MIAMI — The rope hung from the tree branch in Albert Almora Jr.'s backyard, extending maybe 30 feet down to the ground. Engineered by Almora's father and designed to be incorporated into his son's workouts, that rope had seen Albert Jr. and his friend Manny Machado shimmy up and down it so many times.
"Oh man, that's a legendary rope," Machado, the Baltimore Orioles star, says, smiling. "We had a lot of fun with that rope."
Machado was 10 or 11. Almora was 8 or 9. The purpose of the rope was to help build forearm strength. The two buddies lived maybe a mile apart in the heart of Hialeah, a municipality here in greater Miami, and when they weren't playing baseball, they were talking about baseball, thinking about baseball or working out to make themselves better baseball players.
"I had to kind of use my feet to get up the rope, but Albert would go straight upper body and go all the way to the top," Machado says. "I was like, 'Hey, man, that's crazy. You're crazy. But it made him who he is today. His work ethic has been unbelievable since he was a kid because his father pushed him. Other than Yonder, I think the other guy who works as hard is Albert."
Summer in Miami: Sweat, workout ropes and blooming friendships.
And now, an All-Star Game and memories.
Machado soon would leave behind that rope for offseason workouts at the University of Miami, where he would meet Yonder Alonso, the Oakland A's slugger, and Jon Jay, the Chicago Cubs outfielder. And while Machado downplays it, his work ethic became every bit as impressive as the others. The three would become fast friends as their professional careers launched. Brothers, essentially. Machado even would marry Alonso's sister, Yainee, in 2014. Almora Jr. served as a groomsman.
Though each of their baseball paths took different directions, all roads still lead them back to their beloved hometown in the offseason. The 305 Boys, as so many know them: Machado. Alonso. Jay. Plus, for good measure, throw in Almora, Gio Gonzalez (Washington Nationals starting pitcher), Danny Valencia (Seattle Mariners first baseman) and Sean Rodriguez (Atlanta Braves infielder).
As the All-Star Game docks in Miami for the first time ever Tuesday night, Alonso will be a part of it for the first time, playing for the American League team, while Machado and Jay will be here with their families and friends soaking in every moment.
"We're lucky to have each other," Jay says.
"Oh, man," Alonso says of his impending All-Star debut. "It will mean a lot for family and friends, and for the city of Miami and for people I know, like my first teachers to high school teachers, to baseball coaches, to all of the kids I know, to people who helped me and my family survive in the city of Miami. I will be numb. I will have tears."
And just maybe, following a first-half slump that leaves him out of the game for the first time since 2014, Machado will have time to drive through his old neighborhood and past the tree that once was the center of his life. Maybe he'll even hear the echoes of Almora's father chewing them out for what they did with the rope during their downtime.
"We'd get into all sorts of trouble," Almora Jr., who scored the winning run for the Chicago Cubs in Game 7 of the World Series last November, says, grinning.
"Oh yeah, all the time," Machado says, chuckling. "We got on the roof and started sliding. We were kids. What are kids going to do? We had a rope, and it was, like, that looks like fun. ... Those are just things you do as kids, and they were fun. I want my kids to do the same thing when I'm not watching. Because when I'm watching, they're not going to be doing that."
The roof to the Almoras home was angled, and there was a batting cage on the side of the house. Manny and Albert would take turns swinging from the rope until they swung it high enough to land on the roof. Then they would slide down that angled roof and...
"The batting cage would be our stop," Machado says. "It wasn't too crazy. It was the edge of the roof, and we'd just kind of fly a little bit. We were Superman at the time. That's what they called Albert when we were kids. Superman."
Rope, angled roof, slide off, fly through the air, stick a landing in the batting cage.
"We had some fun times, man," Machado continues. "We played one-on-one football. How do you do that? We figured it out. We go back, man. That's why every time we play the game, we play it differently. We play it [with style]. That's what we like to do. That's how we were raised. That's just how we are."
