For seven seasons, Manny Machado has painted a flattering self-portrait that figured to sell for $250 million or more at free agent auction this winter. Now, in the National League Championship Series, Machado is slashing his own masterpiece.
By his actions and by his self-satisfied quotes and smirking expressions, Machado is in danger of resetting his market price lower and perhaps even damaging the salary scale for others. Machado’s phone should be erupting with players screaming, “Cut it out. You’re costing me money, too.”
The Los Angeles Dodgers infielder has failed to run out a grounder, been called out for an illegally dangerous hard slide at second base, taken a befuddled third strike after the home plate umpire refused his request for a “timeout” and, finally, started a bench-clearing fuss when he kicked Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar in the ankle as he ran across first base Tuesday night. And that covers just the first four games of the NLCS between the Dodgers and Brewers. Los Angeles won Game 5 on Wednesday to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
Before Game 5, Machado was fined an undisclosed amount by Major League Baseball for the Aguilar incident.
After what appeared to many, including me, to be a deliberate attempt to kick Aguilar — and perhaps injure the Brewers’ cleanup man, who had 108 RBI during the regular season — the fuse reached the dynamite. Reputations are built over years. And Machado certainly has one.
“He’s a player that has a history of those types of incidents,” said Milwaukee slugger Christian Yelich, who probably will be NL MVP. “One time is an accident. Repeated over and over and over again, you’re just a dirty player. It’s a dirty play by a dirty player, and that’s what it is. I have a lot of respect for him as a player, but you can’t respect someone who plays the game like that.”
Here’s how often I have heard a major leaguer say anything so direct and damning concerning dirty play: almost never. For one of the game’s top stars to say it about a peer — complete with “repeated over and over and over again” — is almost unthinkable. Ballplayers are a club. Machado’s found a way to get kicked out.
“It’s not a mistake. You don’t kick somebody like that [by] accident,” the Brewers’ Travis Shaw said. “You can say it wasn’t on purpose, this and that, but it’s a dirty play.”
Machado’s response didn’t smooth any Brewers feathers but should help TV ratings for the rest of this NLCS: “I was trying to get over him and hit his foot. If that’s dirty, that’s dirty. I don’t know. Call it what you want.”
That was, essentially, Machado’s response to loafing to first base — in a playoff game.
“I’m not going to be Johnny Hustle,” Machado said. “That’s just not my personality. That’s not my cup of tea.”
The Machado issue is that, in one way or another, he always has stepped on toes, always has been a diva or a bit of a spoiled brat who everyone hoped would steadily mature. Years ago, a member of the Baltimore Orioles’ staff told me, “Wait until another manager gets in here [after Buck Showalter], and then they’ll find out how ‘easy’ it is to handle Manny Machado.”
Since then, many believed Machado had outgrown such a tag. Maybe not. Once Machado was out of Baltimore and away from Showalter — who understood, appreciated and worked with him — the infielder’s bearing has seemed inflated as if proximity to Los Angeles celebrity and enormous imminent wealth was puffing him up.
The October spotlight is, of course, the worst time for a fabulous player such as Machado to show the less appealing parts of his temperament.
“You’re losing tens of millions of dollars by the second if that becomes the narrative,” said Alex Rodriguez, now an analyst for Fox Sports and ESPN.
Now Machado has insured that the Manny-and-dirty-play file will be examined. In June 2014, Machado, who was angry about a hard tag in an earlier game, clubbed then-Oakland Athletics catcher Derek Norris in the head with his bat twice in the same game with long, reckless follow-throughs. Watching the game live at the time, I thought it was as close to a deliberate MLB assault as I’d seen. Norris, who left the game, said later that he had “caught [Machado] smiling” down at him.
Later that day, after a retaliation pitch came at Machado’s knees, Manny waited for the next pitch to go past him, then threw his bat at A’s pitcher Fernando Abad. Machado’s heave endangered only third base, but it got him a five-game suspension and reputation as a hotheaded lightning rod.
Machado has beaned other catchers, including Mitch Garver and A.J. Pierzynski. Machado’s response, as with the Aguilar incident, is to say, “That’s just how I swing [or slide or run to first base].” And he makes it clear he won’t change.
The list of grudges against Machado is at least as long as the American League East. If the Dodgers meet the Red Sox in the World Series, two Boston pitchers already have histories of starting melees by throwing behind Machado’s head (Matt Barnes) and drilling him, then glaring him down (Rick Porcello).
Machado provokes, sometimes is provoked and seldom backs down. This isn’t a case of flipping a bat, showing up a foe or “Let the kids play.” This is about how players in every sport in all eras have codes about what is dirty so that they can survive.
In Game 4, even respected home plate ump Hunter Wendelstedt took a piece out of Machado, who called for “time” an instant after the Brewers pitcher started his delivery on a 1-2 pitch. Hitters often do that to rattle pitchers, and stars expect deference. Wendelstedt stayed in his crouch behind the plate as Machado waved his arms helplessly and took a third-strike fastball down the middle. Earlier, Machado made faces and gestures of disagreement from his shortstop position over some Wendelstedt calls. You can get on some of the people’s nerves some of the time, but if you go over an invisible line, the whole culture disciplines you.
Every October, the MLB playoffs are the ultimate audition for free agents as potential buyers study which players handle pressure well, which crumple and whether high-stress situations reveal personality flaws that usually stay hidden.
This year, the biggest loser is Machado, even though he has nine RBI in nine postseason games after a big regular season with 37 homers.
For seven seasons, those of us who watched Machado play hundreds of games thought he was a superb player with the sort of minor annoying flaws that any of us might have — and grow out of. As for moments of play that verged on dirty, couldn’t that, in part, be misguided competitiveness? A week ago, my only caveat about Machado was his demand to be a shortstop, the position of his youth, where he’s only adequate, rather than play at third base, where he’s celestial.
Now I’m asking myself, “Do I really know Machado?” and “How will he handle a lifetime contract?” and “How will he affect team chemistry?”
Those are exactly the questions that you don’t want a future employer to ask.
A good reputation, it’s said, takes years to burnish but can be tarnished in a blink. Machado sparkled just days ago. Now, somewhat less. Consider it a free object lesson — at Machado’s expense.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.