A lot of people who aren't familiar with my work, or don't follow sports very closely, ask me some variant of the following question when they find out that I cover minor league baseball: Are you proud of the guys you write about when they make it to the big leagues? Rather than bore these people to death with an explanation about the percentages involved in a player moving all the way from A Level Short Season baseball to the majors, I say something like, "it's harder than you think, and not many guys on the team I cover ever get there."
It's not pleasant to think about when you look out on the field and see all those young guys giving every ounce of their being to baseball, but the cold hard fact of the matter is, most of them are going to get chewed up and spit out along the way. They will get promoted and find out that at the A or AA level, pitchers don't make as many mistakes, and they get bumped back down or released when their batting average dips below .200. They will move up the ladder one step, and realize that the fastball they smoked every hitter with is now getting smoked by every hitter, and then they get demoted, or released. Or, for a small percentage, they will make it up to AAA, and stall there because the big club just doesn't have room for seventh outfielder, even after the rosters get expanded from 25 to 40. Most people are just starting to figure out their lives and careers by age 28, but for a minor league ballplayer who hasn't been called up to the majors yet, you are just about over the hill. And, don't think that this only happens to players picked up late in the draft; the road to the majors in littered with the metaphorical corpses of a thousand first-round draft picks.
So, all that said, it was a shock, a delightful surprise, and a boost to my morale, both professionally and as a Baltimore baseball fan, when I heard that Manny Machado, the Orioles' first-round pick in 2010, had been called up from AA Bowie and was going to make his major-league debut on Thursday night. At just 20 years old, Machado will beat out Los Angeles Angels' outfielder Mike Trout as the youngest player to make an appearance in an American League game so far this season (the Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper, also picked in the first round of the 2010 draft, is about three months younger than Machado).
I was at the club level in Ripken Stadium when a then 18-year-old Manuel Arturo Machado gave his first press conference as a professional ballplayer. He was quiet, awkward, gave three-word answers and the press conference lasted all of five minutes. I wrote a column the next day, juxtaposing Machado, who had just graduated high school and was not used to have microphones pushed in his face, to the LPGA golfer Michelle Wie, whom I had interviewed the previous summer at the LPGA Championship, and who was well-versed on dealing with the press, having been bombarded since age 14 (seriously, she was a machine. I counted her saying, "pushing the LPGA brand," 10 times in a six-minute interview). Machado was and is, a world-class baseball talent, but then he was very obviously a teenager as well.
That night, during Machado's pro debut with the IronBirds, in which he went 1-for-3 with a single, Aegis editor Ted Hendricks, an Orioles' fan who is more on top of the club's news than I am most of the time, texted me, asking, "Machado, big league playa, or what?" I hedged in my response, saying, "he's a big, fast, strong kid, that's all I can tell now." That was the cynic and the superstitious part of me talking, because I'd seen a lot of good ballpayers go through the grinder, and I didn't want to jinx Machado by saying something stupid like, "yeah, he'll be on the big club by the time he's 20, for sure!"
At that point, the two IronBirds I had seen who I was sure were going to make it to the majors were big, tall left handed pitcher Rick Zagone, and Caleb Joseph, a catcher unlucky enough to be born about a month after another catcher named Matt Wieters. Both are over 25 now, neither has made it to the big leagues, and both are playing with the Bowie Baysox, the team from which 20-year-old Manny Machado departed to make his major-league debut.
In the spirit of full disclosure, claiming Machado as, "a player I covered when he was in Aberdeen" is a little tenuous, as he only played seven games with the IronBirds before being promoted, but I don't care about that. Nor do I care to get involved in the howling match among Orioles fans about whether bringing him up to the majors so early is going to hurt him. Trust me, if the Orioles thought for a second that promoting him would lessen the chance of his having a long major-league career, they wouldn't be doing it. As a fan, I hope Machado never goes back down, that he sticks around for 20 years and hits 600 home runs. He's made it this far, now we'll have to wait and see.