FROM ALMORA'S YARD to Alonso's guidance, always and fortunately, there was more slack for Machado to tug on the lifelines of his youth. Along with Almora, now 23, Machado, who turned 25 on July 6, was the kid. Jay now is 32 and Alonso 30.
"Yonder showed me the ropes about life, showed me the ropes about baseball life, he showed me a lot that I couldn't have learned by myself," Machado says. "It's awesome. He showed me true love. He showed me what it is to frickin' care for people, what it is to play baseball. What baseball's all about, it's about life and struggles, a lot of good things he's taught me that I can never take for granted. There's nothing I could do or say to repay what he did."
It started with a phone call. Alonso's agent wanted him to take advantage of the Miami connection, to ring the local high school star who was projected to be a top-five draft pick in 2010 and help the agent recruit him. Dutifully, Alonso called. But he does not traffic in salesmanship. He is too genuine for that. The only pitches he enjoys are the cookies he can crush.
Instead, Alonso simply talked with Machado, and though Alonso's agent did not get a new client, the seeds for a lifelong friendship were planted between Alonso and Machado.
"That's why I liked him," says Machado, the Orioles' first-round (third overall) pick that summer. "He spoke from his heart, told me what he had to say, and that's why we're best friends now."
Machado's growing legend had been ricocheting throughout the Miami baseball community for years by then, from Hialeah's Goodlet Park all the way to the city limits.
"I heard about Manny long before he was in high school," Gio Gonzalez says. "I knew his brother-in-law was proud of him. They used to get their hair cut at my friend Jeff's house, and he would tell me, 'My little brother is coming in, and you've gotta see this kid.'
"Lo and behold, I see him, and they're comparing him to A-Rod—his style, his performance. I was blown away. That's high praise, especially in Hialeah."
Machado had one request during that first phone call with Alonso, who had been a first-round pick (seventh overall) out of the University of Miami in 2008 and debuted with the Cincinnati Reds in 2010: Could they work out together so Manny could see what it takes?
"He was a high school player still, so the rules prevented it, and I told him to call me back after he graduated," Alonso says. "Sure enough, at 8 a.m. six months later, he called back and told me he's ready to do it and when do we start?"
It didn't take long for Alonso to see how badly Machado wanted to succeed.
"This guy had nothing," Alonso says, speaking of Machado's childhood. "One meal a day. People have no idea how much he struggled in his young life."
Machado was raised by his mother, Rosa, and an uncle, Geovany Brito. He told Alonso stories of taking the Metrorail to baseball fields alone, every day, at 12, 13, 14 years old because he had no ride.
"That's not cool," Alonso says. "That's not a good thing, when you're 13, 14, taking an hour ride on the Metrorail through bad neighborhoods. That's not safe for anybody.
"He grew up real fast. He doesn't really talk about it. That's just his way."
Around the same time he started working out with Alonso, Machado met Jay through the workouts at the University of Miami. Jay was injured that first offseason and wasn't around every day, but later in the winter, he started to show more frequently.
"I just remember him pushing me, trying to make me better," Machado says. "Trash-talking me while we were sprinting: Hey, how can this old man be beating you?!"
One day about a year later, Alonso invited Machado to come hang out and meet the rest of his family. Machado showed up wearing a Udonis Haslem Miami Heat jersey and sandals.
"As if it was totally fine to come to a family barbecue showing up as if he's hanging out at home on his couch," Alonso says, still laughing.
"This is going to need changing up a little," Alonso instructed Machado that day.
"Who is this kid?" Alonso's sister, Yainee, exclaimed before turning her sights on Machado and zinging him. "Boy, you've got to change it up. Who do you think you are?"
You never know when sparks will fly, do you? Not long afterward, Manny and Yainee started dating. But not before Machado changed it up a little—and obtained Yonder's blessing to move forward.
"It was totally cool," Alonso says. "I said, 'As long as you respect my family, the woman she is and the name she has. And here we are, six years later.
