FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 26 -- In the middle of June last year, Baltimore Orioles executives Jim Duquette and Mike Flanagan met with Manager Sam Perlozzo to discuss the puzzling case of Nick Markakis, the prized outfielder who was slumping badly.
Markakis had punished the ball in spring training, but could barely make solid contact during the season. Scouts around the league pegged Markakis as a young hitter who could not hit an inside fastball, and pitchers heeded that analysis, dropping Markakis's batting average to .219.
Though Markakis's confidence never wavered, he grew anxious at the plate. Hitting coach Terry Crowley noticed that Markakis rushed through at-bats, yet was slow to react to certain pitches. Duquette, Flanagan and Perlozzo discussed the possibility they'd have to send the team's best prospect back to the minors, basically admitting they had made a mistake in allowing him to start the season in the majors.
Before such a drastic move though, the trio decided to put Markakis in the lineup every day instead of in a platoon as they had been doing. It would be Markakis's last chance to prove he belonged in the majors. In an eight-game stretch following that meeting, Markakis hit .500 (15 for 30) and talk of the minors was never heard again.
"When we really challenged him," Duquette said, "he always took his game to another level."
Markakis, 23, is one year removed from a spring training that established him as one of the most respected young hitters in the game. Markakis, who hit .291 with 16 home runs last year, enters the season as an established major leaguer and the heir apparent to Cal Ripken Jr. as the franchise's next home-grown franchise player.
"Yes, he's a unique talent," Crowley said. "These types of guys don't come along that often, especially personality-wise and attitude-wise and early maturity. These guys come along every 20 years or so with the full package. The Oriole fans should be very happy that he's going to be out there in right field for us every day. They might very well be seeing a young, budding star taking over the American League."
Life has changed for Markakis. He often gets autograph requests while on the streets in Baltimore, and this winter Baltimore magazine named him one of the city's most eligible bachelors and featured him in a photo spread.
"I actually got a couple guys at home that I play with that give me a little hard time about it, but they're just joking," Markakis said of the distinction.
Whereas last year Markakis had his locker near the back of the clubhouse with the other minor league players, this spring he is near the front of the room with the rest of the Orioles regulars. Markakis is steadily moving toward the first locker in the first row, the one used by Ripken for so many years. Markakis said he's heard the comparisons to Ripken, though he isn't burdened by them.
"I want people to think that," Markakis said. "I think it's good for the team and the organization. I'm here to help in any way I can to get to that playoff and World Series atmosphere."
Markakis's late-season surge -- he hit .326 with 14 home runs from June 25 to the end of the season -- was a result of his work with Crowley. Markakis worked hours with Crowley during batting practice and in the hitting cages before games.
"He never once changed his work habits," Crowley said. "He never once came in and complained about the fact that he was 0 for 4 and he hit two line drives and they caught them. He never once complained about that. The umpires called him out on some questionable pitches. [He never said,] 'I'm a young guy; why me?' That situation never came up. So right away, though he was 22 years old, I knew I had a man on my hands."
Eventually Crowley taught Markakis to pace himself and to quit drifting at the plate. Where Markakis previously had been challenged by the inside fastball, he learned to pound the pitch all over the field. It made people wonder: How much better can he be?
"There's only so far you can set your expectations as an individual," Markakis said. "With the team you can set them as high as you want. It's not something I look at. I know it's good to say that you're going to go out there and hit .330 and hit 40 home runs and get 150 RBI, but if we don't get to the playoffs, it's kind of pointless."