By Dan Connolly
Jonathan Schoop knew all about Manny Machado before they first met in 2011.
Machado, after all, was the kid who received $5.25 million from the Orioles as the third overall pick in the 2010 amateur draft. Machado was the Orioles’ next-best thing: A Miami high schooler with extraordinary offensive and defensive skills. He was Alex Rodriguez 2.0.
This wunderkind was nine months younger than Schoop; he was a major investment for the Orioles and he played shortstop, the same position as Schoop, who had been in the organization since signing out of Curacao as a 16-year-old in 2008.
Something would have to change, and Schoop figured it would be his spot on the diamond. That became clearer when he met Machado in person during spring training in 2011.
“The first time I saw him, I said, ‘Wow, he’s got good talent, tall guy, he’s got the skills,'” Schoop said. “Of course, there was a competition with us, because he was a shortstop and I was a shortstop. … He was a first-rounder. I was [an amateur] free agent. I wanted to show him I was good.”
If this were a Hollywood script, Schoop, the underdog, would have beaten out his rival for the shortstop job despite the long odds. Eventually and begrudgingly, Machado would extend his hand in the acknowledgment that Schoop was the better man, and any rivalry would be forgotten.
But this was real life in the minors. And this story has a much better twist, anyway. Schoop, just 19 at the time but always seemingly wiser than his years, almost immediately befriended Machado despite the position competition. He did it with an understated sincerity that resonated with Machado, the man-child form whom everyone selfishly wanted a piece.
“I remember this skinny Curacao kid, very quiet. He felt kind of nervous to talk to me because, I guess, I was a bonus baby at the time,” Machado remembered. “We were both playing shortstop on the back fields of Twin Lakes (in Sarasota, Fla.). We just kind of connected. One ground ball, and we saw we were both talented and we just connected. We started talking, that’s when we first kind of became friends, became who we are now.”
Machado was bilingual; Schoop was still working on his English. They communicated mainly in Spanish but would also talk in English. The relationship helped Schoop become more comfortable with the language and helped Machado ease into his overwhelming role as potential organizational savior.
“He wasn’t envious about anything,” Machado said. “He wasn’t envious about the money I had gotten or how talented we were. He just wanted to be my friend. He just wanted to talk to me every day, learn a little better English. It was an unbelievable first couple of years for me. It just made it so easy for me to know that there were actually people like that in the minor leagues, like Jonathan.”
Once Schoop opened up, he began teasing Machado. He kept facetiously complaining about why he had to take grounders at shortstop since everyone knew Machado would get that assignment once they began the year at Low-A Delmarva.
“He joked with me all the time. ‘You’re the first-rounder, obviously you’re gonna play shortstop and they’re gonna move me somewhere else. I don’t know why I’m here,'” Machado said. “That’s why I liked him so much. Because he was so humble.”
Schoop, of course, was right. When the two were assigned to Delmarva to start the 2011 season, Machado was the Shorebirds’ shortstop and Schoop, the third baseman.
“It was really good, because I knew a guy like that is a really good shortstop. And I was made a third baseman, and I was trying to get better,” Schoop said. “So we worked together every day to be better players, to one day be major leaguers.”
The script twist, of course, is that both made the majors within three years of their first meeting — but neither at shortstop. One is arguably the game’s best third baseman at 23 and the other’s stock is rising dramatically as a 24-year-old second baseman.
Settling In Together As Shorebirds
Ryan Minor admits, in retrospect, it could have been a difficult situation.
A second-year, minor league manager at Delmarva in 2011, Minor had been a top prospect himself in the Orioles’ organization. He holds a special place in team history — as a rookie, he replaced Cal Ripken Jr., at third base and in the starting lineup Sept. 20, 1998, ending the Iron Man’s record, consecutive games streak at 2,632.
Minor knows tough assignments and the pressures of anticipated stardom. So getting two, high-ceiling prospects under the age of 20 who played the same position could have been a real challenge for a fledgling skipper.