Says Jay: "It was just natural. It definitely was to us. It was cool to see, and it's awesome now. We've known each other a long time, and it's all like one big family now."
EARLIER THIS SEASON, as the Boston Red Sox were taking extended target practice on him, Machado finally reached the end of his rope. The important thing? How long it took him to get there.
Granted, he had slid into second base late in a game April 21 and knocked Sox star Dustin Pedroia onto the bench for the next several days with a bruised knee. He sent a text message to Pedroia apologizing. But on that Sunday, Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez fired three inside pitches near Machado, and then Matt Barnes whizzed a pitch behind Machado's head.
The next week in Boston, Sox ace Chris Sale fired a 98 mph fastball again behind Machado, who finally blew his stack postgame in a profanity-filled rant in which, among other things, he righteously wondered how much longer this would go on and called out the Boston organization for "coward stuff."
Notably, Machado displayed a maturity throughout the Boston affair that he hadn't before. During his precocious early days in the majors—he debuted at 19, in 2012—he earned a reputation not only for greatness but for his temper as well. That was stoked by his lost weekend in 2014 against Oakland, when he was angered after he thought Josh Donaldson tagged him too hard and responded two days later by helicoptering his bat toward third base and causing a bench-clearing incident.
Then, last June, Machado charged the mound after Yordano Ventura, the late Kansas City Royals pitcher, drilled him with a 99 mph fastball, causing another brawl.
The Oakland incident earned him a five-game suspension, and the Royals fight earned him a four-game suspension.
That he kept it together against the Red Sox this summer was a clear window into a player who is a little older, wiser and now in possession of essential self-control.
"I think that's a big sign of maturity with him, understanding there's a long history from the other incident and understanding that I'm going to get suspended for five games and then I can't play and can't help my team out," Jay says.
Says Alonso: "We had our talks [after the '14 Donaldson incident]. ... I told him how I felt, my opinion. A lot of that stays between me and him, but we've all got to learn.
"He's a smart guy. He knows what he's good at and what he's bad at. He knows the pros and cons. Every day he learns about his flaws. He's not a hardheaded guy. That's why you look at him and say, 'Oh shoot, this is legit.' Because most guys overlook their flaws."
Alonso remembers watching the way Machado spoke with reporters early in his career, sometimes devolving into outright rudeness. They talked then too.
"Now you see a totally different cat," Alonso says.
The greats generally possess a sharp sense of self-awareness. Defensively, Machado has been compared favorably with Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. With the bat, he's led the American League with 51 doubles (2013), he's cracked 35 homers (2015) and he's belted 37 homers while driving in 96 runs (2016). He rapped 211 extra-base hits in his first 500 big league games, passing Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. (208) for the club record, according to Stats LLC.
"His baseball instincts are off the chart," Jay says. "You can see it in his baserunning. When you look at Manny, you see he's a complete player. He doesn't just play defense. He hits, he runs the bases, he can score from first on a double.
"The thing that's impressed me the most, when I first met him, he was just a skinny, 17-year-old kid, but you could see in his work ethic that his body was going to continue to mature."
This season, though, it's taken Machado a long time to get going. On May 31, he was buried with a .205 batting average and .286 on-base percentage. One talent evaluator at the time told B/R, you watch, he'll still end up at .295 with 35 or 40 homers and 100 RBI.
June was somewhat kinder, though at .242/.297/.462 for the month, Machado still doesn't look like the Machado to whom we're accustomed. But in place of a scowl, more often than not, is a smile as he's learned to cope through the difficult times that baseball inevitably produces.
"I'm not going to lie, it's tough," Machado says. "There were a couple of games where you're down and you're in a really dark place, and you don't know if you're ever going to come out of it. You realize, hey, I'm having a bad day, but you realize there are people out there having worse days."
Many within the industry place Machado on the pedestal right next to Mike Trout and Bryce Harper as the game's three best players and already are anticipating the end of the 2018 season, when Harper and Machado will hit the free-agent market at the same time. Amid speculation that Harper could land a record-setting deal somewhere in the $400 million range, there are those who predict Machado won't be far behind.
