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Machado aiming to make '18 something special

O's star looking to lead by example as he makes switch to shortstop
MLB.com @Britt_Ghiroli

They would arrive early at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, clutching their tickets and gloves, hoping to get lucky. There, Manny Machado and his dad would make the trek to the very top seats of the Marlins' old home to watch batting practice and try to shag some balls.

The hope wasn't to get a cool picture or souvenir.

They would arrive early at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, clutching their tickets and gloves, hoping to get lucky. There, Manny Machado and his dad would make the trek to the very top seats of the Marlins' old home to watch batting practice and try to shag some balls.

The hope wasn't to get a cool picture or souvenir.

"[It was] so we could get them to have back home -- so we could say we threw with a big league ball," Machado said. "We didn't have much, but that was always our adventure. Once the game started, we'd try to sneak down closer to the outfield fence."

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Machado collected a nice haul over the years from batting practice, only once catching a home run ball. It's something that still crosses the All-Star's mind occasionally when he sends a ball skyrocketing into the seats at Camden Yards or any opposing venue.

How cool it was at the time to get his hands on a big league baseball, use it for the hours he spent practicing with uncle Geovany Brito -- the primary male figure in his life -- or cousin and fellow big leaguer, Albert Almora Jr.

By now, you've probably heard the stories of Machado's lore: The poor kid from Hialeah, who would anxiously wait every day for Brito to get home to take him to the baseball field across the street. The skinny teen who would save most of the $3 lunch money from his mother, Rosa Nunez, to ride the Metrorail to practices because he didn't have a ride.

Video: STL@BAL: Machado smashes a grand slam to left in 3rd

Machado drove a used Cadillac DeVille during his senior year of high school, when his family finally got a second car. And an auto upgrade was his first big purchase when the Orioles made him a first-round Draft pick in 2010. He bought Nunez a car, then one for his sister and one for himself.

There are no shortage of home run balls in Machado's six-year career -- the last three of which have been 30-plus homer seasons. Still, at 25 years old -- with a Platinum Glove Award and a reputation as one of MLB's top players -- Machado enters this season with a lot to prove.

That he can play shortstop -- the position he's always loved -- at a high level. That his body can hold up from two knee surgeries at the more-demanding middle-infield position.

That he can lead the Orioles, in what is his final season before free agency, to once again prove the critics wrong.

"I think you've seen, really, two chapters for him," said Indians first baseman and Machado's brother-in-law Yonder Alonso.

"You saw his younger days at [age] 20-21 just coming up to the big leagues -- and you are seeing him now evolve and understand he has to learn from his mistakes and get better. He is helping these younger guys learn from him. He's really a special player, and I'm excited for what we're about to see."

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

***

To this day, Machado hates seeing the videos. His mistakes on full display. Reminders of a younger, more volatile Machado that earned him an ominous reputation: young, talented and temperamental.

There was the 2014 spectacle against Oakland, when Machado thought Josh Donaldson tagged him too hard and, later in the series, retaliated by throwing his bat toward Donaldson at third base. It caused a benches-clearing incident.

In June of 2016, Machado charged the mound after Yordano Ventura, the late Royals pitcher, hit him with a 99-mph pitch in the back. Machado landed a punch, again causing a brawl, and was ejected from the game along with Ventura.

Video: KC@BAL: Machado and Ventura exchange words

Alonso and Jon Jay, both Miami guys who have served as mentors for Machado, made it clear: There was a right way to do things, and then there was what Machado had done.

"At the [time of the] Josh Donaldson [incident], I had a lot of things going on in my life, with the season before getting knee surgery. I still wasn't 100 percent," Machado said. "Obviously, there's no excuse for my actions, but those are other things that people don't see on this side of the game. People just think, 'It's always nice and dandy [for players], they are making millions of dollars.' But [it was great] having those guys be honest and say [to me], 'Hey, this is how you should handle it next time. Take this road.'

"I mean, I'm a young kid. I didn't go to college, they did. I had a lot to learn. You have to be smart about the things that you do and the things that you say."

To that end, those close to Machado say there have been subtle changes over the past few years. A greater understanding -- fueled by guys like Alonso and Jay -- that his actions and words carry serious weight.

