Baseball

Manny happy returns? Machado’s presence in town stirring Cubs, White Sox rumors

A public-relations man poked his head through the door, regarded the legion of Chicago reporters waiting to barge through it and issued a stern warning:

“He isn’t here yet, and he won’t be talking about free agency.”

Sure thing, bub.

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Five minutes later, Orioles superstar Manny Machado had his back against a wall outside the visitors’ clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field. With a calm, confident voice, terrific eye contact and a deep reserve of patience, he fielded a barrage of questions about — what else? We weren’t there to ask him about the weather.

What’s it like having the world at your feet as a free-agent-to-be who probably will be traded as a summer/fall rental to a World Series contender (for the sake of argument, let’s say the Cubs) and just might break the bank in the offseason to the tune of a few hundred million?

“Whenever your name’s being talked about, it’s always great,” Machado said. “I’ve heard nothing but great things from everyone. It’s always appreciated.”

Hey, how totally awesome is Chicago?

“I go from my [hotel] room to the ballpark and play baseball,” he said. “I try to keep it simple, my life simple.”

Look, are you going to play here or not?

“You know what? That’s out of my hands. I can’t control that. I’ve got to go out and win some games, do as much as I can for my ballclub.”

Boy, do we ever want to see the 25-year-old Machado in a Cubs uniform. If it’s just for a few months, so be it. If it’s for a much longer haul, all the better. For that matter, the shortstop and third baseman could sign with the White Sox instead and instantly become the linchpin of a South Side winning machine. That would work, too.

Already, he’s a three-time All-Star and a two-time Gold Glove winner with a pair of top-five finishes in American League MVP voting. And he’s off to an obscenely good start in 2018, hitting .343 with 15 homers and 43 RBI after launching a fourth-inning blast Monday that was hit so hard, Sox left fielder Leury Garcia didn’t even bother to turn around.

How does a Triple Crown sound?

Eyeballing a player of Machado’s caliber was perhaps the only imaginable reason to head out in a cold rain to watch the worst two teams in baseball Monday. If the Sox do make a recruiting pitch to Machado, images of stands that are more than 90 percent empty surely won’t be part of it.

But this is no time to go negative. Manny Mania is about hopes, dreams and possibilities. Sox catcher Welington Castillo, who played in Baltimore last season, called Machado “special” and “amazing.”

“Everybody will want him,” Castillo said. “Who doesn’t want to have a guy like him?”

Castillo, who also played alongside Machado for the Dominican Republic in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, already has tried softening up Machado to the idea of joining the Sox. Yet, no one in this town knows Machado better than Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. They were childhood teammates and close family friends in Miami.

“It would be something that our families and ourselves would really love to see, being in the same uniform,” Almora recently told the Sun-Times.

Machado referred to Almora as his “cousin.”

“When we were playing in his backyard growing up,” Machado said, “we always dreamed about playing together someday in the big leagues and putting on the same big-league uniform, being on the same field, winning a World Series together.”

Machado was out with a season-ending knee injury when the Orioles reached the ALCS in 2014. His best season at the plate was in 2016, when he hit .294 with 37 homers and 96 RBI — all career highs — but the Orioles lost the AL wild-card game, and so he watched with a great rooting interest as Almora won it all with the Cubs.

“It was awesome watching the World Series,” he said. “Every single player in the big leagues works hard to get to that situation, and to see my friend, cousin, family being in the World Series in the moment and scoring a big run [in Game  7] for the ballclub, nothing but excitement was going through my mind and going through my body at the time.”

Machado claims not to have discussed a potential move to the Cubs with Almora, which can’t possibly be true. It sure doesn’t fit the Manny Mania narrative, anyway. Therefore, it cannot stand.

Oh, how wonderful Machado would look at shortstop for the Cubs. (No offense, Addison Russell.) Or at third base for the Sox. If that means being a Cubs rental in 2018 — get the champagne ready — and the most expensive free agent in Sox history after that, sure, great, where do we sign?

“If I wasn’t playing well, [we] wouldn’t be talking about anything,” Machado said.

He isn’t merely playing well. He’s playing as well as anyone in the game. He’s playing like a guy with so few equals in the sport, they could be counted on one hand.

Is it too soon to throw him a parade?