Sorry, haters: Manny Machado did everything right in his Padres debut

PEORIA, Ariz. — Manny Machado hit the second pitch of his first at-bat in a San Diego Padres uniform into the air for an easy pop-up. Anybody else and we’re not even watching how hard he runs down the line.

But with Machado, who was the most controversial player of the past offseason and then signed a $300 million contract with San Diego, there’s a certain contingent of fans waiting for him to slip up. They’re eager for that moment when he does and they can yell, “See! Told you. He’s not worth $300 million.”

And that first at-bat? He was halfway between first and second base when the ball was caught. How that’s for hustle?

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Saturday was the day “Manny Machado, Face of the Franchise” became officially official. The fans welcomed him with cheers, a few even wore his jersey. Machado reciprocated by doing just about everything right, even when the fans weren’t watching. He popped out in that first at-bat, walked in his second one and was out of the game after three innings.

“Finally,” he said with a grin after making his way off the field. “Finally got to play some baseball. It was nice. It’s awesome to finally come out here — and they show some love. It’s going to be a special year for us.”

San Diego Padres' Manny Machado (13) signs autographs for fans prior to a spring training baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)
San Diego Padres' Manny Machado (13) signs autographs for fans prior to a spring training baseball game against the San Francisco Giants, Saturday, March 2, 2019, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

There was so much hubbub about Machado this offseason, partially because of the monster contract he was seeking — 10 years and $300 million was the final tally — and partially because the postseason spotlight turned him into a villain. He didn’t run out a grounder, then said in an interview that he wasn’t “Johnny Hustle” and then clipped Jesus Aguilar of the Milwaukee Brewers at first base, for which he was branded a “dirty player.”

On Day 1 for the Padres, we saw the opposite of all the stereotypes. Machado walked into the clubhouse at 7:09 a.m., well before the team’s 9:30 a.m. workout and its 1:10 p.m. game. He was among the first players there, certainly the first star to arrive.

During workouts, he was vocal and active. He smiled and laughed with some of the team’s young prospects, the same guys the Padres are hoping can learn from Machado.

“He knows what it’s like being a young prospect who has high expectations,” Padres manager Andy Green said about Machado and his relationship with top prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. “I’m sure he can relate to him in a way that nobody else really can. They seem to get along really well. I’m sure he’s going to help him.”

Once workouts were over, a young fan yelled to Machado: “Will you sign my baseball card?”

“Over there,” Machado yelled back, pointing to a fence outside the practice field. “I got you.”

When Machado got there, there wasn’t one kid, there were at least 50. He spent a good five minutes signing for them, grabbing ball after ball, even retrieving baseball cards and pens that kids accidentally dropped on the ground.

Machado’s only slip-up came during his postgame media scrum, while he was talking about his new team’s potential and how they’re “hungry” in the Padres clubhouse.

“All you need is confidence in this game. I think the organization has put that foot forward and has given the guys a lot more confidence to go out there and know this is not going to be a losing situation,” Machado said. “We’re gonna try to win, maybe not the division, but we’re going to go out there and fight for a wild-card spot. You never know what could happen in baseball.”

Not the division?

“We could do it. We could do it. I’m not saying we can’t,” he responded. “But they’re a great team on the other side. I’m confident in the guys we have here. If we all stick together and get on the same game plan, we can be dangerous.”

That might not be what the most optimistic Padres fans want to hear from their new star. But realistic fans also know they’re not as good as Machado’s old team, the Los Angeles Dodgers.

After that, Machado praised Tatis, calling him a “baller” and saying he hopes the 20-year-old is the Padres’ opening day shortstop. He also said his long wait to sign a free-agent deal now felt worth it.

“It’s always worth it when you come out, put on a uniform and step on that field,” Machado said. “It’s the best feeling you can have.”

“We can play,” he said a minute later. “We’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

When it was over, he appeased the fans behind him screaming his name and walked over to sign more autographs.

He handed a signed ball back to one fan, who looked at him and said, “Thanks for coming here, Manny.”

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