SARASOTA, FLA. — Since making his decision last April to play for the Dominican Republic in this year's World Baseball Classic, Orioles third baseman Manny Machado received the question frequently, as if he was taking a potshot at his patriotism by choosing his Dominican roots over his home nation.
Why would the Miami-born Machado choose the Dominican over playing for the United States?
Many Americans play for other teams in the World Baseball Classic, but most aren't stars like Machado, who can pick his team — much like he is on pace to do two offseasons from now when the career-long Oriole reaches free agency.
Machado, 24, has played for Team USA before, anchoring a junior national team that won gold in the Pan American Games in 2009. He said he'd like to represent the United States again in the future, but his heart called him to play for the Dominican this time.
It begins on the ball fields of Hialeah, Fla. — just a 10-minute drive from Marlins Park in Miami, where Machado will play his first WBC game Thursday, proudly wearing "Dominicana" across his chest — where his Dominican-born grandfather taught him the nuances of the game. It continues to his mother, Rosa Nunez, who raised Machado as a single parent. And it progresses to a story of a fast path to major league stardom, as Machado was nurtured by Dominican-born players who became his extended in-season family even though he's American.
"You know what, it's just about family," Machado said last week after his final game in Orioles camp before joining his Dominican teammates. "At the end of the day, all you have in life is family. To be there, to be at home and be representing something that's meaningful, it's going to be cool."
When the Dominican Republic opens WBC pool play Thursday night against Canada, Machado — as he has before each professional baseball game he has played — will write the initials "F.N." in the infield dirt to honor his grandfather, Francisco Nunez.
"It's going to be a very special moment," Machado said. "I know he's waited a long time for that. I'm looking forward to that. I'm looking forward to finally putting that uniform on and knowing that he's looking from above."
Nunez, who passed away six months before the Orioles made Machado the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, instilled the foundation of the game in his grandson. Machado remembers his grandfather preaching the importance of bunting — something Machado doesn't do much these days as he has averaged 36 homers the past two seasons.
"Just stay in the game always," Machado said about the lessons his grandfather taught. "Never forget the little things. He taught me how to bunt. Always keep your eyes where they're supposed to be. … You've got to bunt to be a great hitter because it gets your eyes in the right position every time. That's something, when I drop down a bunt, I think about him."
When Machado wears the Dominican uniform in this year's WBC, he will do so to honor his entire family, including his mother, his uncle Gio Brito and others who put in hard work to propel him to this point. He shared a warm embrace with his father, Manuel, before Tuesday's exhibition game against the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium.
Machado grew up in Miami, owner of one of the country's largest Latino populations, although the majority of people are of Cuban descent. Dominicans make up just four percent of the population in the Miami-Hialeah demographic.
Machado didn't necessarily expect it, but baseball was one way to get closer to his Dominican heritage, especially once he reached the major leagues in 2012.
On his first road trip as a major leaguer, Machado walked into the visiting clubhouse in Arlington, Texas — just 11 days into his big league career — and waiting for him was a plate of Dominican food from then-Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz.
"I was like, 'What's this? Who's this from?' and it was from Nellie," Machado said. "I knew him just a little bit. I hit with him once. I thought it was pretty cool that all the Latins take care of each other. We look out for the younger players. And now I'm in the same position as them, and to show I'm really one of them [is special]."
Sending plates of Dominican food into visiting clubhouses is now commonly done by Dominican players, just one sign of kinship among them. Often, the traditional dish sent is called La Bandera Dominicana, which translates to the Dominican flag, and consists of rice, beans and chicken.
"Once you take that plane and you come over here, it doesn't matter if you know someone or not," said Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez, who pitched for the Dominican in the 2009 WBC. "Once you get here to the United States, you get treated like family because you're from the same country. We're all in the same position. We have a different language, a different culture, different food, everything. So you have to find a way to make yourself feel at home, so that's how every Dominican, or Latin player is trying to do for other players."
New Orioles catcher Welington Castillo said the practice shows how Dominican players value looking out for each other.
"I think that's what our families back in the Dominican teach us," Castillo said. "That's how we grow up. … When I was with the Diamondbacks, I would just say to my mom and my wife to cook some food and bring it to the clubhouse for them. I would say it's more like a tradition thing, helping each other because we go through cities and we don't see very much [Dominican food]. … So it feels good when another teammate or from another team brings you food."
Over the years, Machado has formed friendships with several Dominican players, and perhaps none closer than with Cruz, who played with Machado on the Orioles' division-winning team in 2014. And Machado still receives good-natured ribbing from Dominican-born players for being American-born.
"I've always seen myself as a Dominican. I grew up speaking both languages," Machado said. "… [But] they crush me. … They always mess around with me, 'Oh, you're not Dominican. You're American.' But now to be a part of it and be a part of the team and see how they are and how we are in general as a Latin culture and Dominican players.
"They've always taken me in and treated me well and treated me like a little brother, and treated me like one of them. So it's been really cool, knowing that I was born here and I'm Americanized a little bit. But at the end of the day, I've always looked to my past and seen where my family has come from, and they admire that."
Machado doesn't hide the fact that the opportunity to play alongside his Dominican friends such as Cruz, Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre and Seattle Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano played into his decision. He looked up to them all coming up, and as a major leaguer has observed their approaches, adding little things to his own routine. They've always been willing to help him on his path to becoming one of the game's top players.
"We probably pushed him that way, to the Dominican," Cruz said with a laugh. "But the important thing is he chose, and he's got to represent baseball. That's what's important. … He loves the Dominican. That's why he's with us. He's a great player, I mean one of the best in the league, and we're definitely proud to have him on the team."
After winning the last WBC four years ago, the Dominican enters this year's tournament as one of the clear favorites. The team will first have to emerge from perhaps the most competitive pool in the tournament, playing the United States, Colombia and Canada in the first round. But the Dominican's star power is unmistakable. The club boasts six players, including Machado, who hit at least 30 homers last season. The team also owns a combined 11 Gold Gloves, including two from Machado.
"You don't usually have the opportunity to be in the same clubhouse full of people from the same country that are all stars," said Jimenez, who owns a WBC record for strikeouts in a game set in 2009 against the Netherlands. "You don't get that chance every day. It's pretty neat, and you know what you're playing for. You're playing for the opportunity to represent your country and the people in your country.
"In the Dominican, baseball is everything. Baseball makes you forget about how poor the country is, any things that are going on over there. Baseball makes you forget about it. There's a lot of passion for it and we take a lot of pride in representing our country."
For Machado, there will be plenty of emotions Thursday and through the weekend as the Dominican completes pool play. He will be playing in his hometown with hundreds of family and friends in the crowd as part of what's expected to contain a raucous international feel, much like the Caribbean Series.
And he will do so under ideal circumstances — able to pay tribute to his biological family while playing alongside this baseball family.
"Until we're there and see it all and take it in, that's all you can do is wait," Machado said. "… I'm just going to go out there and enjoy myself and just make the best out of it. I know I'm to be in front of a lot of family and a lot of friends, so it's definitely makes it a little bit more comforting that it's at home. ... I don't know what's going to happen or how I'm going to react to it, but you're just trying to take it in as much as you can."