By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 2009
BALTIMORE -- The half-hour drive from the Markakis homestead in Monkton, Md., to Oriole Park at Camden Yards winds past the horse farms of northern Baltimore County, to the edge of downtown, where Little Italy meets the Inner Harbor, and finally across the harbor to the iconic ballpark on the site of an old train yard. On a particular January morning this winter, when the sky was cold and blue, the entire landscape, and indeed life in all its glory, appeared to be revealing itself for the first time ever out the window of Nick Markakis's Ford F-150 pickup truck.
"He wasn't as quiet as he usually is. He was very talkative, and when he wasn't talking he was just looking out the window and smiling," said Dennis Markakis, Nick's father and the occupant of the passenger seat that morning. "This was something that anyone who plays baseball dreams about. Everything was falling into place."
That morning four months ago, Markakis -- with his new bride, eight months pregnant with their first child, back at home -- pulled into his parking spot in the players' lot at Camden Yards, walked along with his father into the Baltimore Orioles' executive offices and signed his name to the $66.1 million contract that will keep him in Baltimore for the next six years.
"That's what everybody works for: to have a family one day and to be able to provide for them," Markakis said recently. "It's an awesome feeling, and to be able to do it playing baseball, something I love doing, makes it even more special."
A month after the signing, Christina Markakis gave birth to Taylor -- named for Nick's best childhood friend who had died in a tragic accident nine years ago at the age of 16 -- and Nick Markakis's coming-of-age trilogy was complete: a husband, a father and an Oriole-for-life (or close to it), each milestone occurring in the span of a few months in the life of a 25-year-old right fielder who has established himself as a historic figure in his franchise's annals.
Since the St. Louis Browns moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became the Orioles, no player has posted a higher batting average or OPS (on-base plus slugging) in his first four big league seasons (minimum 400 games) than Markakis's .301 and .857, respectively, and only Eddie Murray has driven in more runs than Markakis's 295.
This season, even as the Orioles have settled once again into last place in the American League East, Markakis has continued to establish himself as one of the game's top young players and the cornerstone of a franchise pinning its hopes on a youth-infused turnaround in the coming years. Through roughly a quarter of the season, Markakis is among the AL leaders in hits, runs, RBI and doubles, and his OPS of .915 is 58 points above his career average.
"I think he's one of the top five outfielders in the game right now, in terms of complete, all-around players," said one scout who sees the Orioles frequently. "There are guys with more power, but this kid can play defense, he's got a terrific arm and plenty of power. He does everything you'd ever want."
The scout's name is Tony DeMacio, currently of the Atlanta Braves, and it was he who, as the Orioles' scouting director in 2003, selected Markakis -- a dual-threat left-handed pitcher/slugger out of Young Harris (Ga.) College -- with the seventh overall draft pick, then insisted the kid be developed as a hitter, not a pitcher. A few weeks before the draft, the Orioles had Markakis work out for team executives at Camden Yards, and it became one of those indelible moments scouts take with them to their graves.
"I just remember one ball after another sailing out [beyond right field] onto Eutaw Street," DeMacio said. "And remember, his body wasn't mature the way it is now. His strength for that size body was so surprising. We were just shocked. And the thing I remember most was that swing -- such a nice, pretty swing."
When the Orioles' execs spoke with Markakis afterward, DeMacio said: "He looked you in the eye when he spoke. He never looked away. But he talked softly. You almost had to lean in to hear him. He wasn't loud or all into himself, like some kids."
And that, roughly, is the Nick Markakis Orioles fans have come to know -- or not know, as the case may be. He is someone who will win the game with a hit, a catch or a throw, then hide his dark eyes behind the bill of his cap or batting helmet as he comes off the field. At his locker, if reporters insist, he will answer a few questions with a few innocuous answers, then disappear.
Those who know him insist he isn't rude or antisocial, or even particularly quiet by nature; he is merely guarded around those he doesn't know. He has no communication issues when it comes to relationships, according to Christina. Every telephone conversation with any family member, and even many friends, ends with an "I love you" from Nick's end of the line.
"And when he's on the road," Christina said, "we probably talk 20 times a day, no exaggeration."
And there's also this: When you put him in a situation in which he's comfortable, around people he knows well, Markakis is a walking circus act -- sometimes one that's not suitable for children.
He juggles. He balances large objects on his chin -- including, but not limited to, folding chairs, vacuum cleaners and shopping carts. And yes, perhaps owing to his Greek heritage, he has been known to perform Olympian feats in the nude.
"Sometimes, he brought his bike in the clubhouse," said former Orioles teammate Daniel Cabrera, now with the Washington Nationals, "and he would go riding around, butt-naked, doing tricks and stuff. Jumping over things, [riding with] no hands. I'm telling you, he's crazy. Great guy, great teammate."
This past winter, as Markakis's agent, Jamie Murphy -- tellingly, an old high school buddy -- negotiated with the Orioles on a long-term deal, the anticipation was weighing on Markakis's mind. Nights were full of restless sleep, the quiet days jolted by telephone conversations with Murphy about subjects, namely money, that he would rather not have to think about.
Then, around mid-January, the deal started to come together. And within days, it was done.
"He started sleeping better. There was just a calmness," Christina said. "No more discussions. It was done."
Dennis Markakis, who had always told his son to do his talking on the field, was summoned from Georgia to attend the signing, accepting the assignment gladly.
"Everything he had worked so hard for, he had achieved," he said. "He had gotten married. His son was going to be born a month or so later. It was such a perfect scenario."
Most game days now, Markakis makes the drive alone, from home to work in the afternoon, and back again late at night. The route is the same, as is the landscape, but things never look the same as they do on cold winter mornings, or when a whole new world has suddenly opened up before you.