PEORIA, Ariz. — Manny Machado doesn’t know where he will live next month. He doesn’t know the name of the town where he lives right now, for that matter. He doesn’t know when the first check will clear on his sports-record 10-year, $300 million free-agent deal, nor does he know the first thing he will buy with all his new money. He doesn’t even know what day it is.
He cocks his head. Nine seconds pass.
“Monday,” he says finally. “Because it’s our second game.”
He lost the calendar some time before he became a Padre, although he can’t say exactly when that was, either. For that, at least, he can be excused. When did this deal become real? When he found himself sitting in his Miami home and imagining San Diego, two weeks ago? On Tuesday morning, when his wife, Yainee, woke up and said, “This is it. This is a fit for us, babe”? When his agent, Danny Lozano of MVP Sports Group, called Padres GM A.J. Preller and asked him to draw up a term sheet? When Machado slowly buttoned a white No. 13 jersey over his white dress shirt at his press conference on Friday? When he took his first ground balls in Peoria, Ariz., still using his Orioles-orange glove?
Most of the world found out last Tuesday, shortly after Machado called Lozano to report his decision. “BREAKING,” ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted at 12:24 p.m. Eastern. “Free agent star Manny Machado has agreed to a deal with the San Diego Padres, league sources tell ESPN.”
That’s how White Sox executive vice president Kenny Williams learned that his team had lost the prize it most coveted. Chicago GM Rick Hahn got to hear the news over the phone, still dripping in sweat from his morning run of the stadium stairs.
“Since this has leaked out on Twitter—“ Lozano began.
San Diego owner Ron Fowler saw the tweet from his hotel room in Peoria; he was in town to deliver his annual state of the team address. What the hell? he thought. We don’t have a word of the contract drafted.
“It made me feel like we were being boxed in,” Fowler says now. “If you screw it up, you’re morons.”
Fowler says Lozano explained that he had leaked the story because he was tired of getting questions. Lozano says he “completely denies” any involvement in the tweet. It seems no one can agree on much of anything when it comes to Manny Machado.
Machado speaks from behind Tom Ford sunglasses, dressed in an Air Jordan tracksuit and diamond chain, freshly showered from his third workout of the spring. He lounges at a blue-painted picnic table behind the team facility. This is his most extensive interview since he has signed, and he has clearly prepared for it. “I love baseball,” he says over and over. And: “I’m excited to be a Padre.” Behind him sits a media-relations official employed by the team; in front of him sits a media-relations official employed by his agency. Their presence was a condition of the conversation, and they occasionally nod along as he speaks, although they never cut off his answers.
Machado has declined to talk one-on-one at any length since the October interview with Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal in which he said, “I’m not the type of player that’s going to be Johnny Hustle and run down the line and slide to first base. … That’s not my cup of tea.” (He later clarified to MLB’s Mark Feinsand that he was referring to hustle for show.) He now prefers to have handlers within earshot.
He says he was surprised his comment blew up the way it did. (In his defense, that was a phrase he had used before: “I’m not going to go out there and be Johnny Hustle,” he told The Athletic’s Pedro Moura in July, shortly after he was traded to the Dodgers.) In some ways, the controversy overshadowed his greatness: Machado is perhaps the third-best player in the sport behind only Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. He has accumulated 33.8 WAR through age 25, better than Joe DiMaggio, Barry Bonds or Willie Mays at that age. He has topped 30 home runs in each of the past four years, and increased his walks while decreasing his strikeouts in each of the past three. He struggled defensively at shortstop last year but has won two Gold Gloves at third base. He has missed 11 games in the past four seasons. He has just reached the beginning of his physical prime. It would be hard to find a flaw in his game, except for those comments.
The teams that recruited him this winter asked about that makeup. They asked what led him to throw his bat toward third base after a brushback pitch when he was 21 and to kick Brewers first baseman Jesús Aguilar during the 2018 NLCS. Machado’s answers to those questions, Preller says, were a major factor in their pursuit of him. He volunteered other lapses of effort from his youth and explained how he would help lead the way for his new teammates.
At the picnic table, Machado strikes a slightly different note. “That was just the media creating stories,” he says now. “They had nothing else to talk about. At the same time, I said what I said, and I have to take the consequences, and I have. … You’re gonna make bad decisions. Life goes on. You try to learn as much from it as you can, and sometimes you make those same mistakes again. You gotta keep learning. It’s the circle of life.”
The Padres believe boorishness is in the eye of the beholder. Manager Andy Green speaks admiringly of the “edge” Machado will bring to the organization. And Preller is adamant that the new face of the franchise is simply misunderstood. “Some people thought he was disrespecting the game,” he says. “But respecting the game is playing as much as he did the last few years at such a high level.”
