Baseball is not a game that comes easily to most players. Every day is a battle to succeed.  You’d never know it to look at Nick Markakis, the sweet-swinging outfielder for the Baltimore Orioles. Nick is so relaxed and confident that sometimes it looks as if he’s playing T-Ball out there. In fact, his teammates jokingly call him “The Natural.” There is more than a kernel of truth in his nickname. O’s fans hope that Nick will be the leading man in the team’s return to glory. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Nicholas William Markakis was born on November 17, 1983, in Glen Cove, New York. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) As a toddler, Nick began to show signs of having a special talent for baseball. His mother, Mary Lou, would take him out into the yard with his older brother, Dennis, and pitch them beach balls. Dennis, who later would play high school and junior college ball, often swung and missed. But two-year-old Nick slugged one offering after another. In the years that followed, two more baseball-playing brothers, Michael and Greg, joined the action. 

As Nick grew older and stronger, baseball became his life. He would sit for hours at the television set watching as much as he could. His father, Dennis, recalls that his son could not get enough of the sprot.

Though they lived on Long Island, the Markakises were devoted fans of Boston Red Sox. Nick’s favorite player was Roger Clemens. He wears jersey #21 to this day as a tribute.

In 1993, the Markakis clan moved to Woodstock, Georgia. One reason for the change of address was to give Nick the opportunity to play more baseball in a warm-weather climate. His parents believed he had a real futre on the diamond.

Nick became best friends Taylor Scott Randahl after the move. The boys both lived in the same neighborhood and did everything together. Their parents thought of them as “Frick and Frack.”

In Georgia, Nick was surrounded by truly talented players. Among his teammates on travel teams were Jeff Francoeur, Kyle Davies and Jeremy Hermida, all future big leaguers. At this point, they were pretty far ahead of him in terms of development. Nick mostly watched from the bench, but that did not deter him.

As a student at Woodstock High School, Nick was shy and scrawny. He stood 5–9 and weighed only 165 pounds. Nick did not hit a home run for the Wolverines until his senior year, but he was the best left-handed pitcher on the team.

While Nick had obvious talent for baseball, his shyness sometimes seemed to hold him back. His dark eyes always tended to gaze downward during conversations, especially when he was asked to speak about himself. Nick never was one to stand out in a crowd or boast about his accomplishments. Nevertheless, by the time he was a junior at Woodstock, big league scouts began flocking to his games.

Nick’s high school years were marked by a tragedy that shook him to the core. In 2000, Randahl, died in a tragic accident. An avid mountain biker, he was killed riding home when a car going in the opposite direction hit a deer, and it flew across the road, striking him and knocking him from his bike. Nick was crestfallen. The two friends had spent part of that fateful day together. Nick mourned Taylor’s death by spending more time with the Randahl family.

On the day of Taylor’s wake, Nick was slated to pitch for Woodstock in the second game of a doubleheader during the first round of the state playoffs. He arrived in the second inning. The Wolverines trailed Walton High School, 3-0. Nick entered the game and didn’t allow a run.

ON THE RISE

In 2001, the Cincinnati Reds drafted Nick, as a pitcher. He declined to sign, chosing instead to attend Young Harris Junior College near his home. He didn’t believe he was ready mentally or physically for pro baseball at that time. The Reds didn’t give up, drafting the budding phenom again in 2002, but Nick remained at Young Harris.

Playing junior college ball was the right move for Nick. He pitched and played the outfield for the Mountain Lions. In two seasons for theam, Nick hit .439 with 21 homers and 92 RBIs. He produced an .843 slugging percentage and a .541 on-base percentage. For good measure, he stole 19 bases in 20 attempts. On the mound, Nick went 12-0, with one save and a 1.68 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .182 against him.

In his MLB draft profile, Nick was described glowingly as a prospect “with tremendous arm strength for pitching and excellent hitting skills.” Among the awards he won during his college career, Nick twice was named Georgia Junior College Player of the Year and Baseball America's 2002 National JUCO Player of the Year in 2002.


 

 

 


Jeff Francoeur, 1995 Baseball America

     
 

In two years, Nick had grown to 6-2 and 185 pounds. His fastball had been clocked at 96 mph. In fact, he was so good on the mound that most pro teams pegged him primarily as a pitching prospect. The Orioles, however, liked his power as an outfielder, a view that several other organizations decried. Baltimore scooped him up with the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft.

