What I’m hearing: USA TODAY Sports’ Bob Nightengale explains who could be next in line for a big pay day following Mike Trout huge extension.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Manny Machado tries to navigate his way through the crowd to reach the San Diego Padres’ spring-training clubhouse, but is mobbed by fans screaming his name.
Machado, surrounded by autograph seekers, tries to stay calm, until Padres assistant general manager Fred Uhlman Jr. rushes to his rescue. He grabs Machado by the right elbow, puts his arm in front of him, and leads him through the frenzied crowd as if he’s a Jerry Springer security guard.
“Look at me,’’ said Uhlman, dwarfed by the 6-foot-3 Machado, as they escape to safety, “I never thought being a bouncer would become part of my job description.”
Welcome to the Padres camp, where peace has been replaced by commotion.
“We have a different swagger about us this year that’s definitely real,’’ Padres first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “When you got a guy like Manny on your team, it changes things in a hurry.’’
And, yet, camp in Peoria, Arizona looks like a sea of tranquility compared to the pandemonium 2,189 miles away in Clearwater, Florida, home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
This is where Bryce Harper, baseball’s highest-paid player for two weeks with his $330 million contract, will be playing.
The Phillies sold 340,000 tickets alone in the first week of Harper’s signing. His jersey sales set an all-time record for sales in the first 24 hours. And TV ratings for Phillies’ spring training games soared 311% in his debut.
“I don’t think anybody could have predicted this,’’ Phillies owner John Middleton told USA TODAY Sports, “that it would be as extraordinary as it is. I’ve got to tell you, when you think of major moments in Philly history, bringing in a player from the outside, this may be the biggest.’’
In San Diego, ticket sales are up, too, but no one is divulging specifics. Machado jerseys are selling at a brisk, but not record pace. You want specific numbers? Sorry, the Padres are keeping that proprietary information to themselves. They’ll privately concede that Machado’s signing has generated only a fraction of the Phillies’ ticket sales, but refuse to reveal comparisons.
“This was a baseball decision, not a business decision,’’ Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler said. “We think the impact will be in future years, and the business side will catch up eventually.
“People talk about the fact we’re doing this, and the impact on the psyche of the city, but to translate that into a certain percentage of money, we’ll do that over a three-year period. Not now.’’
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The Padres, who also showed interest in signing Harper, will tell you they chose Machado instead simply because it was a better fit for their needs. The Phillies, on the other hand, were debating which player to sign, but Harper’s popularity with their fans caused them to pivot from Machado.
Simply, Harper was the people’s choice.
“In Philadelphia, they want their athletes to play hard, Middleton said, “and Bryce plays hard. Frankly, I think Manny hurt himself in Philadelphia with some of his postseason comments. When he said, ‘I’m not ever going to be Johnny Hustle,’ that doesn’t play well in Philadelphia.
“It’s not that they don’t recognize that he’s a great player, they do. But by the same token, they say, ‘If you’re going to choose between great players, let’s choose the guy who runs into the walls rather than the guy who jogs down to first base and says I’m not ‘Johnny Hustle.’”
So, if the Phillies had signed Machado, would they still have generated the same excitement, with fans flocking to the ticket windows?
“My instinct,’’ Middleton says, “is no. I just think the fans were turned off by Manny and turned on by Bryce.’’
You can certainly argue from sports bars to Fortune 500 board rooms to fantasy sites which of the players is more talented, but Harper’s persona that has captivated this city’s attention.
“He makes a lot of noise, he’s what today’s generation wants,’’ Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan said. “He’s a big personality. You remember when he said, ‘Hey dude, that’s a clown question?’ What that did was put him in with the young people, the TMZ people. It’s a quote young people loved. Hell, I loved it too. It made people identify with him.
“It’s not that way with Machado. I believe Machado hurt himself in the postseason last year with his comments and his play. It’s kind of the opposite with Bryce. Everything blows Bryce up bigger than life.’’
Says Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant, who grew up with Harper in Las Vegas: “They’re both such great players, but I feel like everything Bryce touches turns to gold.’’
Harper is the most polarizing player in baseball, the Reggie Jackson of his era, if you will. You can love him. You can hate him. But, you sure cannot ignore him.
“He draws attention,’’ Jackson says. “It’s part of his arrogance. He’s got that big swing, all of the moves, the hair. All of that stuff that draw attention. And he’s had a couple of run-ins with players, and controversy, and that sells.”
If Machado has his way, he’d love to bring a little of that East Coast swag to Southern California. Let Harper have all of the commercials and billboards. Machado just wants to be a ballplayer.
“I don’t care about marketing or any of that other stuff,’’ Machado said, “all I want to do is win. That’s all that matters.
“I know me and the ownership group have the same plan. If we win, people will show up. We bring a championship to San Diego, the fans will be there.
“That’s how you draw attention.’’
San Diegans will never swap climates with the city of Philadelphia, but are they ever envious of those 17 sports championship banners in Philadelphia.
“We have one goal, and that’s to bring the first major sports championship to our city,’’ Padres general partner Peter Seidler said. “There’s a pent-up demand for winning in San Diego. This is our 50-year anniversary, and we’ve been to the playoffs only five times. We expect to completely change that with Manny.
“And when we do, the numbers will take care of themselves.
“In the end, winning is all that really matters, isn’t it?’’
We’ll soon find out.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale