PEORIA, Ariz. — White Sox GM Rick Hahn had just finished sweating when he got the call that made his heart race. On the line was Dan Lozano, who represents free-agent shortstop Manny Machado, the player Chicago most coveted this offseason. Hahn was drenched, having just returned to the locker room from his morning run of the ballpark stairs. It had been a rough workout.
“In retrospect,” he said, now that the Padres have reportedly given Machado the richest free-agent contract in sports history and the White Sox have been left pondering counterfactuals, the run “was the highlight of my day.”
“Since this has leaked out on Twitter—“ Lozano began.
The bomb, dropped by ESPN’s Jeff Passan, caught most everyone off guard. San Diego public relations chief Craig Hughner gets push alerts, so he saw it right when it went live at 10:24 a.m. local time. This set off a frenzy, as news of a major transaction is pure chaos for team personnel. Hughner has had a dozen press releases about various players prewritten for months, ready to go in case of a move, but he had no advance warning that the club was close to anything. The team was caught flat-footed by the timing of the leak since Machado had reportedly not even taken his physical. So the communications staff sprang into action. Padres manager Andy Green was scheduled to give his daily press briefing at 10:30. Hughner raced upstairs to alert the baseball operations department that the news had broken, then, at 10:28, corralled Green to remind him of the organization’s position on rumors: No comment until it’s official. The word of the day around the San Diego complex was if.
For the most part, that’s the stance across the sport, leaving everyone involved caught in nod-wink limbo. Players, executives and reporters all dance around the truth, adding preposterous levels of caveats and speaking only in hypotheticals.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” San Diego’s previous high-earner, $144 million first baseman Eric Hosmer, said with a grin to a question about the signing. (Machado will reportedly make $300 million over 10 years.) He eventually caved, acknowledging that he would be delighted at any such new addition. He added that he would be willing to drop to No. 3 in salary, a reference to still-unsigned rightfielder Bryce Harper.
Hosmer heard rumors intensify that morning—although he and Machado played for rival high schools, he insists he hasn’t reached out—but the players trotted out for their workout unsure what would happen. The enforced Ludditism of baseball meant that they lived for a while in the space between when something happens and when it becomes real: Their phones buzzed in their lockers as they fielded grounders and took batting practice. As they trickled back toward the clubhouse, it was Hughner and his deputies who broke the news: You are about to be swarmed by the media. This is why.
They missed at least one, catcher Austin Hedges, who was intercepted by a reporter. His eyes widened. “Let’s go!” he yelled, thrusting his bat in the air, before grinning sheepishly. “That’s how excited I am about bunting,” he explained and jogged into the batting cage.
Other players bantered with fans waiting for autographs about the length and dollars of the contract—if—and chattered excitedly with each other about what could be.
The front office kept up the charade. “What do you guys want to talk about?” San Diego GM A.J. Preller joked a few hours later as he rolled into the scheduled Media Day, squeezing through a crowd of reporters four deep. (It was Preller’s misfortune that the news leaked when it did; a few hours later and he would have been spared the press gauntlet.) He declined to comment on any specific negotiations. He declined to estimate how long any specific negotiations might take to be completed. He all but declined to acknowledge Machado’s existence. He breathed a sigh of relief as he snuck out of the ballroom at the close of the session.
In the end, it was the craziest few hours in the history of the Padres, who have not made the playoffs since 2006 and have endured eight straight losing seasons. And they headed home knowing they are not even assured a calmer tomorrow: The deal could always fall apart.