BALTIMORE — On Labor Day 2006, Nick Markakis was a 22-year-old right fielder hitting third for a team that seemed among the least relevant in baseball. He went 0 for 4 that day in Anaheim, one of 92 losses he and the Baltimore Orioles experienced that year. And that was the team’s best record in Markakis’s first six major league seasons. Their finishes in the American League East during that span: fourth, fourth, fifth, fifth, fifth and fifth. Ugh.
Monday afternoon, Markakis T-shirts joined “Ripken” and “Jones” in the Camden Yards crowd that came to see the first-place Orioles on Labor Day eight years later. And there he was in right field when the first Minnesota batter stepped to the plate. And there he was, barely acknowledging the robust cheers when he led off the bottom of the first.
“I’m sure he’s spent a lot of these days mathematically eliminated,” said infielder Ryan Flaherty, whose locker is just a few stalls down from Markakis in the home clubhouse here.
No current Oriole has been here longer or been through as much in this city as Markakis, identified throughout baseball as an Oriole first and an Oriole last, only an Oriole. He has never made an all-star team, never been an MVP, never played in a postseason game. But as Baltimore Manager Buck Showalter said Monday, “I think sometimes we don’t completely grasp what we’re watching here.”
Here is the list of players, since 2006, who have more hits with one team than Markakis: No one. (And, in all of baseball, only five players have more than Markakis’s 1,530 hits in those nine seasons.) No one has more games with one team. No one has more plate appearances. That’s how you gain respect in the game.
Here is the list of players who have more hits wearing an Orioles uniform — all-time: Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Brady Anderson and Boog Powell. More than Frank Robinson or Paul Blair or Ken Singleton. That’s how you gain respect from a city.
“He sneaks up on a lot of people,” Showalter said.
This September, though, hasn’t snuck up on Markakis. Two years ago, he entered the first truly meaningful September of his career — in his first seven years, the Orioles were a combined 159 games below .500 — ready to soak up all the latent adulation Baltimore could offer. Before the 2009 season, in the midst of all the losing and in a division with the lavish Yankees and Red Sox, he signed a six-year deal to stay. Why?
“I knew eventually we’d get to that point,” Markakis said Monday. “That’s something that I hoped for. I know what this city’s capable of producing. It’s awesome, just the history and the background of this organization. It’s not like it’s an organization that’s never won, never been to the postseason before. We had a lot of great players long before my time. I just knew it was a matter of time before we’d get it back.”
And yet when they got it back, he couldn’t experience it, not on the field anyway. Showalter still shudders at the pitch Sept. 8, 2012 — “Right around this time,” Markakis said — thrown by the Yankees’ CC Sabathia, the one that broke Markakis’s left thumb, the one that cost him the final weeks of that season, the one that left him on the bench for the playoffs.
“That still bothers me — how it happened, why it happened,” Showalter said. “You don’t ever say, but that was as big a kick in the you-know-whats as anything, that whole situation.”
That remains the only season in which Markakis played fewer than 147 games. His public assessment of it — “It sucked, but what can you do?” — fits his profile. He isn’t going to dwell on the negative. He isn’t going to amplify the positive. When he scuffles for a few games and Showalter asks whether he needs a day off, Markakis invariably and sharply says “no,” then rips three hits the next day.
“Nick gets it,” Showalter said, and he punched the “gets” a little bit. This is common parlance in baseball clubhouses. “Getting it” means the manager doesn’t have to worry about you, whether you’re hot or cold, starting or sitting, healthy or hurt. “Getting it” means you’re always prepared, never a distraction, always about the team, never about yourself.
“He gets what this is all about,” Showalter said. “I see how genuinely he takes happiness from the Orioles doing well. That sounds kind of corny, but he’s a pretty sincere guy.”
It is the kind of talk that endears a player to a fan base, and though Markakis has been surpassed in stardom by center fielder Adam Jones and even third baseman Manny Machado and catcher Matt Wieters — both done for the season with injuries — he has earned his place here. His contract has a mutual option for 2015 — worth $17.5 million, with a $2 million buyout — that won’t be picked up. So with the Orioles entering September with an 81 / 2 -game lead on the Yankees, there’s a possibility the first postseason in which Markakis appears for the Orioles will be his last. Predictably, he says he doesn’t think about that possibility. Yet . . .
“I don’t see myself wanting to play for anybody else,” he said. It is, in a roundabout manner, the only way he’ll acknowledge his standing with this team and in this town.
“He’s the face of the franchise,” Flaherty said. “. . . If you asked him, I don’t think he’d look at it that way. Not at all. But for the other 24 guys in the clubhouse, that’s kind of how we look at it.”
The face of this franchise is bearded now, 30 years old, a veteran of countless meaningless Labor Days doing his best to enjoy a vibrant one. Whether there are more to come will be determined in the offseason, an offseason that should follow Nick Markakis’s first October on the Camden Yards turf, lights on, tension high, all those forgettable losses so far behind.