When I was a kid, every morning at six my grandfather would come into my room to wake me up and give me a glass of warm milk. He was very regimented. He woke up at four every morning and went to bed at six every night. Bringing me my morning milk was just part of his routine.
And it was also the only way to get me to drink my milk.
At the time, I hated it. I was a kid. I wanted to sleep. But now … it’s funny how differently you think about stuff like that when you get older. The little things that once bothered you become your favorite memories. The things you never forget.
Most of my youth baseball games were at night, so since my grandfather went to bed at six he rarely got to see me play. But when I got home after my games, I would always knock on his bedroom door to wake him up. And then I would poke my head in and tell him how I had done.
“Psst … Abuelo … I went 2 for 4 tonight and I made a nice play in the field.”
“That’s great, Manny” he’d say. “Did you bunt? Did you practice your bunting today?”
He always talked about bunting. I didn’t understand it. I was a kid. I wanted to hit home runs and steal bases and slide and get dirty. I didn’t want to bunt. But my grandfather always preached to me that I should be not just a good hitter and a good fielder, but that I should also be a complete player. He preached the details.
“If you want to be a great baseball player and a professional one day, you have to know how to bunt. If you don’t know how to bunt, you’ll never make it to the major leagues.”
“O.K., Abuelo. Goodnight.”
Then I would go to bed. The next time I saw him would be at 6 a.m. when he brought me my morning milk.
My grandfather loved baseball so much. He’s one of the reasons that I fell in love with the game. He lived with us in our home in Hialeah, Florida — where I was born — but he grew up in the Dominican Republic, in the city of La Vega. He wanted me to play Major League Baseball because it had always been my dream, and also because it would allow me to help my family live a better life. But he also wanted me to play in the Dominican if I ever got the chance — he wanted me to play winter ball for his favorite team, the Licey Tigers, or to represent the Dominican in some way.
So every time I take the field for the Dominican Republic in this year’s World Baseball Classic, it’s going to be bittersweet. It’s such an honor to represent the country my family comes from.
But I’m sad that my grandfather is not around to see it.
Dominican culture is very family-oriented. Family is everything to us, and we treat all Dominicans as if they were family.
I’ll give you an example.
When the Orioles first called me up in 2012, one of our first road trips was to Texas to play the Rangers. I had met Nelson Cruz, who’s from the Dominican, a few years earlier. He’s very involved with MLB’s young Latin players. He’s a great mentor. We call him Papa, like, “our Father.”
So when we arrived in Texas, we walked into the visitors’ locker room, and there was a batch of food waiting for me: rice and beans, chicken, plátanos … the good stuff. I asked one of the equipment guys who it was for. He said it was for me. I asked who it was from.
He said it was from Nelson.
The next day, there was another batch of food. This time, rice and beans with steak. And of course, he didn’t forget the plátanos.
It was an incredible gesture for Nelson to go out of his way like that to welcome me and make me feel comfortable. He’s just the nicest, most generous person you could ever meet. But also, he’s Papa. He’s Dominican. And that’s what we do: We are one big family, and we take care of each other.
I was excited when Nelson came to Baltimore in 2014 and I got the opportunity to play with him. And I’m even more excited to play alongside him representing our country in the WBC.
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
Before the rosters were announced last month, I saw an analyst put out a mock-up of what the U.S. lineup might look like. At shortstop: Manny Machado. And the rest of the roster was stacked. So when I saw my name alongside guys like Buster Posey, Giancarlo Stanton, and my Orioles teammate Adam Jones, I thought, Woah, that’s a very good team.
In 2009, I played for the 18U U.S. team in the Pan Am Games. We went 8–0 and won gold, and it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. But this year, when I decided that I was going to play in another international competition, the WBC, I was pretty set on playing for the Dominican Republic.
My mother is a proud Dominican and a baseball fanatic. I mean, she’s crazy. Sometimes I have to tell her to stop watching baseball, because it’s all she does. In the off-season, she’ll come to me and want to talk about baseball, and I’ll be like, “Mom, it’s the off-season. Can’t we go for just a little while without talking about baseball.” She has always loved the game.
She also worked just about every day throughout my childhood, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., to make to make sure that our family had food on the table and new clothes when we needed them. I wouldn’t say we were poor, but we didn’t have much money. And she worked hard to make sure we had everything we needed.
Then there’s my Uncle Gio. He, along with my grandfather, was a father figure to me. I had a relationship with my biological father growing up, but he didn’t live with us and he wasn’t a part of my everyday life. My uncle was the one who taught me how to fix things, and how to drive a car.
He also taught me how to play baseball.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
He lived directly across the street from us, and every day, when my uncle got home from work, I would be waiting for him in his front yard with my glove and bat. Before he even went inside to change his clothes or eat dinner, we would throw the ball around in his driveway. Then he would go inside for a few minutes before taking me to the ballfields from 7 p.m. until about 10. He would hit grounders to me for hours. He’d put me against the fence and stand about 10 feet away — at most — and hit rockets at me, one after the other.
So I was like seven, eight, nine years old, and he was launching missiles right at me. “Here it comes, Manny. You’d better catch it!”
I was like, “What’s wrong with you? You trying to kill me?”
But he wasn’t trying to kill me. He was trying to make me better. I would come home with bruises up and down my arms, and I believe it made me a lot tougher. I also believe that I’m a good fielder today because of those nights spent practicing with my uncle.
He accidentally taught me directional hitting, too. I say accidentally because if there was one thing I hated to do when we practiced, it was pick up balls after a round of hitting. It took forever, and I hated bending up and down, up and down, all over the field. So I started trying to hit the ball to the same spot every time to make it easier to collect them afterwards — and I got really good at it.
My Uncle Gio not only taught me how to play the game and how to be tough, but he also went out of his way to make time to work with me. He was my first coach. I don’t think I would be where I am today without him.
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune
And just like I thought about my mom and my uncle when I thought about playing for the Dominican Republic, I also thought about my grandfather.
By the time I finished my junior year of high school, my grandfather had already been pretty sick. I traveled a lot for baseball that summer, so I didn’t get to see him much. When the school year started he was feeling a little bit better, and he said to me, “I’m going to come see you play, Manny. I want to see you play one last time before I go.”
I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted him to come and see me play, but I didn’t want to think about the fact that my grandfather might not be with us much longer.
A few months later, my grandfather died. He was 82. It was Christmas Eve 2009. My senior baseball season had not started yet, so he never got to see me play one last time. He wasn’t there to see my dream come true when I was drafted No. 3 by the Orioles that summer. He wasn’t there to see me make my major league debut in 2012.
To this day, before every game I play, when I take the field for the first time I bend down and draw the initials FN in the dirt.
I do it just to know that even though he’s not here to see me play, he’ll always be right there by my side.
Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune
Like I said, my grandfather was a father figure to me, and my love for baseball comes from the love he had for the game. If he were here today, I think he would be proud of me. I’ve worked hard to be a good man and the best baseball player I can possibly be, and because of that, I’m living my dream.
And I’ve gotten pretty good at bunting, too.
So when it came down to it, the decision was easy. There was no way I could pass on representing the Dominican Republic in the WBC. It’s in my blood. I’m doing it for my mother. I’m doing it for my uncle. I’m doing it for everybody who has supported me in my career.
And most of all, I’m doing it for my grandfather.
Honestly, if he were here to watch me play in the WBC, I don’t think he would have any words to describe how it would make him feel. Which would be O.K., because whether he’s here or not, the only word that will matter when I put that jersey on will be the country on the front: Dominicana.
This is for you.