BALTIMORE — The Orioles finally kicked Manny Machado out of the nest Wednesday.
Now he’ll get to play meaningful games with the Los Angeles Dodgers for at least the next 2 1/2 months, and the O’s will move forward with five young players who might or might not help them do the same over the next few years.
This is how it always figured to end. The clock started running when Machado made his major-league debut Aug. 9, 2012, and it was always going to run out at some point this year.
There was never any doubt about who he would become and what that would mean to a team that has to compete with major league baseball’s choicest beef on a hamburger budget.
That first day in the majors, Machado had two hits, one of them a triple. His first four games, he had six hits, three home runs and seven RBIs in 16 at-bats. Five of those first six hits were for extra bases.
The Orioles knew he was special before he got here. Everyone did. He was a 20-year-old shortstop and he walked out to third base that first day and was immediately one of baseball’s best at the position. It wasn’t long before he was being compared to Brooks Robinson, which meant he already was one of the best third basemen in forever.
The Orioles tried to lock him up with a multiyear contract, but they couldn’t get it done. They knew what they had and still balked at paying what it would take, because they’ve long had a front office with a little too much wait-and-see.
He has growing up to do: But we all got to see Machado grow into his place among baseball’s most exciting and productive players, and he definitely had some growing up to do.
There was the bat-throwing incident that got him suspended for five games in 2014, and the two-series dust-up with the Boston Red Sox in 2017 after he injured Dustin Pedroia with a hard slide. Though Pedroia said publicly it was not a dirty play, the Red Sox were so infuriated by the incident that two Boston pitchers were disciplined for throwing at Machado afterward.
Still, Machado added to his edgy image when he reacted to the unnecessary retaliation with an expletive-laced rant against all things Red Sox that quickly went viral.
That was near the beginning of a very frustrating first half of the 2017 season, one in which Machado dipped well below his career averages and arrived at July 1 batting just .216 with 15 home runs and 38 RBIs.
As contract talk increased, so did his average: Maybe it’s a coincidence, but right about the time when his contract status started to become a talking point, his numbers started to rise. He bounced back in the second half of the season, whistling past two trade deadlines with a .295 average, 18 homers and 57 RBIs. Combine his numbers from the start of last July to the start of this July — with trade speculation hot and heavy for the past month or so — and he batted .301 with 38 homers and 114 RBIs.
Machado fielded countless questions during spring training about his uncertain future. There was certainly room to wonder how a 25-year-old (now 26) would handle the pressure of a free-agent “walk” year. Not many players get to that point this quickly.
He hasn’t just handled it. He has reveled in it.
Showing patience: Machado also showed tremendous patience during the trek through several big-market cities, where trade speculation centered on him and crowds of inquiring reporters greeted him. He displayed the maturity that many had doubted earlier in his career.
It was a fine line he had to tread, making sure to stay respectful of the struggling Orioles, who had given him a shot in the majors at age 20, while conceding at times that he was “appreciative” of the opportunities he has found himself with. Who wouldn’t be?
Now, he’ll have to continue that walk in Los Angeles, where the games will be bigger and the opportunity to increase his marketability in the middle of a pennant race, instead of at the bottom of the American League East standings, will be far greater.
We all knew, deep in our hearts, that he was never going to be an Oriole for life.