Kids growing up around Baltimore in the ’80s and ’90s, as I did, fought over who got to wear No. 8 on the baseball field.
Sure, some idolized Ken Griffey Jr. and wore No. 24. But as the hometown star, Cal Ripken’s No. 8 was by far the most sought after.
Flash forward to now, and I’m no longer the kid scrambling to wear the 8, but the coach. And, as it happens, No. 8 isn’t available anymore: The Orioles retired it in 2001 and immortalized it with an aluminum statue on Eutaw Street.
Kids want to be Manny Machado, now — No. 13.
Manny Machado and Cal Ripken. Two icons, two eras, two types of players and people. But also one in the same: the guys that the most optimistic and star-struck fans — the young ones — look up to the most.
One played his entire Hall of Fame career here. The other appears to have one foot out the door.
And maybe that’s why the grown-up Orioles fan base hasn’t embraced Manny the way they did Cal.
Manny isn’t from here; he’s from Miami. And he doesn’t seem to have embraced Baltimore as an adopted home in the way some other athletes in town have in recent years — like Adam Jones or Chris Davis or the Ravens’ Justin Tucker. And maybe, with a contract of at least $300 million on his horizon as free agent a year from now, that’s by design.
But to the Orioles fans who didn’t endure a decade-and-a-half of hopelessness — yeah, I’m talking about those young fans again — Manny is the draw. He’s the one they want to see, the one they want to cheer for, the one they want to emulate.
Drawbacks aside, he’s the star.
As a father now, I know better than to put our athletes on the pedestal I did as an ’80s and ’90s kid. Performance enhancing drugs left us questioning the stars. And the digital age we’re in today brings them closer to us than ever before — enough so to see even their faintest faults up close.
After Chris Davis’ 25-game ban for amphetamines in 2014 and the release of the elevator video from Ray Rice's domestic violence incident, my wife and I flat out stopped buying jerseys with our kids’ favorite players’ names on the back.
It was easier to just be a fan of a middling team than risk associating with a star player who was going to embarrass you — or leave you. The Orioles are fielding offers to trade Manny, knowing he’s likely gone next year.
So as the stars avoid marrying themselves to a team or community, should we as fans be willing to untether ourselves from the All-Stars in return?
From a practical standpoint, dealing Manny could restock the Orioles for a run at a World Series for the first time in a generation. Given that I was a 4-month-old the last time they won one, I’m all for fielding the best team possible.
But from a timing standpoint, such a trade would uproot a talent that belongs to a generation of fans who didn’t live through 14 straight losing seasons.
Take my Little League team for example.
At one point last season, a 6-year-old player on our team was in tears after striking out a couple of times in a row. So I pulled him aside, reminded him his favorite player — No. 13 — struck out more than 100 times last season. He smiled, he dried his eyes and he went out and ripped a double in his next at-bat.
Kids here absolutely look up to Machado. He’s probably the best player the team has produced in decades — even if Manny’s Way isn’t the Ripken Way — and he’s cool.
Even his name is cool.
So when our toddler — who went to his first Orioles games this past season — started picking up on players names, he locked onto Manny’s. He screamed it from the stands at Camden Yards. He asked if he could “watch Manny Machado” when I picked him up from day care during the season.
When October rolled around, and the Orioles went their separate ways for the winter, my youngest son’s daily request led me to explain that Mr. Machado was “on vacation.”
Now I’m trying to determine how to break the news to him that Machado has been traded — you know, just in case.
But dealt or not, in a couple of weeks, we’re breaking our de facto “no jersey” rule, and our little guy is getting his first O’s player jersey (if you don’t count the now-throwback Nick Markakis duds handed down from his older siblings).
He’s getting a Manny Machado No. 13 T-shirt jersey for Christmas.
Of course, Manny’s jersey might be a throwback by then, too. But we’re willing to take the risk.
I’m just hoping our 3-year-old will still have a player to look up to by the time he gets to pick a Little League jersey for himself.
Sean Welsh was a content editor for digital and breaking news for The Baltimore Sun. A former member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, he’s traded nights in the Camden Yards press box for evenings in the Little League dugout. Reach him on Twitter at @seanjwelsh.