The Third Baseman’s Gambit
SAN DIEGO — The pawns are lined up and the gleaming white knight stands ready to attack. The game will resume, again, as soon as the hitters’ meeting is finished and sometime before the star third baseman lights up a box score.
Given Manny Machado’s torrid start for the San Diego Padres this season, it would 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 also true: When he’s not battering opposing pitchers and stealing hits with acrobatic defensive plays, Machado can be found keeping his mind sharp with quiet contemplation at a chess board.
“Chess is interesting,” said Machado, who learned the game from Brady Anderson, the former player and Orioles executive, in Baltimore in 2017. “It’s something you can’t just go play. You’ve got to think ahead to what your opponent is thinking, what he’s trying to do to you, how he’s trying to attack you.”
The game intrigued Machado from the beginning. He keeps a board on a small table between his locker and his clubhouse neighbor, Fernando Tatis Jr., has another board in the nearby players’ lounge; and plays at home during the winter with his father-in-law, Luis Alonso, who is the father of the former 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, just like the ones he had played in Baltimore.
“If you play every day, you’re in a battle with him,” said Wayne Kirby, the Mets’ first-base coach and a regular opponent of Machado’s, both 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 in the clubhouse and a traveling board for road trips. Machado said he is still recruiting new opponents in San Diego, having thus far matched wits with outfielders Wil Myers and Trayce Thompson, who this week was designated for assignment (in baseball, not in chess). Machado has also played a little 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 very good.”
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Machado vividly remembers the first time he and his main Orioles nemesis, Jonathan Schoop, played a game. It was in Seattle in 2017, Machado said. Both were beginners then, so raw that Machado said their first game lasted only about three minutes.
“We both sucked,” Machado said. “It was interesting to pick up and learn from it.”
Machado and Schoop had ascended together through Baltimore’s farm system and were competitive in everything, including who had the strongest throwing arm. They continued improving as chess players until their matches became something close to an addiction, complete with trash talking that still echoes today.
Who won more?
“Come on, that’s not even a question,” said Schoop, who now plays second base (and plenty of chess) for the Detroit Tigers. “I let him beat me a couple of times just to make him feel good. If we played 100 times, he’d beat me maybe 10 times.”
Machado laughs when this is relayed to him — and corrects Schoop’s math.
“Honestly, in the beginning it was a little rough because he knew a little more than I did when I started,” Machado said. “But once I learned how to do a couple of moves, he had no chance 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. He’d be done.”
Schoop, though, claims to know “all of Manny’s moves,” especially one tendency in particular. “If you take the horse away from him,” he said, referring to the knight, “he’s done.”
Kirby concurred. “The horse is huge for Manny,” he said. “He likes that horsey.”
Kirby and Schoop said games between the players would sometimes devolve into arguments because both were so competitive. Sometimes, Schoop said, Machado would accuse him of cheating.
“They wouldn’t get to 100 games, they’d be arguing too much,” Kirby said. “They’d get into it because once you touch your queen or something, and then take your hand off of it, you’re done. Both of them would be claiming they didn’t take their hand off a piece.”
In San Diego this season, Machado has had a hand on — and in — everything. Through Thursday, his .383 batting average, 46 hits and 27 runs scored all led the majors. At 29, he already ranks 19th among active 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 will be a long wait for the next member of the 3,000-hit, 500-homer club. But Machado’s unusual combination of youth, production and durability could make him a candidate to join that fraternity one day.
Machado called Cabrera “the best hitter I’ve ever seen” and spoke admiringly of his production.
“I know the game’s changing a little bit, but there’s no hitters like that anymore who go out and get 3,000 hits, 500 homers — and 600 doubles, right?” Machado said. “That’s slugging.”
It is the kind of hitter Machado strives to be, and it is the kind of hitter he is 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 reveal the exact diagnosis of the injury. (“I can’t say that. I can’t tell you. I don’t know what it was. I’m not sure what it was.”)
It is the entire package of slugger, star fielder, lineup staple and chess kingpin that has elevated him into a team leader for a club that has had its issues with that in the recent past.
“You see him from afar and you have your opinions about him,” Manager Bob Melvin, who joined the Padres this off-season, said of Machado, whose temper has led to some high-profile issues in the past. “And then you get here and see what he’s all about. He is somewhat vocal, definitely leads by example. He shows up to play every single day. He performs every single day. There are subtle things about him that scream leadership.”
Brdar, who started playing chess after watching “The Queen’s Gambit” two winters ago, suggested there can be a link between chess and hitting.
“You’re going to make a bad move in chess, and a lot of times it’s how you recover from that instead of letting it leak into two, three, four bad moves in a row,” Brdar said. “That’s similar to hitting.
“You’re going to chase a pitch here and there, you’re going to miss a mistake here and there. But more often than not it’s about what you do the next two, three, four pitches after that, or the next two, three, four at-bats after that. I think 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 example, 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 in the players’ lounge.
“Right now he plays a fianchetto with his bishop,” Brdar said of Machado’s opening strategy in many games. “So he likes to have his bishop have the whole visual diagonally of the whole board.”
“That’s my move,” Machado said. “When I saw ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ I didn’t really know the names at the time. I still don’t that much. I know a few. But it’s all about openings. If you put yourself in a good position and start attacking in a certain way and you stick to it, you can do it. That’s one of the moves I use the most.”
Brdar proudly reports that he has learned to shut down that move. Machado ruefully admits that in their games so far this season, the hitting coach has won three times and Machado only once, with one tie.
“But it’s a long year,” Machado said. “Things change. It’s just like baseball. You go on a hot streak, you go on a cold streak. I’m on my cold streak right now.”
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