"Manny has just grown as a person," said Machado's wife, Yainee. "That all happened a really long time ago. As he's gotten more experience, I think he wants to be more of the team leader. He wants the new guys coming in to follow his steps, and he wants to do the right thing."

Most notably, Machado's restraint in last April's drama with the Red Sox was commendable. After a hard slide into Dustin Pedroia at second base on April 21, things heated up. Pedroia would be sidelined several days with a bruised knee.

Machado sent a text message apologizing to the Red Sox star, fully expecting some sort of retaliation. It came that Sunday, when former Orioles farmhand Eduardo Rodriguez threw multiple inside pitches near Machado. Reliever Matt Barnes also took a shot near his head.

It wasn't over. The following week, Chris Sale sent a 98-mph fastball behind Machado, who finally unloaded in a postgame rant that called Boston's continued actions cowardly and drawn out.

Video: BAL@BOS: Machado talks about being thrown at by Sale

"That was a situation that was out of my control," Machado said. "Look, I'll take my hit and go to first base. But it got a little out of hand [for] both clubs. At this point of my career, I've learned from my past and I'm not going to go out there and make a big show. I said what I needed to say and then you just go about our business."

The Machado of several years ago would have reacted more harshly and sooner.

"The only thing you can really control is if you learn from the mistakes that you made," he said. "I hate watching those [old] videos. But I still did those things, at the same time. Obviously, I learned from them and tried to improve from those [incidents]. I try to be the best teammate I can. I think everyone in this clubhouse knows they can count on me as a person and as a player."

Had it been another Oriole who slid into Pedroia, one without the star power and reputation of Machado, perhaps things wouldn't have escalated. But that talent, and his past, will always be baggage Machado has to carry.

"Obviously, he's made some mistakes as a younger player -- as a lot of other players have," said Orioles outfielder Adam Jones. "Seems like his are brought to your attention more than others, which is unfortunate, but it's how it is and always will be. I think he's worried about what he can control now. He's focused on preparing for his added responsibilities [this season] at shortstop."

***

Those knees still ache on occasion, a reminder of what Machado summarizes as "a terrible two years" of his young life. They're also the driving force in shaping him to be the elite player he is now.

"He came up and got hurt right away, and people thought he might not be the same player," said Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who is one of Machado's best friends. "He proved them wrong. And he did it again to the second knee. He kept proving that he could come back stronger."

The first knee surgery in 2013 was for a ruptured ligament in his left knee, which saw him get carted off the field. The second came in August of '14, this time on his right side, that ended his season again.

"People were saying, 'Oh, wow. He's [had] two knee surgeries now. Is he ever going to be able to play baseball again?'" Machado said.

"That pushed me. That gave me the fire to put me on the next level. I take that field to this day and I never forget about it -- because it fuels me that a lot of people out there can see things that happen and just automatically judge without seeing what goes on behind the scenes."

It was a grueling two years of rehab, hours spent each day trying to get back -- and get better -- than he was before.

"It's hard, because you don't know what's going to happen," Yainee said. "People are saying your career is over. And it's like, 'OK, how am I going to get out of this?'

"What's important is the people around you, the support you have [from] people to be like, 'No, you still got this. You're young. Maybe this had to happen for you to become something else.'"

What Machado became was one of the best players in the Majors. Coming off rehab, he was the only player to appear in all 162 games in 2015, earning trips to the All-Star Game, his second Rawlings Gold Glove at third base and finishing fourth in American League MVP voting.

The following season, he played in 157 games, slashing .294/.343/.533 -- while hitting a career-high 37 home runs and driving in a career-best 96 runs.

Video: BAL@NYY: Machado goes the other way for a solo homer

Perhaps it was a reminder he needed -- similar to the one Jay and Alonso gave him when he first got drafted. "You haven't done anything yet," they told Machado, "you're just a kid with money. Prove yourself."

"I learned at a young age that nothing is given," Machado said. "Like my Mom [is] always telling me, 'You fall down, you get right back up and you keep riding that bike. You can't just sit on the floor and pout about it.' Yeah, I [had] two knee surgeries. Yeah, it hurt a lot. They ache every once in a while, but everyone out there, their bodies hurt. You can't take anything for granted, you have to work for it."

