Manny Machado is not comfortable playing the villain everybody seems to want him to be

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

BOSTON – Over the course of a mildly uncomfortable 38 minutes Monday, Manny Machado made one thing abundantly clear. Questions about the Boston Red Sox, his spikes-up slide into their de facto captain Dustin Pedroia, the boos showered upon him during the National League Championship Series in Milwaukee, his being called a “dirty player” during an expletive-laced tirade by future NL MVP Christian Yelich and various other inquiries into how his past informs his present were answered with some derivation of the same phrase.

“I’m here to win a World Series.”

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It wasn’t exactly Marshawn Lynch being here so he wouldn’t get fined. More like its ill-at-ease cousin. At times testy, at others genuinely gleeful, Machado, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 26-year-old shortstop, spent his media availability the day before the Dodgers and Red Sox face off in Game 1 of the World Series doing what he does so well on the field: play defense.

Rather than toss propane tanks into the various brushfires he has lit throughout the years, Machado endeavored to douse any further conflagration. And his posture reinforced something that may not be apparent to those who see highlight reels detailing his trail of beefs left behind but is obvious to those who know him: Machado is not somebody who is embracing the dark cloud now hovering over him.

This is no heel turn. Bad guys embrace the hatred. They relish in their misdeeds. They live to troll. They use a platform like the World Series – particularly a World Series between two of the most storied franchises in baseball history – to amplify their chicanery, not tamp it down.

Baseball is not the NBA, where drama and pettiness are the blood supply to the league’s strong-beating heart. It isn’t the NFL, either, where Lynch’s desire not to speak was twisted into a successful marketing gimmick. The closest Machado came to offering something substantive about the sundry controversies in his past wound up with him accusing Major League Baseball of trying to breed homogenous players, which was interesting considering its “Let the kids play” slogan this fall.

“However you play is however you play,” Machado said. “Everyone has their own different personalities in the game. Not everybody can be robots. I know MLB is trying to make us robots, but we’re just going to go out there and play our game.”

Manny Machado celebrates after winning Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. (AP)
Manny Machado celebrates after winning Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. (AP)

What this goes back to, ultimately, is Machado’s game. Of which a large part, it must be noted, is glorious. Machado is a phenomenal hitter. He’s a wizard in the field. He will get $300 million-plus this offseason as a free agent in spite of the black marks, which aren’t exactly sparse. The latest examples were his unnecessary clipping of Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar, which prompted a fine from the league and Yelich’s incendiary comments, and his lack of hustle to first base, which, though poor optically, isn’t exactly unique.

In Boston, the story runs far deeper. In April 2017, Machado slid into second base on a force play, lifted his left leg as he neared the bag and drove his spikes into the back of Pedroia’s knee. Soon thereafter, Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes threw a fastball against Machado that came far too close than a fastball ever belongs near a batter’s earhole. Machado was displeased. A few weeks later, Chris Sale – who starts Game 1 on Tuesday at 8:10 p.m. ET against Clayton Kershaw – threw a 98-mph fastball behind Machado, which led him to go on a rant that, well, just do yourself a favor and listen.

Naturally, considering Machado’s recent and past histories of spiking people, and his recent and past connection to the Red Sox – the recent being that he was, you know, in Fenway Park – the curious sorts sought clarification on his thoughts. Among others, they were:

• “I’m here to win a World Series.” He said this five times.
• “I’m here to win a World Series ring.” With diamond embellishment!
• “Both teams are trying to win a World Series.” Machado is nothing if not inclusive.
• “Excited to be in the World Series.” This was his answer to a question about the expected cold weather.
• “Everyone’s dream is to be in the World Series.”

That last one is tinged with sadness. Manny Machado’s dream is to be in the World Series. He is incredibly gifted. He is remarkably talented. He is one of the best baseball players in the world. The Dodgers, in all likelihood, are not here if they don’t give up a half-dozen prospects at the trade deadline to get Machado for three months. All of this is supposed to be a culmination of his hard work, his dedication, his dream … and instead he spent those 38 minutes answering softball questions or refusing to answer ones about his faults.

And yet the result of one was plainly obvious Monday. All the way on the edge of the Red Sox’s media availability was Pedroia. He is 35 now. He played three games this year after struggling through last season with a bum left knee. He doesn’t know when he’s coming back. He doesn’t know if he’s coming back.

“I know how I hurt my knee,” Pedroia said. “I know what happened. That’s it. We all know.”

Pedroia is not the sort to launch himself into controversy. Like Machado, he grew up in baseball, a game that doesn’t trifle with inconsequence. And even though their meeting at second base that April day last year changed a person’s career, Pedroia was not going to directly bad-mouth Machado, not with the World Series about to start. The closest he went to maligning the slide was: “That didn’t help. I’ll tell you that. It’s a part of the game, man. You play second base, you sign up to turn two, and guys are sliding into you. You can’t see ’em. So what happens is unfortunate. I’m still trying to get back from it. But it happens, man.”

Barnes told reporters that he remembers it – that all the Red Sox remember it – but also considered the matter: “Done. Our job is to get him out. And our job is to win a series. And if you put him on base because of something stupid, in the biggest series of a lot of guys’ lives, in the biggest series in the game, that’s bad karma. You do something stupid, then the next guy hits a homer when you’ve got two outs or something like that – no. So we’re good.”

If good is not good, they’re great. As much as Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce tried to stick up for Machado, his former teammate in Baltimore, nobody in Boston is likely to buy the contention that “he’s the best. He’s one of my favorites of all time. I don’t like to see it. I don’t like to see fans booing him.” They are going to boo. They are going to boo loudly and lustily. They are going to boo like they booed him in Milwaukee and like they boo him in other places that see Manny Machado as a villain – the villain he says he isn’t.

“I play hard for my ballclub,” Machado said. “Whatever uniform I put on, I’m gonna bleed and die. I hustle. I run down the line. I do whatever I can to win ballgames. Those are the only things we can control as baseball players.”

He tried, perhaps in vain, to control the narrative Monday. If Manny Machado gets his wish, his play will do that from now on. He’s not here to talk, after all. He’s here to win a World Series.

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