Nick started out in the Baltimore farm system playing for the short-season Class-A Aberdeen Iron Birds. His minor-league career wouldn’t last long. Nick hit .283 in 59 games for the Iron Birds, which were owned by Orioles’ legend Cal Ripken, Jr. At one point during the summer, Nick left the team for nearly three weeks to playsuit up for Greece's national team in the European Championships.

Nick moved to the Class-A Delmarva Shorebirds during 2004. He hit .299 with 11 homers and 64 RBIs, despite missing the last month of the season to play for Greece in the Summer Olympics in Athens. Nick still led the Shorebirds in RBIs that season.

A highlight of Nick’s early pro career was his experience with the Greek national baseball team. His family’s ancestry is half-Greek and half-German, and Baltimore owner Peter Angelos ishimself of Greek heritage. Angelos and his son Louis were actually the impetus behind the Greek team, helping to assemble it, fund it and establish a governing organization, the Greek Baseball Federation.  

As the host country for the Olympics, Greece could field entries in every competition, but there was no national baseball team until Angelos stepped in. Players did not need to be Greek citizens, as long as they could identify a Greek ancestor back to a great-grandparent. Playing for Greece meant a greal deal to Nick. Fans treated him and his teammates like rock stars, and all of the club’s games sold out. 

In 2005, Nick started the year with the Class-A Frederick Keys in Maryland. He got a vote of confidence from Baseball America, which rated him the top player in the Baltimore organization. A solid first half of the season landed Nick in the Carolina/California League All-Star game. He was named MVP of the contest after slugging two home runs. For good measure, before the game, Nick also won the Home Run Derby.

Nick was next promoted to the Bowie Baysox. In his first taste of Double-A ball, he hit .365 with 16 RBIs in 19 games. The Baysox won 13 of their 19 games with Nick in the lineup, pushing the team to a season-high six games over .500. Nick’s stellar play gave him a place on the second team of the 2005 Minor League All-Star Roster. he also received the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Award as the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year.  


Cal Ripken, Jr.,
Black Book Partners archives
     
 

Nick’s strong play at Bowie put him right in the thick of Baltimore’s 2006 picture. The Orioles, thinking Nick would need at least one more year in the minors, had signed slugger Sammy Sosa to a one-year contract to play right field. But Nick made the big-league club anyway, putting up a solid numbers on the spring grapefruit circuit. He reached base nine out of his first 10 plate appearances that spring training.

Nick made his big-league debut against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on April 3. He got his first start two days later, batting second and playing left field. Nick drew three walks in his first three plate appearances and then clubbed a 400-foot homer for his first hit. The Orioles won, 16–6.

Ole Miss surprised many in the SEC by starting 6-1. Then Eli and Rebels ran into Arkansas. In one of the most memorable games in college football history, they lost to the Razorbacks 58-56 in seven overtimes. Eli threw for 312 yards and six touchdowns.  

Nick’s best moment of 2006 came on August 22, when he clubbed three homers in a 6-3 victory against the Minnesota Twins. He became the 18th Oriole to homer three times in a game, and the first since Albert Belle in 1999. The announced crowd of 19,756 fans at Camden Yards called Nick out of the dugout for a curtain call after the third homer. He literally had to be shoved onto the field by his teammates. Nick quickly tipped his cap to the crowd and rushed back down the dugout stairs.

Nick finished the season with a .291 average, 16 homers, 62 RBIs and 72 runs. He wound up sixth in the balloting for the American League Rookie of the Year. As for the Orioles, they met with significantly less success, posting a record of 70–92.

By 2007, Nick was ensconced as the team’s everyday right fielder. He finished his sophomore season third in the AL in games (161), sixth in doubles (43), seventh in hits (191), and eighth in RBIs (112). Altogether, Nick ranked in the top 25 in 11 categories. Nick led the Orioles in home runs (23), RBIs, hits and batting average (.300). 

Nick’s prowess as a top defensive right fielder showed as well. He finished fifth in the league with 13 assists and sixth with a .994 fielding percentage. Nick made just two errors in 318 total chances. The Orioles were not nearly as competent. They ended the year with 93 losses.

Nick clearly had emerged as a young star, and the Orioles realized it was time to lock him up to a long-term deal. But the two sides could not agree on a contract extension so his deal was renewed automatically for 2008 at a base salary of $455,000. The clock would was ticking on the Baltimore front office. Nick would become eligible for arbitration after 2008 season and, without an extension, he would be eligible for free agency in 2011. 

