Orioles third baseman Manny Machado has idolized the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez for as long as he can remember. "I've been looking up to him since I could watch baseball," he said.
Machado took number 13 because A-Rod wore that number. Both righthanded hitters are of Dominican descent, played high school ball in Miami and flashed extraordinary ability at a tender age. Both grew up as shortstops but moved to third out of necessity.
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Machado, who was named to the American League All-Star team yesterday on his 21st birthday, also shows signs of being a great hitter like Rodriguez, who boasts 647 home runs and 1,950 RBIs to accompany a .300 lifetime average as he rehabilitates from hip surgery.
Orioles fans -- and baseball purists -- hope the similarities end there. Rodriguez's accomplishments have been tarnished by his admission that he used performance-enhancing drugs while with the Rangers from 2001-03. He is among those under investigation after a Miami New Times report that he received banned substances from Biogenesis, a Miami anti-aging clinic that has closed.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter thought of the potential pitfalls athletes face in all sports when he said in response to a question about Machado's future, "It's too early to know exactly what it's going to be. There are too many challenges and lures for young players."
Showalter is optimistic, though, that Machado will meet the challenges and resist the lures. "The ones who keep you up at night are the ones you don't think will reach their potential," he said. "I think Manny will."
If he does, he might venture where few players have gone statistically. In his first full season, Machado is batting .315 with six home runs, 42 RBIs and 53 runs in 88 games through action Saturday. He is the runaway major-league leader with 39 doubles, putting him on pace to challenge the all-time single-season record of 67 doubles set by Earl Webb of the Red Sox in 1931. He is second in the majors in hits (119) and first in Wins Above Replacement (5.0).
It is hard to imagine the Orioles expected so much so soon when they chose Machado third overall in the 2010 draft after he hit .639 with 12 home runs and 68 RBIs in 29 games as a senior at Brito High School in Miami. His teammates are impressed by the maturity he showed after being promoted from the Double-A Bowie Baysox Aug. 9, 2012.
"His talent is special," centerfielder Adam Jones said, "but more than just talent, he understands. It's not easy to come up here and start when you are so young, but he gets it."
The 6-2, 180-pound Machado, who typically avoids the spotlight, said of his early success, "I've been playing a long time, and I've reached one of my goals by making it to the big leagues."
Although he is sometimes overshadowed by the Angels' Mike Trout and the Nationals' Bryce Harper, he said, "I just let my bat and glove talk."
The Orioles dispatched third-base coach Bobby Dickerson to Bowie last summer to assess how quickly Machado could make the transition to third and his overall readiness. When Showalter asked Dickerson about that in a late-night phone conversation, Dickerson shot back: "Are we trying to win?"
Machado batted .262 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs in 51 games in 2012. The Orioles dramatically reversed fortunes from a 69-93 record the previous year, finishing second in the AL East at 93-69 before losing a five-game Division Series to the Yankees.
The contending Orioles constantly remind Machado to buy into the team's grinding mentality. "The potential is there to be greater," Dickerson said. "Our thing is to keep him respecting the game, keep him to his routines. We see stars fall all the time."
Although A-Rod is among them, Machado remains loyal after developing a relationship with him. Said the Oriole of the Yankee, "He's been a great mentor."