PEORIA, Ariz. — The keys to San Diego belong to Manny Machado, if he wants them. He can tuck them snugly into the back pocket of his uniform and unlock doors from Little Italy to La Mesa, Otay Mesa to Oceanside.
In a city starved for something that registers on the country’s sports Richter scale, it’s this simple: Continue his otherworldly production, mute the nagging distractions and avoid coming off as an entitled jerk and entryways across America’s Finest City become his.
Almost no one, though, should expect it to be nearly that simple.
Will $30 million worth of annual contract ink torpedo accountability for a magnificent talent who tightrope-walks between loved and loathed as he sinks incisors into the carrot of a life-altering deal?
As the 2019 season arrives, that’s the Padres’ $300 million question.
“Now, is he going to be the same Manny, is going to be a nicer Manny or is he going to be a more defiant Manny who doesn’t need your approval anymore?” said Peter Schmuck, a Baltimore Sun columnist covering spring training for the 40th time. “There’s a good Manny and a bad Manny. An angel on one shoulder, a devil on the other. That’s who he is.
“He’s got a lot of ego and he likes to show it off. And in baseball terms, he deserves to have an ego. He’s a fantastic player. You’re going to enjoy the heck out of watching him play.”
That complexity — undeniable ability, mixed with unpredictability — makes Machado the most intriguing Opening Day storyline in Padres history. So much money. So many expectations. The spotlight, so, so bright.
Padres fans wanted to treasure and relate to Wil Myers, an unwilling face of the franchise. That’s simply not his temperament or makeup. They wanted to shower all that pent-up affection on Eric Hosmer, but that demands production — World Series ring or not.
That leaves Machado, positioned like no other to claim a city and its fans in a way San Diego hasn’t experienced since Tony Gwynn and Junior Seau. Meanwhile, there’s a tricky-to-sort reality of who Machado is most of the time and who Machado is at the most important times.
Start here: Almost no one has been more day-after-day dependable than Machado, who has played the most games in baseball, period, the last four seasons and suited up for a perfect 162 twice.
He’s made more plate appearances than anyone during that stretch, finished in the Top 5 in MVP voting twice and twice led American League third basemen in fielding percentage. His 211 doubles through his age-25 season rank ninth all time, placing him a spot in front of Robin Yount at that point in his Hall of Fame career.
The oft-cited career total for WAR (wins above replacement) before reaching 26 eclipsed Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds at that age. He’s a four-time All-Star and a two-time winner of a Gold Glove.
In the last four seasons, his home runs (142, 13 more than Bryce Harper) rank eighth. His RBIs (384, more than Giancarlo Stanton, Mookie Betts, Mike Trout and Harper), rank eighth. His WAR in that stretch ranks ninth, ahead of Harper, Nolan Arenado and 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich.
The raw production, stunning and indisputable.
Many around the country, however, only know that Machado decided not to run out a ground ball for the Dodgers in the NLCS, later said he’s “no Johnny Hustle,” then jogged on a World Series blast off the wall that limited him to a single. A Bleacher Report story indicated that those moments, among other stumbles, led to a “tarnished image” while adding that manager Dave Roberts talked to him about effort during the season.
“It’s not only himself, it’s everybody in the league,” said Petey Suarez, one of Machado’s closest friends who helps with everything from travel arrangements to offseason batting practice. “Watch some videos and let me know who runs it out every time. In the Major Leagues, guys are going to be out. They take a step back. Why? Because in that next at-bat, they need to use that energy for everything else.
“It’s a misconception. It was not the big deal that they made it out to be. It’s just, ‘Hey, I’m out’ — so just move on. The numbers speak for themselves. He’s out there 162 games. Who else does that?”
Throw in the fact that baseball fined him $10,000 for kicking the leg of Milwaukee first baseman Jesus Aguilar during the NLCS, however, and other questions linger. Yelich characterize the moment as “a dirty play by a dirty player,” causing the narrative to grow more complicated.
MLB also suspended him for five games in 2014, when Machado threw his bat toward then-A’s third baseman Alberto Callaspo after a pair of brushback pitches. A questionable slide that injured Dustin Pedroia in April 2017 sparked controversy, as well.
“You had the bat-throwing incident, then he had the spiking incident — although I think he got a bad rap on the Boston Red Sox one, because Pedroia was the first to say he didn’t really try to spike him,” Schmuck said. “But there have been other things along those lines, slides that people didn’t like. He brings all this stuff on himself, but I don’t think it makes him a bad guy per se.”
There it is again: That routinely radioactive line between playing with healthy emotion and recklessness.
The Padres, for their part, said they would not have signed Machado if they believed those incidents marred his remarkable athletic whole. They asserted an unprecedented amount of due diligence on those thorny fronts and claim his youth proves he’s maturing before our eyes.
Machado, for his part, did himself no favors by dodging a question about his effort and behavior at an introductory press conference. It would have been so simple to remind everyone he plays and produces every day, while acknowledging he understands that the Padres entrusted him with a mountain of dollars and their most important coming days.
The questions remain legitimate, though. Playing with edge is one thing. Playing with immaturity and lacking emotional brakes is another. Too few fans understand or acknowledge the difference between the two when considering their stars. Machado controls on which side of that debate he will land.
Despite all of the swirl, San Diego offers a fresh slate and a riveting new start.
What Machado decides to do — and how he decides to do it — tees up one of baseball’s most absorbing storylines. No matter how it turns out, it’s certain to be a must-watch.
Those keys, his to grab.