Nick started the 2008 season as the #3 hitter in the Baltimore lineup. Later in the year, manager Dave Trembley, seeking to punch up the offense, batted Nick second in front of Melvin Mora. The veteran infielder emerged with a solid campaign, but the move seemed to affect Nick’s power. He hit just 20 round-trippers for the season. 


Sammy Sosa, 2006 Heritage
     
 

Overall, Nick continued to produce quality numbers, setting career highs in batting average (.306), on-base percentage (.406) and slugging percentage (.491). Nick also led the AL with 17 outfield assists and ranked the season in the Top 10 in walks (99), doubles (48), runs (106), hits (182) and extra-base hits (69). Alas, the Orioles finished well south of .500 again, despite starting the season among the leaders in the AL East. A September swoon dropped the O’s all the way into the cellar—the first time in 20 years they had hit rock bottom.

Right after the season, Nick married Christina Dutko of Boca Raton, Florida. Christina was a graduate of Florida Atlantic University with a degree in education and worked as an elementary school teacher. An excellent athlete, she was a member of the Florida Atlantic cross-country and track and field teams, earning All-Atlantic Sun Conference honors for indoor track.

Nick and Christina met before the start of the 2006 season at a Super Bowl Party hosted by Baltimore outfielder Jeff Fiorentino, a mutual friend. Christina also went to high school in Florida with the wife of Nick’s good friend and teammate, Brian Roberts.

The team’s “wedding present” to Nick and Christina was a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension. The move avoided salary arbitration and upped Nick’s 2009 pay to $3.35 million. When the Orioles had renewed Nick’s contract a year, it touched off a mini-controversy in Baltimore and on local sports talk radio. Fans felt the Orioles weren’t willing to take care of their young star. The team had righted that wrong, cementing Nick’s status as the cornerstone of a young outfield with centerfielder Adam Jones for years to come. Additionally, the development of leftfielders Nolan Reimold and Felix Pie gave the Orioles more reason to hope for a good future.

On March 11, a little over a month after signing his contract extension, Nick received another of life’s gifts. Christina gave birth to their first child, Taylor Jason Markakis, who weighed in at just over seven pound. They named the baby in honor of Nick’s childhood friend, Taylor.

On the diamond, the Orioles struggled through their 12th consecutive losing season, but Nick had another solid campaign. In 161 games, he hit .293 with 18 home runs, 45 doubles and 101 RBIs. He tailed off at the end of the year, occasionally losing his focus at the plate. This showed in his on-base percentage, which was 50 points lower than it should have been.

The Baltimore faithful endured more of the same from their club to start the 2010 campaign. The Orioles got off to the worst start in baseball, failing to achieve double digits in wins during the month of April. Nick, meanwhile, experienced his worst first month ever. He simply could not drive in runs. And although Nick had plenty of extra-base hits, he seemed incapable of powering the ball over the fence. His slow start was evident in Baltimore’s poor run production as a team.

Playing in a town famous for lifers like Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken Jr., Nick is aware that the Orioles might like him to spend his entire career in Baltimore. If that means putting up with a few more rebuilding years, that is fine with him—and fine with the fans at Camden Yards. He is signed through 2014 and despite the team’s abysmal track record, the law of averages says they are bound to make a run at a Wild Card spot one of these years. Until then, fans can sit back, relax, and just enjoy watching “The Natural” play the game. And Nick believes that there is someone doing the same somewhere above.


Nick Markakis, 2008 Bowman
     
 

NICK THE PLAYER

Nick is a smooth, patient hitter who thinks his way through at-bats before unleashing his picture-perfect swing. In a good year, he can be expected to slug .500 with a .400 on-base percentage. In a great year? That remains to be seen. With more experience and some protection in the lineup, he could wreak havoc on enemy pitchers, especially playing in a division with several cozy ballparks, including Baltimore’s own Camden Yards.

Ultimately, Nick's numbers will be a reflection of the lineup he’s in. When Miguel Tejada was providing protection, Nick pounded enemy pitchers. After Tejada was traded to Houston, Nick's power numbers dipped, but his walks soared. It would be a shame to see the Orioles leave him naked in the batting order.

At the beginning of Nick’s career, he was a base-stealing threat, but it is likely that those days are coming to an end as he enters his late 20s. As an outfielder, he tracks balls well and has a terrific arm.


Nick Markakis, 2008 Upper Deck X


 

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