, being such a well-chiseled guy himself. He's still feeling his way around the outside world after being immersed in baseball for much of his youth, but he seems pretty comfortable in his own skin.

Maybe that's why he is already engaged and admits to seeking "stability." He grew up in a single-parent home where his mother, Rosa Nunez, worked at a Miami export company six long days a week to give him the chance to go to Miami Brito and try to live his major league dream. When he got his big signing bonus from the Orioles, the first thing he did was buy her a house.

Yainee just graduated from the University of Miami and is preparing for a career as a physician's assistant. They met a couple years ago after Machado became friends with her brother, who is an emerging star with the San Diego Padres.

"Family is everything to me,'' Machado says. "I owe them everything and I'm going to do everything to pay them back for everything they've done for me."

The word that seems to follow Machado through a clubhouse full of older players is "aware." His teammates marvel at the maturity he displays while somehow showing the deference that is expected from someone so new to "The Show."

He arrived with the innate ability to see the big picture, both on the field and off. He knows he's good, but he also knows that he's lucky to be here so soon. He knows his way around third base, even though he had never spent any serious time there until he was called up to the big leagues unexpectedly last August.

"Yeah, from the first day he was called up last year, playing third base — a new position in the big leagues at 20 years old,'' said veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy. "People ask me what the most impressive thing about him is, and I always say his awareness, the way that he makes everything look like he's been there for 10 years versus him being 20 years old in the big leagues. It's pretty amazing."

Want proof? Just find a copy of the Orioles 2012 highlight DVD and skip forward to "The Play," which already has become Orioles legend. Most O's fans have already seen it, either live or on ESPN's Web Gems or on a scoreboard video at Camden Yards, but it's worth watching again … and again.

Machado, in just his 32nd major league game at third base, pulled a classic bait and switch on Tampa Bay Rays baserunner Rich Thompson. He charged a slow chopper that had infield hit written all over it, diagnosed the hopelessness of getting the routine out at first base, then faked a panic throw to first and spun around to catch Thompson rounding third for a huge out in one of the Orioles' 29 one-run wins.

"There are guys who have played this game 15 years who don't make that play,'' said Orioles vice president Brady Anderson.

The only question was which was more amazing, that Machado had the presence of mind to make the play or that Hardy somehow knew that he would and was on third waiting for the throw.

"It was just perfect timing,'' Machado said. "J.J. was there. I talk to J.J. all the time. I love seeing him play. He's different than I am. J.J. pays attention to every little single detail there is in the game. Where to be on a cutoff. Where to cover a bag. What sign is coming. Where a hitter likes to hit a ball. For him to be there at that moment. Honestly, I wouldn't have been there. I still would have been halfway getting there, but J.J. was right there. It was as if we practiced that every day of spring training."

Except that he had never practiced it. Maybe once or twice when he was playing shortstop in high school, but not at third base. The more important thing to take away from his description of the play might be the fact that he gave all the credit to the guy who was standing in the way of him playing his natural position.

Is it possible to be that confident and that humble at the same time?

"Manny's a great kid,'' said first baseman Chris Davis. "I think one thing that you look at whenever you have young players, is how they handle success and how they handle attention. That was one thing that really impressed me more than anything last year — the fact that he was having success at the big-league level on a team that was a playoff contender, and he didn't let it go to his head. That's a big thing."

He was having too much fun. He never expected to be called up last year. He was still playing for the Double-A Bowie Baysox when he got the surprise promotion. There was still a higher level of minor league ball to be conquered, but the Orioles needed to shore up their defense and Machado stepped in at an unfamiliar position and made himself right at home.

His solid performance at third was one of the keys to a defensive turnaround that propelled the Orioles into the postseason for the first time in 15 years. Some pretty important people in the Orioles hierarchy have said that they would not have gotten to the playoffs without him.

"We got so close last year,'' Machado said. "I wasn't with the team from the get-go, but those last two months, it was amazing baseball for me. It was close games, extra innings. I love playing out there. I love playing with this team, this bullpen, our hitters, our lineup, playing under Buck. It was great. It was the greatest two months of my playing career."

The Machado File

Name: Manny Machado

Age: 20; born July 6, 1992

Hometown: Miami

Team: Baltimore Orioles

Position: Third base

Major League debut: Aug. 9, 2012

Acquired: Drafted in the first round (third overall pick) in the 2010 amateur draft.

High school: Miami Brito Private School

Immediate family: Rosa Nunez (mother); Jasmine Nunez (sister); Yainee Alonso (fiancee)

Defining moment: "The Play"

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