PEORIA, Ariz. — They came to belong by lifting their heads and meeting the eyes of a town that, when it came to baseball, refused to be conned. They cried with that town when it went bad and partied too, not because they’d won over the locals but because they’d became locals. They weren’t too good for San Diego, as if anyone could be, and they couldn’t have fooled San Diego anyway.
They’d arrived honestly. They’d been charmed by a place cornered by sea and border, that seemed happiest there. It was – is – a fragile baseball town that, still, knows what it likes, knows what it doesn’t, and has little patience for in-between. For hollow anything.
And so, on a cold day in the desert, where the sky spat at the arriving luxury cars and Manny Machado walked into the lives of the San Diego Padres, I thought of Tony Gwynn. And Trevor Hoffman. Ken Caminiti. Jake Peavy. The sort of men who’d come to symbolize San Diego because they’d come to get San Diego. Not even by winning, necessarily (though it helped). But in the manner they tried.
Machado is 26 years old. While for a baseball savant that was plenty of time to reach free agency and therefore become $300 million richer, Machado in many ways is just starting out. He has the better part of a career to play. Maybe all of his prime awaits, all of it under contract with a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since he was in middle school, that just a year ago lost 96 games, that on Friday morning bore the unmistakable expression of a 98-pounder summoning the pluck to hit the schoolyard bully square in the nose.
That’s because of Manny Machado.
Also, because of the plan that’s been in place since the catastrophe of 2015, when the Padres and new management went for it with whole gusto and then fell backward into fourth place. Indeed, general manager A.J. Preller emphasized Machado was “not going to be the one of one,” that he would be “surrounded by guys on his level the next few years,” and that’s because the Padres spent the better part of a half-decade building a farm system that might one day warrant the addition of the most expensive free agent ever.
But, it’s still going to be about Manny, what he does and how he does it and who he is and, for the people of the city, whether he gets them. You know, if that’s important to him.
He leaned into a microphone Friday and said, “I’m a winner. I’m a gamer. … I just go out there and leave it on the field.”
And, well, OK. It’s his day, after all.
He is about as good a hitter as there is in the game and probably a better defender than even that. He’ll probably hit 30 home runs, even in that big old ballpark under the marine layer, and lock down third base. He’ll surely help win some games the Padres would otherwise have lost, which is not a championship but is a start and is sneaking up on relevance. This is not what amounted to a long weekend in L.A., however, or a final chapter in Baltimore. This is where they cheer greatness, as anywhere would, and fall forever in love with authenticity. I could give you better hitters than Gwynn (not many) and Caminiti, better pitchers than Hoffman and Peavy. I could hardly find anyone who cared more and conducted themselves like it. Who gave their hearts so willingly. Who bared their souls as Padres. Who found, then, the soul of the place they played in and then became part of.
“You grind,” said Tony Gwynn Jr., who knows San Diego and how it works there. “All those guys you mentioned. They were different personalities, different players. But they all had one common thing – they grinded. They competed. And they loved this city.
“Obviously they want you to play well. But they also know when you’re working at it.”
San Diego will let you know. It won’t be swayed by the size of a contract, least not for long. It won’t be won by a name it happens to know. It is like any baseball market, in that wins are wins no matter the cost. And there’s a lot to love about any guy who’ll hit you a 450-foot homer. There also seems a unique ability to gauge the depth of a man’s character, his capacity for real and hardball empathy, and maybe that’s small-market sensibility and maybe that’s because it remembers what those kinds of guys looked like. Those are the best kinds of guys.
“The city recognized it in them almost before they recognized it in themselves,” Gwynn said. “It has to come from the people first.
“San Diego is very sensitive. It won’t be chided or cornered. And they don’t like con jobs.”
It’s not necessarily that San Diego is some hard city that expects more than a man is able to give, that sees emotional or physical corruption where there are only human flaws. It is simply a wonderful place to be and an idea worth taking up for and a game worth winning. So, you’re with them or against them. You decide. They’ll let you know how it works out. They’ll let you know if you belong.
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