Sure, it's a distraction. But in the Orioles' reality, it's not an unwelcome one.
When they arrived in Chicago on Monday for a four-game set against the White Sox, star shortstop Manny Machado found a gaggle of media waiting at Guaranteed Rate Field for his take on the ever-growing rumors that the Chicago Cubs could be the winning suitor for his services in a trade this summer, or in his money-spinning free agency this winter.
His teammates, seeing the waiting group, asked him whether he'd signed his $500 million contract and not told them. He got congratulatory hugs, as if it were true. They advised him not to change out of his Gucci sweater, covered with tiger heads, for the interview — "You see his swag on," Jonathan Schoop said after. They egged him on to go and face the cameras one more time, and everyone did it with smiles.
Machado is having a career year under the most uncertain circumstances of his career, and the Orioles are concurrently off to a miserable 14-32 start entering Monday's game. All that has contributed to Machado's season-long media tour through every contending city in baseball, which is at least giving his friends something to smile about. That, combined with his .343/.419/.652 batting line and 14 home runs, show that it hasn't been much of a drag on him, either.
Nowhere is that more true than Chicago, where the Cubs have hit the skids and many have noted they have a Machado-sized hole on the left side of their infield. Because of the day's sporting schedule here, Machado was greeted by no fewer than 25 media members when he got to the ballpark, and they painted a picture of a city that was clamoring for him to be here full time. Orioles manager Buck Showalter sees an easy solution for all of it, at least in his mind.
Orioles slugger Manny Machado fields questions about being the focus of trade rumors on Monday, May 21, 2018. (David Haugh/Chicago Tribune)
"Some people feed off it a little bit," Showalter said. "Manny doesn't mind the spotlight. He doesn't mind being expected to be that guy.
"When you have his type of ability, you don't mind, because he knows when they get through playing that song, he's going to have three hours to kind of control some things. But, he's a special talent, and he's really become such an all-around teammate, everything. He's really reached a level of maturity that has been fun to watch. You kind of see him as a puppy years ago, so to speak. Believe me, he's on the front porch now with the rest of the big dogs."
Said infielder Danny Valencia: "Manny is a hot topic, and rightfully so."
Machado got a similar reception in New York last month, where his future with the Yankees has long been a local fantasy. The Orioles arrived in Anaheim earlier this month the day after Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager was announced to be out for the season with an elbow injury, and Machado arrived at the ballpark blindsided that a problem like that for the Dodgers would have anything to do with him. The traveling media from Philadelphia tried their luck on Machado's possible future with the upstart Phillies last week in Baltimore, but he wouldn't entertain the topic.
There was no avoiding it Monday.
May 21, 2018 -- The Orioles beat the White Sox, 3-2. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)
"Obviously, we've got to answer these questions and stand in front of the camera, but at the end of the day, none of that matters if you don't go out there and win some games for your ballclub, win for the Orioles, and play well at the same time," Machado said. "If we were playing well, we wouldn't be talking about it."
Machado said the attention was flattering; said he and his cousin, Albert Almora Jr., hadn't discussed life in Chicago; and discussed how he doesn't want the circus that has followed him to affect his teammates.
He said no fewer than 10 times that he's here to play baseball, and the closest he came to saying anything other than he's here to play well for the Orioles and to win games for Baltimore was recalling that he and Almora played in their backyards as children and dreamed of winning a World Series in the same uniform.
"That's every kid's dream," he noted, even as it became what Chicago latched onto as his come-and-get-me plea to Theo Espstein and the Cubs.
What rang most true of the entire interview, though, was Machado's assertion that the the worst part of it was the team's struggles. It's also the chief reason such a context for the trade rumors about him and everyone else on the team exists.
If he were healthy, the same would be happening for All-Star closer Zach Britton. They know that entering the game 17 1/2 games out of first place doesn't help.
"Whether it's Manny talks, or eventually, anybody else in the clubhouse, I think you just understand that he's playing extremely well, he's a free agent next year, and we're not playing well," Britton said.
"If we were playing well, I think maybe [it would be different], but I think Manny is handling it really well. It's not an easy subject to talk about, and the numbers that he's putting up are pretty impressive for a guy who's uncertain about where he's going to be, let alone next year but for the rest of this season. I think he's handling it well, and everyone just understands that it comes with the territory with the terrible start we've gotten off to."
Said Valencia: "We kind of put ourselves in that position, so part of it is our own faults."
"Manny is very professional and answers your questions because he knows you've got to get a sound bite on it," Showalter said. "He'll deal with it. His focus is where it obviously needs to be, if you look at his numbers. He's in the running for American League MVP right now. I'm a little biased — I get to see him every day. His clock and everything there, he's playing a good shortstop. ... But I think Manny, we've talked about it a couple times. He's kind of gotten into the mode of answering it. A lot of people would just shut it down and say no. I think he respects it. You've got to get a fresh bite on it, and he gives it. ... It's newsworthy. I got it. I know what it looks like on paper. I hope we win the next 20 games and he's here all year."
White Sox manager Rick Renteria deflects trade buzz about Orioles star Manny Machado to GM Rick Hahn and talks about finding a player like Machado within the team's own ranks on Monday, May 21, 2018. (Phil Thompson/Chicago Tribune)