Thursday, July 21, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: 'The next A-Rod' was born to play

Even as a baby, Frederick Keys shortstop Manny Machado was swinging a bat -- er, bottle.

The photo explained a lot. Manny Machado saw it for the first time this month, when his mother came up from Miami to visit him in Frederick, Md.

The picture showed Machado as a baby.

"I was months old -- maybe about to be a year," Machado said in the Frederick dugout Wednesday, a few hours before his Keys concluded a four-game series against the Salem Red Sox. "And I was already swinging my bottle -- my milk bottle.

"I'd finished drinking my milk bottle, and I was swinging it lefty. It was pretty sick. I kind of got chills when I saw that."

Maybe he was, in fact, born to play this game.

The Orioles sure hope so. They made the five-tool shortstop the No. 3 overall pick in the 2010 draft and signed him to the second-highest bonus in franchise history: $5.25 million.

Machado turned 19 two weeks ago, making him the youngest player in the Carolina League. Despite missing time with a knee injury this season, he's been a South Atlantic League All-Star and has represented Team USA in the MLB All-Star Futures Game.

He is the top prospect for a franchise desperately in need of hope. But in pro baseball terms, he is a lot like that kid in the photo: still in the infant stages.

"I'm nobody right now," he said.

So every day, it's the same routine: Hit BP to right, then center, then left. Field 10 grounders at him, 10 to his glove side and 10 in the hole. Turn 15 double plays, then stay out there during BP to react to balls off the bat.

Keys manager Orlando Gomez praises his work habits, but Machado admits that sometimes it's tough to maintain a sharp focus this deep into his first full season.

"Some days, like everybody, you don't really feel like playing at all," he said. "You just deal with it and look at the bright side.

"My mom was a single mom. She was obviously always working. I'd see her at 8 o'clock at night, then she'd leave at 7 in the morning. Me? For five, six hours a day, you're playing the [bleepin'] game that you love. It's a hell of a lot better than going out and having a job."

Machado's uniform hangs loosely from his 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame, leaving plenty of room for added strength. He works out in the offseason with Alex Rodriguez, a fellow Miami guy and the man to whom he's often compared.

BKeys shortstop 
Manny Machado had a hit and a walk Wednesday against the Red 

Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times

Keys shortstop Manny Machado had a hit and a walk Wednesday against the Red Sox.

Machado met the Yankees star through his trainer, who also trains A-Rod.

"One day, [Rodriguez] just walks in," Machado said. "My trainer calls me over and says, 'A-Rod wants to meet the next A-Rod.' I was kind of shocked.

"I went over to him and didn't even know what to say. He talked, mostly."

There is this shy side of Machado, but make no mistake: He plays without timidity. He has a tattoo of a lion on his left shoulder -- "My favorite animal," he says. "King of the jungle, right?" -- and unleashes rocket throws from shortstop.

"Defensively, he's just so smooth and so confident," said Keys outfielder Steven Bumbry, a former Virginia Tech star who lives with Machado. "That's kind of blown me away a little bit, for a 19-year-old playing in High-A. It's been exciting to watch him play."

Wednesday's game (a 5-3 Salem victory) was a fine example of Machado's promise -- and his youth. He punched an outside pitch to right field for a single in his first at-bat, then stole second. His next time up, he worked a 1-2 count into a walk. His last two trips produced a groundout and a strikeout.

Defensively, Machado showed off some flash, making a sprawling stab of a grounder up the middle and throwing a one-hop missile to first in the fifth. But he also made his 10th error of the season on a bouncer to his right that he tried to field too casually.

Even guys who were born to play need refinement.

"I've still got to learn a lot of things," he said. "Baseball's not that easy. I want to be consistent before reaching [the majors]. The ultimate goal is not how fast I get up there; it's how long I stay up there. I want to stay up there and be there for a long time."

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