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Manny Machado plays the quiet villain for the Dodgers

Manny Machado plays the quiet villain for the Dodgers
Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado was the focus of the ire of Brewers' fans in the NLCS. (Jae Hong / AP)

They gathered around the table and waited three-deep, cameras and recorders and lights, for the Dodgers’ star shortstop and latest antihero. They were waiting to ask Manny Machado about the time he slid into Dustin Pedroia’s leg as a member of the Baltimore Orioles last season. About the time the Boston Red Sox threw at him in retaliation two days later and again over a week later and his profanity-spiced reaction toward the organization afterwards. About his questionable behavior in the National League Championship Series and the unfiltered loathing Milwaukee unloaded in response. About whether it bothered him that peers have called him a dirty player.

Machado didn’t want to talk about any of it.

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“That’s old history,” Machado said. “Obviously, I played here quite a bit. I got quite a few games here. So I’m familiar with a lot of stuff around the ballpark, familiar with the teams. So I think I got an advantage to help my team in any way I can to win the games here. I’m a Dodger now. I’m here to win a World Series and that’s all that matters now.”

Machado repeated that last sentence several times, deflecting various questions from reporters at Fenway Park on Monday about his contentious on-field acts. The Dodgers acquired the impending free agent from the hapless Orioles in July to reach that goal, to fuel them to their first World Series title in 30 years, and Machado has done his part. The 26-year-old batted .296 in the National League Championship Series and played well at shortstop, a position he returned to this season after spending his first six years with the Orioles as a third baseman. The performance, however, has come with scrutiny.

Red Sox first baseman Steve Pearce was in Baltimore for 3 ½ of those years. He remembers a gifted player who occasionally rubbed people the wrong way but was never malicious.

“Sometimes emotions get the best of him, but I know the kind of guy he is off the field and he’s a great guy,” Pearce said. “And as far as when we were in Baltimore, players had talks with him. But that’s just who he is and he’s a great player… He’s not trying to hurt anybody.”

Controversy first surrounded Machado in June 2014, when he threw his bat on a swing-and-miss toward Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson. Machado had taken exception to a tag Donaldson placed two days earlier. He was suspended five games for the toss.

In April 2017, Machado injured Pedroia’s left leg attempting to break up a double play. Two days later, after starter Eduardo Rodriguez threw at Machado but didn’t hit him, reliever Matt Barnes threw a fastball behind Machado’s head. Barnes was suspended four games, and the saga continued when the teams met again the next week at Fenway Park. First, an Orioles pitcher plunked Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts. The next night Chris Sale’s first pitch to Machado went behind him. Machado blasted the Red Sox after the game.

“I’ve lost my respect for that organization,” Machado said, “that coaching staff and everyone over there.”

Sale, coincidentally, will start Game 1 for Boston.

“We have bigger things to worry about now on both sides, on their side and on our side,” Sale said on Monday. “We’re dedicated to winning this World Series.”

It was a stance Sale’s teammates repeated for the most part on Monday, but Pedroia, a beloved four-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion, hasn’t been the same player since Machado’s slide. That has not been lost on Barnes, now an important cog in Boston’s bullpen.

“You're talking about a play in which Pedey still hasn't played since then, really," Barnes told The Eagle-Tribune. "When you take out a captain, a leader of a team, that's not going to sit well with anybody. It kind of is what it is. You move on. I don't see anything happening, I really don't, but it doesn't mean that we've forgotten about it."

Barnes, however, insisted the matter is behind them.

“It’s done,” Barnes said. “Our job is to get him out. Our job is to win the series. And if you put him on base because of something stupid in the biggest series of a lot of guys’ lives and the biggest series in the game, that’s bad karma. You do something stupid and the next guy hits a homer when you got two outs or something like that, that’s just — no. We’re good.”

Pedroia, 35, underwent cartilage restoration surgery on his left knee last October and never recovered. He began the season on the disabled list, was activated in late May, played in three games, and was back on the disabled list June 2. He never came off it.

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“Is he a dirty player?” asked Pedroia. “I don’t really have time to think about whether he is or isn’t. I’m trying to get back from an injury. It’s taken a long time. To put my energy into areas that won’t help me get better and get back to playing, I don’t have time.

“That didn’t help, I’ll tell you that. It’s a part of the game. You play second base, you sign up to turn two, and guys are sliding into you and you can’t see them. It happens. It’s unfortunate. I’m still trying to get back from it.”

Machado’s on-field conduct came under the microscope again in Game 5 of the NLCS last week when he dragged his foot across Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar’s foot running out a groundball. After the game, a couple of Brewers called Machado a dirty player. Machado dismissed the notion on Monday.

“I play hard for my ball club,” said Machado, who was fined $10,000 by MLB for the incident. “Whatever uniform I put on, I’m going to bleed and die [for] it. I hustle, I run down the line. I do whatever I can to win ballgames and those are only things you can control as baseball players.”

The episode galvanized the Brewers’ fan base. Machado was jeered relentlessly when the series returned to Miller Park. The boos appeared to bother Machado in Game 6. He finished 0 for 4 with two strike outs in a Dodgers loss.

So before Game 7 he got some advice from noted playoff villain Chase Utley, who became the most vilified person in Queens when he broke New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada’s leg sliding into second base during the 2015 National League Division Series.

“I don’t know if there’s one way to handle it, but I talked to him a little bit about it,” Utley said. “And he was receptive and understood. I thought we were on the same page… Obviously, in Milwaukee they were more vocal than they were with other guys with Manny. And the one thing you don’t want to do is let it affect your approach at the plate. And things like that. Overall, I thought he did a pretty good job, especially under those circumstances.”

Machado rebounded in Game 7 with two hits, including a bunt single on a 3-2 pitch. The next batter, Cody Bellinger, belted a two-run home run. The play was a window into Machado’s talent. He didn’t plan on bunting. He only decided to when Jhoulys Chacin quick-pitched him. It was placed perfectly. It was instinctual.

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But those abilities, the ones that will make him one of the two most sought-after commodities in the free-agent market this winter, were lost in the jeers.

Later, as the Dodgers pulled away in Game 7, he egged the fans on for more boos. He crotch-chopped and he taunted. He turned full heel, and he wasn’t shying away. He’ll return to that role on Tuesday at Fenway Park. On Monday, he didn’t want to talk about it.

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