***

He has thought about it, sure. In a winter flooded with his own trade rumors, Machado knows his time in Baltimore could be nearing an end.

He is expected to get a record-breaking deal if he does hit free agency. If that's the case, he would like Orioles fans to remember a few things.

"Just that I gave my all. I gave everything I had to this organization," Machado said. "I could never be anything but grateful for the opportunity to come up here and play third base [in 2012]. Obviously, it wasn't my natural position, but they let me come up and be a big leaguer. The reason I am the person I am today is because of them.

"Just remember me [for] how I've always played the game. I play the game with a lot of energy. I like to smile a lot. Remember my smile. Just remember me for what I've done on this field and for everything that this organization has given me."

Video: PIT@BAL: Machado collects three hits, four RBIs

It was the most emotional Machado got during this 25-minute interview -- perhaps the only glimpse into his private side, the one who bought his family cars and his mother a house before he had one of his own.

He wants fans to remember that smile, the same unbridled joy for the game that saw Machado hire a trainer and learn the outfield during his junior year of high school, just in case. The hotshot prospect who let Schoop move in with him at Double-A Bowie, driving the pair to games and Buffalo Wild Wings on the way home.

"Once you get to know him, he's got a huge heart. He's goofy, has a great personality, really cares a lot about other people," Yainee said. "He loves baseball, loves his teammates, loves what he does -- and that's what drives him to become a better person [on] the field and [off] of the field. He just loves it so much, no matter what."

Machado spent his first morning at the Orioles' spring home at the Ed Smith Stadium complex, walking around the clubhouse to hug and greet every player at their locker. He has a keen awareness of how important he is to this team, this season.

"We live in a society where it doesn't matter what you say. A guy can be the nicest guy in the world, [but if] he does one thing [wrong], he's always going to be that," Jones said. "I love the guy, I love being around him.

"He's learning this game, this life well. He's adapting to every scenario that's being put before him. As an older guy, it's fun to watch him mature, mature, mature -- not just as a player, but as a man. As a human."

***

There's no telling how Machado will adapt to the next challenge -- that of being a full-time shortstop, though there have been encouraging signs early on in Spring Training.

In addition to some early offense, Machado appears noticeably energized by the position change -- eager to take more control. No one will come out and say he was bored at third base, but the added challenge at shortstop could be good for keeping him engaged.

"Manny's been a shortstop. He was a shortstop. Still, though, shortstop is a more taxing mental position," said infield coach Bobby Dickerson, who was the one who helped Machado make the switch briefly to third in Double-A before coming up to Baltimore.

"You can't take a pitch off, and that's one of the things we have to stay with Manny on. You can't take any pitches off, no matter how the bat is going."

Machado says he wants to emulate longtime Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy more this year: Lead by example and do the little things right.

He still remembers the advice manager Buck Showalter gave the scared 20-year-old kid preparing to play a new position during a playoff run.

Video: Manny Machado talks about moving to shortstop

"He said, 'It's the same game. Just go out there and play the game,'" said Machado, who made just three starts at third for Bowie before getting called up.

It's wisdom he'll use again for the growing group of young Orioles prospects who want to emulate him. For teammate Tim Beckham, who will make the switch to third base this year.

"You lead the team by doing things the right way and helping guys around you -- like J.J. did," Machado said. "[I want to] continue that. To play the game the right way and have people follow [that]."

More than anything this year, Machado wants to win. It's something he references numerous times, something his family echoes. If this truly is his last go-around in Baltimore, he wants this season to be something special.

"As a person, he cares a lot about making you better," Schoop said. "If he thinks I need something, like say I need to stretch more, he'll stay on me and be like, 'OK, let's go, let's do this.' He cares a lot. I don't know how people see him, but he's different than he appears."

"He really wants to win as many games as possible and help out the younger guys this year," Yainee said. "I'm proud of him. We're all really proud of him."

And the added housework doesn't hurt, either.

Yainee laughs. "He does take out the trash more. He's good about that now."

And many other things.

Brittany Ghiroli has covered the Orioles for MLB.com since 2010. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli.

Baltimore Orioles, Manny Machado