"They're going to set the standard going forward," Jay says. "There are going to be a couple of other guys up there eventually—Kris Bryant [of the Cubs] and Nolan Arenado [of the Rockies] as well—but these guys are going to push the game to the next level as far as contracts go."
Alonso believes his friend will be worth it not only for his performance but his leadership as well. Already, Orioles reliever Brad Brach marvels over how the organization's minor leaguers flock to Machado and hang on his every move each spring.
"You've gotta stay true to yourself, stay who you are," Machado says. "I think that's the biggest key. "The biggest thing is, I can never forget where I come from. That's why I wear Miami on my sleeve. I never forget where I grew up."
GROUP TEXTS BUZZ back and forth daily from Baltimore to Chicago to Oakland to wherever the schedule takes them. When the Orioles are in Oakland, Machado will skip the team hotel and stay at Alonso's place. When the Cubs open in Baltimore after the All-Star break, Jay will pass on the team's hotel and stay with Machado.
The 305 Boys, wherever they are, regularly are pulling on the rope in the same direction.
"You have so many ballplayers from Miami, and we wear it proudly," Alonso says. "We understand the mentality. It's us against the world.
"It's a survivalist instinct. Miami guys, we stick together. That's how it is, and I think it's always going to be that way."
Last winter, feeling he was "stuck," Alonso overhauled his entire swing from the ground up. Feet, balance, hands, bat placement. It's complicated, but bottom line, he felt like his body wasn't in sync. He felt weak during his swings, "like I was 150 pounds, and I'm 230." He consulted with some of the game's greatest hitters and, of course, Machado, and another Miami friend, Danny Valencia.
Where Alonso always has been the big-brother figure, now it was Machado's time.
"Manny was the base of it all," Alonso says. They agreed to start hitting early, in October, because "he knew I was making humongous changes in my game, and he knew he wanted to be ready early to play in the World Baseball Classic.
"And on days he didn't want to hit, he came to watch and work with me. He was 100 percent there every day."
The results for Alonso have been spectacular. He already has a career-high 20 home runs, and what a year (and location) to splash into his first career All-Star Game.
"The way my family was raised in Miami, we were like glue," says Gonzalez, 31, who is older but grew up within a two-mile radius of Machado and Almora and considers Jay more brother than friend. "We always wanted to be around each other, and we took care of each other. That's something I cherish the most about these young guys. They've never changed. They recognize where they're from and the guys they grew up with."
Over the years, Alonso, Jay and Machado have made sure to rent offseason homes close to each other in Miami so that when they finished their workouts, they could hang out together. One winter, they all lived within two blocks of each other at the beach and spent their time paddleboarding, playing soccer on the sand, riding skateboards down the boardwalk and going out to dinner.
"It's cool," Jay says. "Our wives get together and talk, and if we play in each other's cities, we'll coordinate whether the wives can get to go or not."
The coordinating is just a touch more complicated now. Alonso and his wife, Amber, have a young son, Troy. And Jay and his wife, Nikki, had twin girls during the offseason. But they continue to make sure the logistics work: The Alonsos, Jays and Machados all purchased houses in the same neighborhood not far from the University of Miami and will be moved in by this winter. Which means the guys can get their workouts in in the morning, and the families can hang out at the pool and barbecue together come dinnertime.
"Oh, we all argue," Alonso says. "We fight. We tell each other to beat it and that we don't like each other. But you know what? The next day you go and give that guy a hug and kiss."
"It's going to be a good offseason," Machado says. "Literally, we'll be five minutes apart from each other, and we're going to be hanging out a lot more. It's not like we weren't hanging out before, but we're probably going to get tired of each other for a while."
Maybe at that point, they can find a tree, a rope and invite Almora over for an afternoon.
"I hope they all have the longest careers, ride it until the wheels fall off," Gonzalez says.
"And then, hopefully one day, we will all get to sit down and laugh about how we did it."
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.