Manny Machado is 21 and loving life as AL All-Star

St. PETERSBURG -- Happy Birthday Manny Machado.

OK, so we missed it by a few days (July 6), but Machado is probably still trying to catch up with all the belated birthday-boy wishes.

At 21, Manny Machado is having the time of his life.

He's engaged to be married Dec. 6, 2014, in Paris. And there are some previous commitments: He has been selected for the All-Star Game, to be played at Citi Field in New York on Tuesday night. Machado will be penciled in at third, but here's a little tidbit that's common knowledge to baseball insiders:

Machado and Baltimore Orioles teammate J.J. Hardy are the best shortstops in the American League. Machado is simply a victim of a logistical glitch -- Hardy was there first before Machado got a summer call-up last season.

No worries. Machado has become a defensive whiz kid, and has the highlight reel to prove it -- from the "pump play" against the Tampa Bay Rays last season, to the most recent vintage Manny, a ridiculously-long throw from deep in foul territory against the New York Yankees.

Who does this guy think he is, Brooks Robinson?

"People are going to compare, writers and other people," Machado said during a recent road series against the Rays. "That's their job. I'm going to be Manny. I'm going to play my game and be who I am. That's the only thing I can control."

Machado gets that a lot. Not just Brooks, the Baltimore legend, but with another third baseman, Alex Rodriguez, baseball's A-Fraud.

It's understandable. Both guys are from Miami. They know each other, even trained together. And each wears 13.

But their narratives veer off in different directions once you get past some of the obvious commonalities. Machado -- along with Los Angeles Dodgers rookie Yasiel Puig -- are the feel-good stories of the summer.

Rodriguez and his tainted legacy tarnish the image of baseball as it tries to shake free from the era of better living through chemistry.

Machado is the real deal.

"I mean, I'm Manny. I'm not A-Rod," he says again, repeating a phrase he has used often this season.

Here's what to like about Mr. Not-A-Rod: Beyond his defensive ability, Machado leads the AL with 39 doubles and is on pace to break Earl Webb's 82-year-old single-season record (67). He is also fifth in total bases.

None of this has happened by circumstance since Machado joined the Orioles from Double-A Bowie on Aug. 9, 2012.

It's been a methodical rise to greatness, starting in Miami, when he trained as an adolescent with former professional baseball player Frank Valdez.

Machado also didn't show up to the majors as an accidental third baseman. Knowing their nice predicament with Hardy, the Orioles spent hours grooming Machado for third base.

When he was at Bowie, Machado would spend hours on afternoon pre-game drills with Bobby Dickerson, the team's infield coordinator. The prep work lasted a month-and-a half before Machado was promoted to Baltimore.

"People think we were smug and knew all along?" Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Come on. But you trust."

The process continued in spring training, when the Orioles used a water polo shot clock (in case it rained) to time Machado's reaction time and throws to third. He took slow rollers, got a feel for which throws he had to bare hand, how quickly he had to throw the ball to second if he had a shot at a double-play. Over and over.

"We'd have a buzzer that would go off if he was too slow," Showalter said. "And if he made it too fast we'd say, 'look at how much time you have on the clock.' ''

Tick, tick. Manny Machado continues to beat the clock with his rise as a professional baseball player.

The All-Star uniform is a pretty nice birthday present, and a deserving honor.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@orlandosentinel.com

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