Villains don't come to San Diego. Surfers, yes. And sandcastle builders. Tourists. But...villains?
On a back field at the Padres' complex, Manny Machadocertainly doesn't look like a bad guy. From third base, he uncorks a sidearm fling to Eric Hosmer at first, followed by a snappy comment about his lethal arm that makes Hosmer bust out laughing before coach Glenn Hoffman slaps the next infield ground ball into the spring morning.
Surrounded by top prospects like Fernando Tatis Jr. and Hudson Potts, Machado peppers bits of advice into the daily drills, schooling Tatis on how to come around on a ground ball to get a better throwing angle and Potts on how he can handle certain hops more easily with nuanced glove placement.
The point is to work smarter by firming up the small things. Machado does not preach and he is not pushy. Maybe you've heard, he does things his way and lets the chips fall where they may. For him, it's led to four All-Star Games, two Gold Gloves, a World Series appearance and, now, the $300 million deal many thought he might have kicked away with his head-scratching October.
That he got the $300 million, though, was not nearly as shocking as where it came from. San Diego hasn't made the playoffs since 2006 and has in recent years served more as a retirement home for vintage players past their prime—Greg Maddux, David Wells, Orlando Hudson, Matt Kemp and more—than a magnet for big-time free agents.
Even with a fleet of hot young prospects who have made the club's farm system the consensus best in the game—Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, FanGraphs and ESPN all rate San Diego as No. 1—conventional thinking had the Padres going nowhere near such an expensive and exotic talent who could, gasp, become a wicked influence on such naive and impressionable young minds.
"It's a matter of teaching them, hey, little things turn into big things at the end of the day," Machado explains. "They turn into championships and Gold Gloves, all the accolades you could get.
"Little things like that are going to lead to them being better. At the end of the day, I just want to help them be the best players they can."
Five months after he told the world that he's no Johnny Hustle, and after the Milwaukee Brewers' Christian Yelich called him a "dirty player" for kicking first baseman Jesus Aguilar's foot as he crossed the bag during last fall's National League Championship Series, Machado, 26, now is a hired gun in a new locale without the wanted posters.
"I said what I said, obviously, but I definitely regret saying it," Machado says. "It was misunderstood, in a way. Obviously, I've played my game, I've shown what I can do on the ballfield. Let your game speak for itself and go about your business."
In rare public glimpses, Machado reveals a human side that he buries during competition. It is an aspect that largely was ignored last autumn as the decorum vigilantes gathered en masse, neglecting to remember during the loafing lectures that he played in all 162 games in 2018 for the second time in four years and that his 637 games played and 2,808 plate appearances from 2015 to '18 lead the majors. And that he's come back from major surgeries on both knees early in his career.
"Look, in baseball, how it's ultimately perceived is how you move forward," Hall of Famer Jim Thome says. "There are things where you maybe feel I shouldn't have said that, and I wasn't there to listen to the [Johnny Hustle] interview, but it's how we move forward in the game.
"He's got a chance to go to San Diego and ... make an impact on how [he is] perceived as a leader. Think about it. They brought him over there to be that guy."
Thome's words are important because, early in Machado's career in Baltimore, it was Thome doing for Machado what Machado is doing now, dispensing guidance and wisdom to his younger teammates. "We're trying to be a world-class team and he's a huge part of that equation," says second baseman Ian Kinsler, another veteran the Padres signed this winter.
"He plays hard. He plays with an edge. That's what you need to be successful. None of that stuff bothers us in here. He's our teammate now. We have his back. That's how he plays the game, and hopefully it rubs off on everyone in here."
Celebrating their 50th anniversary season, the Padres know that for far too long they have been viewed as a soft team in a soft market that has served mostly as a punching bag. They'd like to change that perception, and Machado's edge is a key.