WASHINGTON – Manny Machado has a tattoo on his left forearm of a chess board. An ornate queen stands on a black square. She is part of a more intricate design, but two weeks before the trade deadline what pops from his arm is the queen, who can go anywhere, move in any direction, rule her world, and yet on this particular board is trapped by ink and intention on her black square.
“Yep,” Manny Machado said, “just get on with it already.”
He went another day in his black and orange, another like hundreds before it, with the clock ticking and his organization contemplating and the pigeons gathering.
The Baltimore Orioles win a couple games a week, which is unfortunate in an everyday sport. And Machado has the best season of his career, on the eve of his free agency. If it feels like we’ve been here before, it’s because the Orioles were a fifth-place team last year too, and it sure seemed a good idea to trade Machado then, or in the months after then, and here we are anyway. Here they are. Here he is.
So he plays. He shows up and hits. He takes on a more difficult defensive position. Insists on it, actually. And he tries not to think about the phone call that moves him to pack his stuff and ship his cars and arrange for a place in a new town with new co-workers, not that he’s not looking forward to it, not that he is looking forward to it, just that it seems inevitable and he is perhaps tired of trying not to think about it so he can just play. So he can contribute to something more than what the organization will do next with the man or men who will replace him.
“The worst,” he said. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen. This game’s already hard enough. To go out there and not know where you’re going to be tomorrow, it’s tough.”
So, he plays. And he hears the speculation. And his teammates don’t always help, like the day one of them breathlessly blurted he – Machado – had been traded to the Giants. A good enough team. A nice enough place. Machado raised his eyebrows.
“The Tokyo Giants,” said the teammate.
Machado’s laugh was sincere but tight, the way it would sound if one were living with last-place finishes and vague tomorrows for a little too long, musing over potential living arrangements in so many towns – Milwaukee, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston – for a little too long.
The way Bryce Harper might laugh, for instance, at the end of the past three and a half months, which find the Washington Nationals squarely at mediocre and him batting .214 and getting targeted for jogging to first base when a dead sprint was required and fans beginning to wonder what’s wrong with their guy.
Play long enough —this is his seventh year at age 25 — and play well enough, there will be great seasons and good ones and so-so ones and weird ones, and this, for Harper, would be one of the latter two. Unlike Machado, he knows where he’ll be tomorrow. Like Machado, November and beyond is a crapshoot. A lucrative crapshoot. But a crapshoot nonetheless. They will become the futures of two franchises (unless the Phillies, for one, go really crazy), and for the moment they’ll bat seventh for the American League (Machado) and sixth for the National League (Harper) in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
Harper spun his cap backward. His hair and beard and forearms were trimmed for the occasion. He set his hands in his lap and spoke softly about a future that can’t be here yet, about a team that can’t muster the skill or breaks or steadiness (or pitching) to be wholly relevant, about a season that’s not lost. Not yet.
“I look up there and see my average as well, and I look up there and go, ‘Aw, man, well that sucks,’” he said. “But I look over a little bit to the right side of that and see 23 homers and  RBI and 80 walks and runs scored and stuff like that. I don’t know. … Should I be hitting .300 or .280? Yeah, absolutely. But I guess I am where I’m at and, hopefully, the only way I can go is up.”
What eats at Harper is the losing. That he, their star, is operating beneath his career numbers in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS and OPS-plus, among others, contributes. That Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman are hurt, and Adam Eaton has played in a third of their games, and Daniel Murphy isn’t entirely whole, contributes. That those who know this ballclub wonder what is going on with Harper.
He promised it was not the weight of his walk year, the pending free agency that once brought visions of $400 million or more, that still might, that another 60-some games like the last 90-some wouldn’t help. He told a story of a kid who left high school at 16 and took his GED and enrolled at a junior college and joined the baseball team and, at first, was terrible at the baseball part. He wondered then if he hadn’t been too rash, hadn’t taken on more than he was capable of. He wished he could go back to high school, where the game was fun. Where it was easy.
That was the day, he said, he felt pressure. Just that day.
“Gotta cowboy up,” he told himself, “and do what you need to do.”
Seven years later, he said, “It’s those moments that make you who you are.”
Together, they, Harper and Machado, will define a winter. They will redirect two franchises. For a decade or so, they could change an entire sport, just by their presence, wherever they are.
First, though, they’d sort of like to know about today. Tomorrow maybe.
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