Even the early days of this courtship remain in dispute. “I’m trying to heal!” groans Hahn, but Williams reluctantly offers that the White Sox had two or three conversations per day about Machado from June until February. They traded for Yainee’s brother, Yonder Alonso, and signed Machado’s best friend from Miami, Jon Jay. The Padres, on the other hand, assumed they were out of the running from the beginning. They viewed Machado as clearly the best player on the market, but he was said to want to blow through the 13-year, $325 million extension Giancarlo Stanton received from the Marlins in 2015. Then speculation of lowball offers started to circulate, and they began to wonder if they might have a shot.
“A.J. doesn’t agree with this,” Fowler prefaces his story. While recovering from knee surgery six weeks prior, the owner flipped to MLB Network and saw that the White Sox had reportedly offered Machado seven years and $175 million. (Lozano has openly denied those figures.) The Padres had been unable to pry loose Nolan Arenado from the Rockies or Anthony Rendon from the Nationals, and Fowler was getting antsy. His team needed a third baseman. He called Preller. “These numbers don’t seem to be what we expected,” Fowler said. “Maybe we should look.”
Preller laughs at that recounting.
“If it’s Ron’s idea, as long as we got it done, it’s Ron’s idea,” he says. Preller recalls a Tuesday of stymied deals at December’s Winter Meetings and a late night awake in his suite. At 5 a.m. that Wednesday he called assistant general manager Josh Stein. “Forget all these trades,” he said. “Let’s go get Machado.” Preller agrees that their pursuit intensified after the $175 million rumor. (“We obviously overbid by a lot,” he jokes, “If we got him for 300!”)
The Padres knew the rumors could not be true, because Lozano had told them he would not grant meetings to teams offering less than $250 million. Still, they were intrigued. They had payroll flexibility and prospect capital. The plan had been to use the prospects to bring back stars; maybe it was time to take advantage of the payroll flexibility.
“We heard over and over that the number had to start with a 3,” Fowler says. “I jokingly said, ‘Well, 300’s only 20% higher than 250.’”
So maybe San Diego began the process of signing Machado in early January. Or maybe it started even earlier than that. Maybe it started in December, when the Blue Jays released shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and the Yankees picked him up for the major-league minimum, all but eliminating them from the Machado sweepstakes, and leaving the Padres competing with the White Sox, the Phillies and a fourth, “mystery” team. Maybe it started last February, when the free-agent market dragged enough that San Diego gave out that year’s largest deal—eight years and $144 million to first baseman Eric Hosmer—which accelerated their window of contention by a year. Maybe it started in 2015, Preller’s first full season with the Padres, when the can’t-miss team he assembled lost 88 games. He tore it apart that winter, moving most of the big contracts. That flash rebuild left the team with the payroll flexibility that in the end brought them Machado.
But first they had to decide where he would stand. Lozano had informed teams that Machado wanted to play shortstop. Preller looked at his depth chart, highlighted by 20-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., Baseball America’s No. 2 prospect. The Padres’ offer was contingent on Machado’s playing third in the long term, he said.
Machado had met Tatis, who is also represented by Lozano, during the All-Star festivities last year in Washington, D.C. (Machado had been named to his fourth team; Tatis was in town for the Futures Game). Machado checked in on the young shortstop’s career ever since, and when he was seriously considering the Padres’ offer, he thought back to his years alongside veteran shortstop J.J. Hardy in Baltimore. That’s when he decided he could be a mentor to Tatis or White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson. Only the mystery team offered Machado his preferred position.
The White Sox made their last, best offer on Monday night: a 10-year deal worth $250 million guaranteed, plus incentives. If Machado hit all the escalators, he could max out at $350 million. A few hours earlier, the Padres had submitted theirs: $300 million, 10 years, opt-out after five. Fowler tried to sleep but couldn’t. He called Preller around 11:30 p.m. “Where are we?” he asked. Preller said there hadn’t been an update in a while. Maybe he was leaning the other way. Fowler told him to re-engage Lozano.
“I just had a gut feeling that we needed to get this thing done,” Fowler says. “The longer it went on, the more likely it was going to be to slip away.”
There had been a miscommunication; Lozano thought Preller had gone to bed. By the time Preller called Fowler back around 2 a.m., they were both giddy: Machado wanted to know if jersey No. 13 was available. But Preller was only cautiously optimistic when he fell asleep that night. What if this falls through? he thought. What’s our next step?
