So we're really going to do this?"
This was Orioles manager Buck Showalter last Aug. 7 speaking on the phone with minor league infield coordinator Bobby Dickerson, who'd been working with Machado at Double A Bowie over the summer.
"Well, we're trying to win this, right?" said Dickerson. "If we want to win, he needs to be up."
Two days later Machado got the call from Baltimore. It was the boldest move made by any team during the 2012 season. Machado instantly ignited the offense, and he made key hits through September and October: He singled and tripled in his Aug. 9 debut, he hit two home runs in his second game (he's the youngest player in baseball history with a multi-homer game that early in his career), he scored the winning run in the game that clinched a postseason berth for the Orioles and he homered in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees. At the time of Machado's call-up the Orioles were 60--51 but had won an unusually high number of one-run games. Another sign that the Orioles' success may not have been sustainable was the poor play of their defense, then rated the league's worst. Machado's addition fixed that problem. At the time the O's knew that Machado was nowhere close to the kind of hitter he will eventually become. His defense, however, was much further along, potentially elite. Ballplayers are believed to reach their prime in their age-27-to-29 years, but studies on a ballplayer's aging curve take only offensive production into consideration. Most analysts believe that players peak defensively much earlier.
Machado's gifts were evident in a single play that loudly announced his arrival. "One of the most memorable plays of the year," says a scout. On Sept. 12 the Orioles were tied for first in the AL East, at home against the Rays, tied 2--2 with two outs in the ninth and Tampa pinch runner Rich Thompson on second. Evan Longoria hit a soft roller to third, which a charging Machado fielded with his bare hand. Thompson was rounding third as Machado cocked his arm and seemingly fired the ball toward first. Machado had, in fact, pump faked, and now he had Thompson caught between third and home, for the third out. In the bottom of the inning, Machado led off with a single and scored the game's winning run. Says Duquette, "That was the day I knew that this kid was a star."
Four hours before game time on an April afternoon, Machado is putting in his daily infield work with Dickerson, who was brought on as third base coach for the Orioles during the off-season. Two days earlier, in a game against the Rays, Machado had charged a slow roller to third and scooped up the ball with his bare hand just inches off the grass and lasered the ball to first to get the out. "A play like that wasn't an accident," says Dickerson, who works one-on-one with Machado for 15 minutes before every game. "It's the result of lots and lots of practice." Dickerson and Machado have been working together for over a year, since Dickerson got a call from the Orioles' front office saying that they wanted to prepare Machado for a move to third. "Buck and I had a conversation last spring training, and the question was, Where does Manny break into the big leagues?" says Dickerson. "We just gave J.J. Hardy a three-year contract and he's a Gold Glove shortstop. But we also didn't want to make this a big deal, we wanted to just ease him in, so when I told him that he should take a few reps at third, it was supposed to be casual. But he took it as seriously as if he were our starting third baseman."
Machado has always had a strong work ethic. Says his high school coach, Lazaro Fundora, "We'd have practice at 3:15, and he was out there before everyone else at 1:30 doing his work. Later at night he'd hit at the cages, and then go to the park and take more ground balls."
"His range outside his body," says Dickerson, is one reason Machado makes seemingly magical plays in the field. "That's not necessarily how far he runs to get a ball—but it's just that when he's at point X, his arms and his wingspan allow him to close distance on balls that other people would rely on their legs and feet to get to. Also, "his arm strength allows him to do things depthwise, in terms of positioning, that others just can't," Dickerson adds.
Machado knows that he could still be in Bowie, working at his craft, and as a 20-year-old just two years out of high school, no one would raise an eyebrow. With the exception of Harper (one of only two players in the majors younger than he is), all of their teammates from the 2009 Team USA club are still waiting for the call to the big leagues. The comparisons with A-Rod began around the time Machado was in Venzuela, and he cites Rodriguez—with whom he's worked out during off-seasons in Miami—as one of his mentors. Just beginning now are the inevitable comparisons with Hall of Famers and O's greats like Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr. "I'm just trying to be myself," he says. "Maybe someday, someone will say of another player, He's the next Manny Machado.