Welcome home: O's fans cheer on the past and future as Manny Machado returns

BALTIMORE — It was while answering a question about his trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers that Manny Machado, who returned to Camden Yards as a San Diego Padre on Tuesday, made clear just how much his time in Baltimore had meant to him.

“They just ship you away and you’re going somewhere else, across the country, trying to meet new faces, new everyone. It’s hard,” Machado said during a pregame news conference. Earlier this week, Machado talked to The Athletic about being disappointed in how the Orioles’ front office handled that trade in his final year before free agency — letting him sweat out the All-Star Game suspecting he had already been dealt. But Tuesday’s remarks felt less like he was griping about old grievances and more like a moment of vulnerability about how difficult it had been to leave his home of seven years and the organization that originally drafted him.

Machado only stayed in LA for half a season, and the Orioles he encounters this week are led by a different regime than the one that traded him. What remains is a sort of cognitive dissonance between what is the “same” and what is “different.” Repeatedly over the course of the 15 minutes that he addressed the media, Machado seemed to genuinely marvel at how things that were once familiar had been rendered meaningfully foreign by moves both big — across the country — and small — down the hall in the bowels of Camden Yards.

Things that are the same in Machado’s telling: clubhouses, doors, faces in the stands, the route from the airport to the stadium, the way his young team now feels compared to the young team he debuted with in 2012. Things that are different: clubhouses, doors, sleeping in a hotel instead of your own home, his role on that young team as the veteran presence — like Nick Markakis and Adam Jones had been to him — to the rookie, Fernando Tatis Jr.

Former Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado acknowledges fans who cheer for him as he comes to bat for the first time as a visiting player at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore on Tuesday, June 25, 2019. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images)
Former Baltimore Orioles star Manny Machado returned to Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Tuesday night. (Getty Images)

Something else that is inexplicably different: This day, his first game back in nearly a year.

“Honestly I was more excited yesterday than I am today. I’m a little nervous today to come out here,” Machado said. “I’m never nervous, I know! I don’t know. I guess it’s just a weird nervous. It’s just different.”

Part of that was not knowing how the fans would react.

“He made some huge contributions to the Orioles franchise for many years and gave the fans a lot to cheer about for a long time,” Mark Trumbo said before the game. “I know that we’re excited to see him, and I gotta think the fans are too.”

It was never going to be as bad as fellow-free agent Bryce Harper’s acrimonious return to the Washington Nationals as a member of the division-rival Philadelphia Phillies in the first week of the season. And it was never going to be quite as laudatory as Albert PujolsSt. Louis swan song eight years after he left as an MVP candidate. But, to Baltimore’s credit as well as Machado’s, it was closer to the latter than the former.

The fans came early and they brought signs. “Welcome Home, Manny,” they said with poster board and a tribute video and in the throngs that gathered to watch batting practice. Machado smiled and waved and signed shirts, adding a note that said: “Sky’s the limit.”

“He doesn’t always get a great reception in other cities; he gets tough receptions a lot of times, so to see a team that he considers home treat him the way they did today, sure meant a lot to me and I’m sure it meant a lot to him as well,” Padres manager Andy Green said.

He was no longer nervous, either. Maybe it wasn’t all that different after all. “That’s the beauty of being a baseball player, once you put on the uniform, everything goes away and you can focus on playing baseball,” Machado said.

When the game started, the crowd cheered for every at-bat — giving Machado a long standing ovation when he was announced in the first.

He struck out, and Baltimore fans cheered.

They cheered again when he hit a home run to lead off the third, his 100th at Camden Yards. And for every other one of his four at-bats and also when he trotted off the field at the end of each inning.

“Tells you everything about the fanbase here,” Machado said — and maybe that’s because they don’t have a lot else to cheer for these days.

Machado’s Padres handed the Orioles their 57th loss, 8-3, in front of a crowd of 21,644. Baltimore is the worst team in baseball by far. But on a beautiful day at a famed ballpark, fans could at least cheer about the past — and the future.

In a stroke of marketing savvy and narrative good fortune colliding, the Orioles hosted a press conference with their newly signed first overall draft pick, Adley Rutschman, on the same day. The 21-year-old, switch-hitting catcher from Oregon State, represents the hope that their last great homegrown talent’s departure ushered in only a few years of utter misery in the standings.

As Rutschman took his first round of batting practice on the field that Machado missed so much, his mom, Carol, recalled the most emotional moment of the journey to get to this point. It wasn’t when the scouts started showing up or draft day or even when he officially became an Oriole. It was his last at-bat at Oregon State — a long fly out to center when it felt like time stood still. The crowd cheered, and it makes her tear up just thinking about it.

Even if you’re moving on to bigger and better, sometimes moving on is the hardest thing.

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