Certain guys look like they were born to play the sport they play. I don't mean they simply have the perfect instinct to play the game, though that's certainly part of it, or they have the ideal body type to succeed. I mean that when you look at them, their natural grace, the way the fit into the game like it's the most natural thing in the world, you find yourself grateful -- for them -- that the game was invented. Barry Sanders had the combination of skills, talent, physical presence and intuition that made him the platonic ideal of an NFL running back. At one point, he was a baby, with a million possibilities, and he grew into the perfect running back. Had the game never been invented, it would have been a waste of his perfection; you're glad football exists just so that can exist.
Manny Machado has always had that look for me. When he plays, he has a glow about him, like there's a small spotlight focused solely on him, like he's back lit. The game looks easy to him, of course he would be on a pace to set the all-time doubles record at midseason at the age of 20, of course he'd switch to third base midseason and immediately turn into the best defensive third baseman in baseball. He looks bigger, faster, stronger and more comfortable than everyone else on the field; he looks like the game was invented for him.
It wasn't, though.
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The worst part, among many terrible parts, about Machado's devastating injury last night in the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Rays is nothing caused it. It stinks when Matt Harvey is injured, but, you know, he's a pitcher: Pitching is such a brutal, unnatural act, the surprise isn't when a pitcher gets hurt, but when he doesn't. Allen Craig sprained his left foot earlier this month because he was trying to avoid an umpire; that's unfortunate, but it happens, because you're not alone on the field, as much as it might feel that way sometimes. But the Machado play last night came out of nowhere.
Machado simply stepped on the bag in the wrong place, at the wrong speed. Machado, even at the age of 21, has touched first base thousands upon thousands of times, and nothing has gone wrong. You, personally, in youth leagues, in backlot games, in beer league softball, have touched first base hundreds upon hundreds of times, and nothing has gone wrong. It's a base. It's nothing special. But Machado hit it just wrong. A monster came up from the dirt and attacked.
Everybody knew something horrible happened before Machado started yelling. He was taken off on a stretcher and players in both dugouts stared forward, reminded how fleeting all this is, how quickly it can all be over. Machado will have tests today, but it is obvious he will be out the rest of this season and likely will miss a large portion of next year, if not all of it. Manny Machado hasn't missed a game this season, and, being 21, he has never looked worn down. Of all the Orioles have had to worry about, Machado is the only thing they haven't. You put him in the lineup and move on. (The Orioles know a little bit about guys like that.) And now he's gone, struck down by randomness, by fate, by nothing.
Machado has a lot of time left in his career, and in 10 years, we might not remember he had such a huge injury when he first came into the league. But who knows? We do our best to ignore how much luck -- not "random variation," not "regression to the mean," not "natural fluctuations in performance spread out over a long season," but just pure, idiotic luck -- dictates just about everything in sports; we want there to be reasons things happen, a cause-and-effect that allows all to make sense. But this is just the cruel way of nature. Players get hurt and miss years for no reason at all. Countless factors, nature, nurture, talent, opportunity, all of it, had to come together in precisely the right way to produce someone like Manny Machado. In half a second, he was torn down. For nothing.
You wonder if this is the end of the lovely Orioles boomlet of the past two years. Baltimore has some terrific, devoted fans who have been through a lot -- too much -- with this franchise and these last two years of contention and relevance have been a reward for their patience and pain. But it's still a meager reward. The Red Sox have returned, the Rays remain organizationally strong, the Blue Jays will push all-in after this disappointing year and the Yankees, while "struggling" this year, are still the Yankees. This could be the end of an Orioles window no one ever imagined opening in the first place: last night's nightmare game, ending a four-game sweep, the Rays walking off, various Orioles sprawled across the field, Machado wailing and grabbing his leg, perfection stricken.
Here's something a lot of people have missed in the video of Machado's injury. Right after he steps on the base and falls, Rays first baseman Sean Rodriguez sees him on the ground and beckons to second baseman Tim Beckham to throw him the ball. Rodriguez, as Machado lies on the ground, all that talent writhing, the central organizing principle of his life taken away from him by the gods ... Rodriguez tags him. The umpires didn't call him out, but, theoretically, they could have. Rodriguez was just doing his job. Machado's in the dirt, falling apart, but the game, like nature, just keeps chugging along, indifferent. It's a cruel, pitiless universe. It stops for no one.