SAN DIEGO — The pawns are lined up and the gleaming white knight stands able to attack. The sport will resume, again, as soon because the hitters’ meeting is finished and sometime before the star third baseman lights up a box rating.
Given Manny Machado’s torrid start for the San Diego Padres this season, it will be predictable to joke that the five-time All-Star is playing chess while his peers are playing checkers. But in Machado’s case, it is usually true: When he’s not battering opposing pitchers and stealing hits with acrobatic defensive plays, Machado may be found keeping his mind sharp with quiet contemplation at a chess board.
“Chess is interesting,” said Machado, who learned the sport from Brady Anderson, the previous player and Orioles executive, in Baltimore in 2017. “It’s something you possibly can’t just go play. You’ve got to think ahead to what your opponent is considering, what he’s attempting to do to you, how he’s attempting to attack you.”
The sport intrigued Machado from the start. He keeps a board on a small table between his locker and his clubhouse neighbor, Fernando Tatis Jr., has one other board within the nearby players’ lounge; and plays at home throughout the winter together with his father-in-law, Luis Alonso, who’s the daddy of the previous major leaguer Yonder Alonso.
When Tatis Jr. revealed last season that he occasionally plays chess, Machado began bringing a board to the park for matches in his downtime, similar to those he had played in Baltimore.
“When you play on daily basis, you’re in a battle with him,” said Wayne Kirby, the Mets’ first-base coach and an everyday opponent of Machado’s, each in Baltimore and again last summer in San Diego.
So many Orioles would play chess in Machado’s time there that players would wait in line and call “I got next” as if at a court for a pickup basketball game, Kirby said, and eventually the team kept three chess boards within the clubhouse and a traveling board for road trips. Machado said he continues to be recruiting latest opponents in San Diego, having to this point matched wits with outfielders Wil Myers and Trayce Thompson, who this week was designated for task (in baseball, not in chess). Machado has also played somewhat with Tatis Jr.
His regular opponent, though, is Michael Brdar, San Diego’s first-year hitting coach.
“It’s been fun,” Brdar said. “He’s good. He’s superb.”
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Machado vividly remembers the primary time he and his most important Orioles nemesis, Jonathan Schoop, played a game. It was in Seattle in 2017, Machado said. Each were beginners then, so raw that Machado said their first game lasted only about three minutes.
“We each sucked,” Machado said. “It was interesting to select up and learn from it.”
Machado and Schoop had ascended together through Baltimore’s farm system and were competitive in all the pieces, including who had the strongest throwing arm. They continued improving as chess players until their matches became something near an addiction, complete with trash talking that also echoes today.
Who won more?
“Come on, that’s not even an issue,” said Schoop, who now plays second base (and lots of chess) for the Detroit Tigers. “I let him beat me a few times simply to make him feel good. If we played 100 times, he’d beat me perhaps 10 times.”
Machado laughs when that is relayed to him — and corrects Schoop’s math.
“Truthfully, at first it was somewhat rough because he knew somewhat greater than I did once I began,” Machado said. “But once I learned tips on how to do a few moves, he had no likelihood against me. Now, it’s probably 70/30 — I’m 70, he’s 30.”
Machado then upped the ante: “I don’t think he could win a game against me now. He won’t even get his Queen out of the way in which. He’d be done.”
Schoop, though, claims to know “all of Manny’s moves,” especially one tendency particularly. “When you take the horse away from him,” he said, referring to the knight, “he’s done.”
Kirby concurred. “The horse is large for Manny,” he said. “He likes that horsey.”
Kirby and Schoop said games between the players would sometimes devolve into arguments because each were so competitive. Sometimes, Schoop said, Machado would accuse him of cheating.
“They wouldn’t get to 100 games, they’d be arguing an excessive amount of,” Kirby said. “They’d get into it because when you touch your queen or something, after which take your hand off of it, you’re done. Each of them could be claiming they didn’t take their hand off a chunk.”
In San Diego this season, Machado has had a hand on — and in — all the pieces. Through Thursday, his .383 batting average, 46 hits and 27 runs scored all led the majors. At 29, he already ranks nineteenth amongst energetic players on M.L.B.’s hits list (1,471) and 18th in home runs (258).
With Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera nearing the ends of their celebrated careers, it appears there shall be an extended wait for the following member of the three,000-hit, 500-homer club. But Machado’s unusual combination of youth, production and sturdiness could make him a candidate to hitch that fraternity in the future.
Machado called Cabrera “the perfect hitter I’ve ever seen” and spoke admiringly of his production.
“I do know the sport’s changing somewhat bit, but there’s no hitters like that anymore who exit and get 3,000 hits, 500 homers — and 600 doubles, right?” Machado said. “That’s slugging.”
It’s the form of hitter Machado strives to be, and it’s the form of hitter he’s again after a nagging left shoulder injury last summer left him unable to lift his arm for a time. He still played 153 games, refusing to go on the injured list, and even now he smiles coyly while declining to disclose the precise diagnosis of the injury. (“I can’t say that. I can’t inform you. I don’t know what it was. I’m unsure what it was.”)
It’s your complete package of slugger, star fielder, lineup staple and chess kingpin that has elevated him right into a team leader for a club that has had its issues with that within the recent past.
“You see him from afar and you’ve your opinions about him,” Manager Bob Melvin, who joined the Padres this off-season, said of Machado, who has moved past some early-career issues and right into a leadership role. “And you then get here and see what he’s all about. He’s somewhat vocal, definitely leads by example. He shows as much as play each day. He performs each day. There are subtle things about him that scream leadership.”
Brdar, who began playing chess after watching “The Queen’s Gambit” two winters ago, suggested there is usually a link between chess and hitting.
“You’re going to make a foul move in chess, and a variety of times it’s the way you get well from that as an alternative of letting it leak into two, three, 4 bad moves in a row,” Brdar said. “That’s much like hitting.
“You’re going to chase a pitch here and there, you’re going to miss a mistake here and there. But most of the time it’s about what you do the following two, three, 4 pitches after that, or the following two, three, 4 at-bats after that. I believe there are definite parallels.”
Machado agreed, noting that “you’re training your brain to do something right. People read, people do little puzzles to activate their mind.”
For Machado, chess fills that role.
He and Brdar play “slow” games on the board in front of Machado’s locker — if the hitting coach walks through the clubhouse and sees Manny has made a move, for instance, Brdar will stop and make his own, and vice versa. Then, after the hitters’ meeting or batting practice, they’ll play longer games on the board within the players’ lounge.
“Right away he plays a fianchetto together with his bishop,” Brdar said of Machado’s opening strategy in lots of games. “So he likes to have his bishop have the entire visual diagonally of the entire board.”
“That’s my move,” Machado said. “After I saw ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ I didn’t really know the names on the time. I still don’t that much. I do know a couple of. However it’s all about openings. When you put yourself in a very good position and begin attacking in a certain way and also you persist with it, you possibly can do it. That’s one in every of the moves I take advantage of probably the most.”
Brdar proudly reports that he has learned to shut down that move. Machado ruefully admits that of their games to this point this season, the hitting coach has won thrice and Machado just once, with one tie.
“However it’s an extended yr,” Machado said. “Things change. It’s similar to baseball. You go on a hot streak, you go on a chilly streak. I’m on my cold streak without delay.”