Fowler felt slightly more certain, although he refused to tell anyone that a deal was imminent—even his son, who called asking for the latest. “It’s moving in a good direction,” he replied. “But we have nothing to announce.”
Machado spent all fall hearing how apathetic he was and all winter hearing how much everyone wanted him. Fans tweeted insults, then hounded him in public, begging him to join their team. He keeps a careful tally of signs of respect and disrespect, although he insists they do not motivate him. Still, he glows when he discusses the presentations teams made, the dinners to which executives invited him, the private jets that ferried him to meetings. He saw the July trade that sent him from Baltimore to Los Angeles as a referendum on who wanted him.
“The Dodgers last year, they showed me some love,” he says. “The Orioles drafted me. I did a lot for that community, I did a lot for the state, and they didn’t show me a little bit of love. It is what it is. But going over to L.A., L.A. giving up a lot of prospects for me, that kind of shows you what I meant to them, which is amazing.”
So in some ways, despite the uncertainty, this was the offseason of his dreams. Six teams showering him with praise, describing the ways they knew he would change the fortunes of their franchise? He had always known he was a star. Finally everyone else was acting that way, too. Even the $300 million meant something to him. He will enjoy the money, of course, but he also likes what it represents: respect.
Machado insists that the speculation bored him. But he also followed—then quickly unfollowed—the Yankees’ YES Network on Instagram, and posted—then quickly deleted—a photo of White Sox baby shoes adorned with Alonso’s number. He knows the power he wields.
He researched the contenders thoroughly, Googling the various executives, watching video of top prospects. This was a major commitment for him, too, he points out. He wanted to scrutinize his options as carefully as they were scrutinizing him. And they did scrutinize him. There were the dinners, and the medicals, and the analytics, and the scouting, but in the Padres’ case, that meant calls and visits to Machado’s friends and family.
“They were getting calls from all over the place,” he says. “Numerous teams. Everyone’s trying to get homework on me. It’s awesome hearing this, because teams actually want you. Teams want you to come be part of their franchise, their organization, their family. That’s pretty cool. That’s what we play for. That’s what we’ve always dreamed about.”
San Diego does want him. The Chargers decamped in 2017 to Los Angeles. The Padres have not won a postseason series since 1998, when the Yankees swept them in the World Series. A few hours before the Machado signing leaked, Green addressed the team just ahead of the owners. This city is starving for wins, he said. Some fans had begun to give up hope. They begged the front office on Twitter and excoriated it on talk radio.
When the news broke loose, so did all hell. Machado had not taken his physical. The offer sheet was not signed. Green was scheduled to address the media in six minutes, the owners in about an hour, Preller in half a day. The players were already on the field, their phones ensconced in their lockers. Individual workout groups found out piecemeal; non-roster invitee Ryan Bollinger forgot his batting gloves and ran back to the clubhouse for them, where he saw the report splashed across MLB Network. “You guys!” he yelled to the half-dozen players waiting for him on the field. “I think we got Machado!” Many of the rest of them heard when communications staffers intercepted them after practice: You are about to be swarmed by the media. This is why.
The media has certainly taken notice. The Padres expect to be featured on national broadcasts more often this year. They say they have already added more than $1 million in ticket sales since the announcement. Apparel vendor Delaware North was so excited about the signing that it added Machado jerseys to the Petco Park team store last Wednesday—before the deal became official. (The team eventually asked the company to put the shirts away.) On Saturday, a man showed up outside the executive office holding a cardboard sign: OWNERS I’M SORRY THANK YOU.
Life has not slowed down for Machado yet, either. He and Yainee enlisted their entire family, packed their three cars in three hours and set off for Peoria last Tuesday, within hours of the tweet. They rented the first house they saw, a five-bedroom mansion in Paradise Valley, 20 minutes away from the ballpark. They are living out of suitcases until they finish unpacking. The Padres do not expect Machado to play in games until early March, so he is working out on backfields alongside Tatis and the other prospects whose highlights he studied. (Machado, briefly reduced to a fan, was surprised to learn he did not recognize the kids out of uniform. “They look a little different in the clubhouse!” he says.) There too he has found the love he seeks—they approach him and pepper him with questions, everything from approach to technique. “I get to show my knowledge,” he says happily.
This might seem an odd match. The Padres sought a franchise icon and ended up with a player whose numerous achievements accompany multiple controversies. Machado sought a winner and ended up with a team that lost 96 games last year. It could blow up, if the team struggles and the player grows frustrated. Or maybe they are right, and they need each other. We will find out, starting the only date Machado has committed to memory: March 28, Opening Day.