“I think it could have been difficult, especially coming out of spring training and defining what roles they were going to play,” Minor said.
The key was Schoop, but Minor had gotten to know him during instructional league and thought the affable, determined kid would adjust without complaint. And that’s what happened.
“Jonathan went into it showing no animosity, and that created some cohesion,” Minor said. “Being a third baseman, I think Jonathan understood that was his fastest way to the big leagues, especially if he could play different positions.”
Both were promoted that year to High-A Frederick, setting their course to the majors. By the time they started Double-A Bowie together in 2012, the duo was inseparable, on and off the field, and in the minds of the organization’s decision-makers.
“You could just see it from the start that they were tight,” Minor said. “And now, just watching them on TV, you see it. It is kind of rare. You always have a couple guys that gravitate in the minors, but it seems like those two guys could still be roommates.”
‘Like Little Kids In Elementary School’
If this were a Hollywood movie, it would have to be rated R for violence and adult language. Because, by most accounts, Machado and Schoop are always feuding, always jawing, always verbally and physically attacking each other.
“These guys are like slap-boxing each other every day. They are wrestling each other,” said Orioles shortstop J.J Hardy, who stands in between the two on the diamond and gets out of their way in the dugout. “They are like little kids in elementary school that screw around and just have fun. It’s fun to watch.”
It’s sometimes brutal to hear, however.
Machado and Schoop are so close, and have developed such impenetrable skin in regards to each other, that they often openly and loudly criticize one another when a mistake is made. Hardy said he’s become used to it, but he’d probably be shaken if it were directed at him.
“If they don’t make a play that they feel like they should have, the one is wearing the other one out instantly. ‘Hey, you’ve got to catch the ball before you throw it.’ Or, ‘Make a good throw.’ I’m like, ‘Geez,'” Hardy said. “If anyone told me that, I’d be like, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I [screwed] up. I’m sorry.'”
Instead, Schoop and Machado get in each other’s faces.
“Brothers fight all the time. We throw blows all the time,” Machado said. “We go through our moments when we hate each other. But, at the end of the day, we still love each other on the inside, and we always care for each other. That’s the main thing.”
Schoop said it’s a necessary — albeit sometimes painful — process that motivates both players.
“We are not scared to tell each other something to each other’s face, like friends. If he is doing something wrong, I’m going to go straight up to him and tell him, ‘Hey, you are not doing this good.’ He’ll come to me and say, ‘You’re sloppy today, let’s go,'” Schoop said. “We talk about everything. Baseball, life, everything, to make each other a better person.”
Schoop is rarely without a smile on his face and, because of that, is often considered the more mild-mannered, less intense member of the duo. Not so, say those who witness the daily exchanges, which the rest of the Orioles secretly enjoy.
“They keep me younger, mentally, emotionally. You kind of live it through them,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s pretty entertaining, I can tell ya that. A lot of stuff that y’all don’t hear, it’s pretty entertaining. And Jonathan is a little quicker with a quip than people give him credit for.”
Video Games, Rocket Arms And Steak
It’s easy to start an argument between Machado and Schoop. Pick a topic and sit back and listen.
Like, which one has the stronger throwing arm?
“He has a cannon of an arm,” Schoop said. “But my arm is a little better than his. That’s the truth.”
In 2011, when they were together at Delmarva, Schoop’s arm was selected as the strongest in the South Atlantic League. Schoop smiles broadly when that is brought up.
“Of course. Of course. You know that. You knew that before. That’s not even a question,” Schoop said. “I’m gonna have fun with that right now.”
Machado’s not buying it — then or now.
“He knows I have the better arm. He just knows it. He just wants to be in denial that he does. And it’s OK,” Machado said. “I give it to him; he has more pop than me; he has way more pop than me.”
Then Machado puts his right arm in the air, flexes, flashes a big smile and motions to his biceps and says, “But I have the machete. That’s just how it is.”
