Manny Machado strolled into his news conference Monday looking every bit like an 18-year-old kid, not a multimillionaire draft pick charged with helping rebuild a franchise.
The baby-faced high school shortstop, who signed a $5.2 million contract with the Orioles after he was drafted third overall in the 2010 amateur draft, was dressed in a baggy Aberdeen IronBirds jersey that looked at least a size too big. It reminded you of a kid who shows up to his junior prom wearing his father's dress shirt. Machado wore his black IronBirds hat pulled down low on his head, causing his already sizable ears to stick out even farther.
When Machado flashed a wide and innocent grin for the cameras, it was a good reminder that although he's next in line to audition for the role of franchise savior, he's still a teenager, having just turned 18 at the beginning of July. If he is, in fact, the second coming of Alex Rodriguez, it's going to be years before we know it.
But like every highly rated prospect whose story is yet to be written, Machado offers something Orioles fans could certainly use a fresh dose of: promise.
"I've been waiting for this for a long time," Machado said. "It's going to be a good day today."
On a warm and breezeless night when an announced 6,466 came out to Ripken Stadium to witness his unveiling, Machado batted third and played five innings at shortstop for the IronBirds, the Orioles' short-season Single-A affiliate, who lost, 11-5, to the Vermont Lake Monsters. And though he popped out in his first at bat, it didn't take long for him to show a flash of that ballyhooed promise.
He led off the third inning with a hard line-drive single up the middle, fighting back in an at-bat where he fell behind in the count 0-2. In the top of the fifth inning, he made a beautiful defensive play, sliding to his left to snare a hard-hit ground ball up the middle, then pirouetting and firing a perfect throw to first base.
Machado, who acknowledges he grew up idolizing Rodriguez, appears to have adopted many of the New York Yankees third baseman's mannerisms. His right-handed stance is wide open, with his left leg planted nearly a foot outside his right. He has an active lead leg kick, and he holds the bat up high, just behind his right ear, waggling it in circles. When he finishes his swing, he lets go with his right hand, finishing high above his head. He wears his socks pulled to his knees and sports giant white batting gloves that remind you of the Hamburger Helper mascot.
"For now, I'm just getting used to the professional life," said Machado, who hit .639 with 12 homers and 68 RBIs his senior year at the Brito School in Miami. "[My goal] is just going out there every day, giving 100 percent. Next year will be a different goal. But this year will be just going out there, having fun and getting used to it."
The Orioles are clearly looking to bring Machado along slowly. The 18-year-old said that, as far as he knows, the team doesn't plan to send him to play winter ball, meaning his season will end Sunday when the IronBirds wrap up their season. He did serve as a designated hitter for two games with the Gulf Coast League Orioles last week, where his one hit in seven at-bats was a home run. But for the most part, the franchise's only goal is helping him make the difficult transition to professional baseball.
"I would have to say being away from family has been a little different," Machado said when asked what has been the biggest adjustment for him.
Machado, like Rodriguez, has roots in the Dominican Republic but grew up in the United States. His mother, Rosa Nunez, moved from the island to New York City when she was just a teenager, but Machado's parents divorced when he was very young. His baseball talents blossomed, he says, thanks to his uncle, Geovanny Brito, the primary male influence in his life while he was growing up in Hialeah, a part of the greater metropolitan area of Miami.
"He didn't play [professionally]," Machado said of his uncle. "But he really loved the sport. I was rarely outside with my friends growing up. I was always at the field with my uncle."
Machado said he hasn't spoken to Cal Ripken Jr. yet, although he acknowledged Ripken was someone he deeply admired growing up. He said he hopes one day he'll be worthy enough to be compared to the Hall of Famer.
"I'm just going to have to go out there and give 110 percent like he did, and if I do get compared to him, it would be good," Machado said.
Although you wouldn't know it by watching him Monday, the one question mark scouts have had about Machado has been his defense. Baltimore already has him working with former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who recently rejoined the club as a minor league instructor.
"He's a great guy, he knows his stuff. He's taught me a lot these past couple days I've been with him," Machado said.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter, taking advantage of a rare day off, showed up at the park Monday night, eager to get a look at Machado, who went 1-for-3, as well as prospects Mychal Givens and Connor Narron. Machado said he didn't expect to be nervous with Showalter in attendance.
"I've never had butterflies in my life," he said.
He looked like a man of his word. In his final at-bat of the night, Machado had his best swing of the night, hammering a hard line drive into left field. Alas, it was right at Vermont left fielder Kevin Keyes, who made the catch. Machado vowed to be patient but confessed he's already dreaming of the day, years from now, when he gets that phone call promoting him to the major leagues.
"I believe I'll be up there young," Machado said. "It's up to me, too. It's not only up to the club. I've got to do what I was picked to do. I've got to work hard and show people what I was paid to do."
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