BALTIMORE — As these things go, it was all a bit understated. There was a standing ovation that began well before the public-address announcer’s introduction. There was a brief video and a message of “Welcome back, Manny!” that flashed on the scoreboard. Manny Machado, in his road grays of the San Diego Padres, acknowledged the crowd’s roar but didn’t milk it and didn’t doff his batting helmet. And then he stepped into the batter’s box and struck out.
If Machado’s return to Camden Yards for the first time in a visiting uniform was underwhelming — as might befit a Baltimore Orioles fan base thinned and homebound after a year and a half of undiluted losing — so too was it unencumbered by complicated feelings.
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If there was an undercurrent of boos somewhere among those in attendance, it was more than drowned out by cheers as fans welcomed back the best player they had seen wear an Orioles uniform in nearly two decades. And if Machado felt an undercurrent of regret about how his time here ended in July, he hid it well below an outpouring of warmth.
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“This is a place I called home for a long time,” Machado said before the game. “Coming in here, and going to the hotel and not to my home, and coming to the opposite clubhouse — it’s a little different, but it feels good. . . . Just a lot of emotions running through me.”
This wasn’t Bryce Harper returning to Washington with the Philadelphia Phillies, with dueling free agency narratives washed and spun by PR staffs and image consultants. The Nationals made every effort to keep him, but he left over money — or Harper wanted to stay, but he never got a serious offer.
[ How Bryce Harper went from ‘I’m going to be a National’ to ‘We’re going to Philly’ ]
Machado entered Tuesday’s game hitting .278 with 16 home runs in his first season with San Diego. (Nick Wass/AP) Machado didn’t depart Baltimore as a free agent, of course. The Orioles traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers, essentially acknowledging they didn’t have the wherewithal to keep him and wouldn’t have wanted to, anyway — not for the money he would be seeking, and not with a rebuild about to begin. Of the five players the Orioles got in the trade, none are in the big leagues
“I didn’t make the choice — it was made for me. It makes it a little easier,” Machado said. “When you’re in a place so long you call it home, and you see the same faces, the same people every day, it grows on you. To leave like that, halfway through the season, it kind of sucks. But either [way], it’s not easy.”
Machado’s return was another reminder of what the Orioles have lost these past few years. It wasn’t that long ago — October 2016 — that the Orioles, with Machado as their engine, were making their third postseason appearance in five years — the best run for the franchise in almost two decades, and the last time it was nationally relevant
“When I came up, it [had been] 15 years [since] they made the postseason. And when we made it the first time, it was great for the city,” Machado said. “We had sold-out crowds. The group we had cared for each other. Those are the things that will never be forgotten. . . . We left an impact here that was bigger than baseball.”
Almost nothing has gone right for the Orioles since that dramatic loss at Toronto in the 2016 American League wild-card game. They lost 87 games in 2017, then a franchise-worst 115 in 2018 — when they traded Machado, closer Zack Britton and others in July — and entered Tuesday on pace to lose 116 this season
They are one of those franchises that lets stars walk away (as in the cases of Nick Markakis and Adam Jones) or trades them to big-market contenders (as with Machado, Britton and others). Except in the case of first baseman Chris Davis, of course, to whom they handed a seven-year, $161 million contract in 2016 that now — as Davis plods through a second straight season as arguably baseball’s worst hitter — stands as an expensive monument to mismanagement that will cripple the franchise for three more seasons
[ Chris Davis can’t hit, but the Orioles have little choice but to keep playing him ]
As Machado spoke Tuesday, he was seated at the same table, in the same room, where he had sat on an August day nine years earlier, as an 18-year-old shortstop being introduced to the Baltimore media, having been taken with the third pick out of Miami’s Brito School that June. He was promoted to the majors in August 2012 to play third base in a pennant race, having spent all of two games in the minors at the position before his call-up, and over the next six-plus seasons he established himself as the Orioles’ best homegrown position player since Cal Ripken Jr. The 31 wins above replacement (per baseball-reference.com ) he accumulated from 2012 to 2018 rank 15th among position players in franchise history — one spot behind Jones and two spots behind Frank Robinson
And there was a bond that formed between Machado and Orioles fans, who learned to love him and to tolerate his occasional bouts of boorish behavior and lack of hustle in exchange for the sheer brilliance he put on display in the infield and at the plate
Tuesday’s crowd, such as it was, was dotted with fans in orange-and-white No. 13 Machado jerseys and T-shirts. Machado noticed more than a few of them around town Monday, a well-timed day off for the Padres
Even though he had been preparing himself for this moment for weeks — not long after signing his 10-year, $300 million contract with the Padres in February — walking into the building Tuesday was as “weird” as anything he had done in this game, he said
Machado returned Tuesday, 11 days shy of his 27th birthday, holding down the same role on the Padres — a steadying, veteran presence for a young team — that older players such as Markakis, Jones and J.J. Hardy played when he broke in. As the Padres’ everyday third baseman and No. 3 hitter, he was putting up numbers entering Tuesday — a .278 batting average, an .847 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 16 homers — more or less in line with his career norms while serving as a mentor for young stars such as 20-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and 23-year-old right fielder Franmil Reyes
“I’m putting on a different uniform today, but I have to try to win, try to take my young team to the playoffs, hopefully, like we did in Baltimore,” Machado said before the game
In the top of the third inning against Orioles starter Jimmy Yacabonis, Machado hit his 17th homer of the year, a 455-foot shot to center field
Machado’s return coincided with the introductory news conference, in the same room earlier in the day, of Adley Rutschman, the 21-year-old, switch-hitting catcher the Orioles drafted with the No. 1 pick this month — and who, by virtue of his pedigree and record $8.1 million signing bonus, is the best Baltimore prospect since Machado himself
Rutschman was introduced to the Camden Yards crowd at the end of the third inning, one great circle of baseball life closing, another beginning
And one day, maybe seven or eight years from now, Rutschman will make his own return to Baltimore in another uniform and be greeted by a hearty, appreciative round of applause. Or maybe he’ll know what Machado never did — what those roars sound like when you’re the one who never leaves
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Dave Sheinin Dave Sheinin has been a Washington Post sports writer since 1999. Before working at The Post, he covered golf, Florida Gators football and Major League Baseball for the Miami Herald. Follow
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