When they wrestle, who gets the advantage of whom? Once skinny kids, they are both now more than 200 pounds of muscle.
“Come on,” Schoop says, “you have to respect me.”
“I beat his [butt] all the time,” Machado counters. “The younger brother always beats the big brother, remember that.”
Even when they agree that one is better than the other in a certain activity, they argue on the degree of separation.
Many of their hours together are spent playing video games, specifically FIFA Soccer.
Schoop, who grew up in Curacao, a constituent country of the Netherlands, is a soccer enthusiast, and that comes through when the two face off with video-game consoles. Representing the Dutch in international play or Real Madrid in league play, Schoop proudly says he crushes Machado, who usually plays as Barcelona.
“I’m way better than him,” Schoop said. “It’s not even close, like 4-1, 3-0. Not even close.”
Machado has an explanation, and a rebuttal: “He played soccer growing up, so he knows all those little tricks, and how to move people around and ways to screw me over. So, yeah, he beats me in FIFA, but I beat him, too. Don’t let him fool you.”
When they aren’t playing FIFA, listening to music, watching movies or hanging out at each other’s homes, they are often eating together — usually at high-end steak joints. Machado gives Schoop credit for helping him learn to eat in a way that has allowed him to improve his metabolism and maintain his weight and strength during a grueling season.
Machado likes to cook a little, and Schoop loves to eat. So Machado has made steak — ribeye, Schoop’s favorite — for his buddy. The result?
“He’s good; he’s average. He’s there, but he can do better,” Schoop says laughing.
The problem, Machado contends, is that Schoop doesn’t know how to eat steak correctly, something Machado expects to fix.
“He said last time it was a little burnt, but I know he likes stuff well done. So, you see, I’m trying to help him out with how he likes his steak, and he still says that it wasn’t good enough. This is why we fight,” Machado said. “Deep down inside, he knows it’s good, but he still wants to bash me down and say I can’t cook. So I’m going to make him one the way I want to eat it, the way I’m teaching him how he should eat it, which is medium, and we’ll see how it goes.”
Changing Times, Changing Lives
Life has changed dramatically for the duo during the past 18 months. Machado has gotten married. Schoop is engaged and had his first child, a daughter, last year. Schoop and Machado spend a little less time together now away from the ballpark, but in a sense, they’ve become even closer.
“The baby became a part of my life, and it’s another change. With my family, I spend more time with them now,” Schoop said. “But me and Manny seek contact all the time, we talk on the phone a lot of the time. He likes to see the baby and just has fun with her.”
Machado said it’s been fantastic watching Schoop become a doting father, and he can’t help but be drawn into the experience.
“He’s always constantly watching videos when she’s not on the road,” Machado said. “She just learned how to walk. So we’re in the back of the bus, and he’s showing me the videos. ‘Hey, look. Look, that’s my girl. Look at her.’ And she’ll take two steps, and she falls. But now she is up to five or six steps. And it’s been pretty awesome to see him just so happy.”
As Machado puts it, “We’re growing into men together. It’s awesome. We get to talk about our relationship problems; we get to help each other out. It’s a two-way street.”
At some point, they know their time together on a baseball diamond may end. Machado is a free agent at the end of the 2018 season and Schoop, the following year. Ultimately, baseball is a business, and it could send them to different cities. Opponents instead of teammates.
It’s why they are cherishing the now, whether it’s concocting intricate handshakes in the dugout or reveling in the opportunity to occasionally be double-play partners.
“We don’t know how long, two more years, three more years, more?” Schoop said. “That’s why we enjoy every day; every day we enjoy it and try and win. He’s my best buddy in baseball. We say we are like brothers. We ride together and we die together, that’s what we say.”
No matter where baseball takes them, Machado said he can’t imagine he and Schoop being too far apart in life.
“Our friendship goes beyond just being teammates and part of a clubhouse together. I think we go a lot deeper than that,” Machado said. “It’s just been an awesome ride.”
Issue 221: May 2016