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Physical Health, Emotional Maturity Key for Manny Machado, Orioles

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 12, 2015

Gene J. Puskar/AP Images

SARASOTA, Florida — On his way to superstardom, Manny Machado was sideswiped. Bushwhacked. Waylaid.

Left knee. Right knee. Two major surgeries. Too much time rehabbing.

Toss in the freak-out weekend against the Oakland Athletics last June that resulted in a five-game suspension and left his reputation nearly as shredded in some quarters as his knees, and there is no player in the game who needs the fresh canvas of a new season more than the Baltimore Orioles' third baseman.

"The last two years, there have been so many changes in my life," Machado says. "I got married. The injuries.

"It's been an interesting, fun journey."

So what do we make of Manny Machado now?

Is he still the savant who debuted in 2012 at 19 with an incredible signature play, faking to first and wheeling to throw to third for a crucial out against Tampa Bay in September that helped push the Orioles into the playoffs?

Is he the broken-down player destined to forever chase the ghosts of his once-golden future?

Or is he the ogre who made a million enemies during that one lost weekend against the Athletics?

If you're one of those people who know little about Machado, now 22, other than the ogre part, Orioles manager Buck Showalter has little patience for you.

Mar 4, 2015; Sarasota, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter (26) greets infielder Manny Machado (13) before the start of a spring training baseball game against the Detroit Tigers at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports

"That's a bad reflection on those people," Showalter says. "Someone who had that as a lingering memory of him, that's not who he is.

"Manny's a college senior, OK? Senior, junior…none of us would like to have our whole life judged by a poor decision. I'm going to tell you something: Manny wasn't the only one making some bad decisions that day, OK? There are a lot of things about Manny that day that were right, OK, if you want to go back part-by-part of it.

"He's the type of kid who learns from things. You can be right, but be wrong."

That the memory of that weekend has even taken center stage, for some, over all of the sparkling moments Machado has compiled over 289 major league games (.278/.313/.434, 33 homers, 129 RBI and one Gold Glove) really only amplifies how much time he's spent on the sidelines.

And how much the Orioles have missed him.

"Seeing Manny play, remembering how much range he has…" Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy says. "He made a play the other day that I don't know how many other major league third basemen make.

"And he's still shaking the rust off."

So far, so good this spring for Machado, who told Showalter the other day that he's able to do things now without even thinking about his knees. Hitting, fielding, running…and it's the first time in a long time that's happened.

For an Orioles team that suffered through a rough winter, watching slugger Nelson Cruz sign with Seattle and Nick Markakis sign with Atlanta, that's great news.

And if Machado, catcher Matt Wieters and first baseman Chris Davis all produce bounce-back seasons, there is no reason why the Orioles can't defend their title in an AL East that has seen better days.

Wieters hasn't caught since last May 4 after undergoing Tommy John ligament transfer surgery. Davis was already having a bitterly disappointing season when he was suspended in September for amphetamines.    

And then there's Machado.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

"He's a good kid," Showalter says. "He just got married. He's in a good place in his life.

"There are a lot of things in the tea leaves pointing toward positives this year."

The wedding was in Angers, France, just outside of Paris, on Dec. 6. Manny and wife Yainee came up with the idea after attending a friend's wedding in Italy.

"We wanted a destination wedding," Machado says. "We found this palace that was amazing. When we checked it out, the owner was a wedding planner as well."

They honeymooned in the Maldives, stopping for a couple of days in Dubai along the way.

"It's been exciting," Machado says. "Taking it all in. Getting to know myself and my wife.

"It's been a great learning experience."

Those around the Orioles say they've noticed a calmer, more mature Machado this spring. Some of us do take a little longer to grow up than others.

Wouldn't it be something if Machado's comeback and an Orioles championship season trace some of their roots back to France?

"He'll have to win a lot of people's respect back," Hardy says. "He had it before. Now he'll have to win it back again."

Machado calls the Oakland weekend—in which he objected to a hard tag by Josh Donaldson on Friday, twice hit A's catcher Derek Norris on Sunday with a backswing that many thought was on purpose, then let his bat fly toward Oakland pitcher Fernando Abad after a pitch that was up and in—a "learning experience," too.

"Things happen, tempers flare, and the best part is you play the next day and try again to win for your team," Machado says. "It was a tough time. It was hard.

"My teammates had my back."

They did, but only after the Orioles held a team meeting in which Machado apologized to his teammates for his immature behavior.

Crazy thing is, Donaldson was dealt to Toronto by Oakland over the winter and now resides in the AL East. So pencil in Blue Jays vs. Orioles, Donaldson vs. Machado, 19 times this summer.

"He's going to help his team win, and I'm going to help my team win," Machado says. "We're going to battle.

"We're going to fight and hate each other. I think we need more of that."

But in a good way, Machado emphasizes. With good, clean play on the field.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

So, what do we make of Machado now?

Yes, a lot has happened since we've last seen him. Showalter says the third baseman is almost bored right now, which is a good sign. He's healthy and can't wait to get into the good stuff, when the season starts.

"Everybody goes through struggles," Machado says. "Bad days, great days, things happen in life."

Yes, they do. And figuring he's past the worst of his struggles, Machado and the Orioles can't wait for the great days.

Hey, it's in the tea leaves.

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. 

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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