Hype and hope

The Baltimore Sun

When the Orioles announced the signing of junior college player Nick Markakis in 2003, one Orioles official snickered to a couple of reporters, saying: "He may not pan out either, but at least he is Greek."

It was a reference to placating the pride and heritage of owner Peter G. Angelos. It also was a self-deprecating remark about the franchise's dismal recent record in the amateur draft.

Back then, the club was waist deep in cynicism. The Orioles franchise was in the middle of what has become its worst stretch in history, and that period has happened, in part, because of the drying up of a once-vaunted farm system.

When they added Markakis, the Orioles were just weeks removed from signing Canadian left-hander Adam Loewen, the club's top pick in 2002, who nearly went unsigned and re-entered the draft that June.

Both looked like baseball players; they each had that confident-bordering-on-cocky glint in their eyes. But they were Orioles top draft picks. We had seen that look before. And we had seen it evaporate as they floundered on their way to the major leagues.

The list of flops was lengthy and undistinguished.

Richard Stahl. Mike Paradis. Darnell McDonald. Rick Elder. Alvie Shepherd. Chris Smith. Sadly, just to name a few.

So Markakis and Loewen were viewed with the critical eye reserved for Orioles over-hyped kids.

In some circles, they are still seen that way. Because a section of the Orioles fan base is now neck deep in cynicism. Because Markakis and Loewen are only 22. Because they are in their first big league seasons and plenty of players have had a good month or a great year never to duplicate that glory again.

But here's the problem. It's hard for Orioles fans to temper their enthusiasm for Markakis and Loewen. Especially after Tuesday night, when Markakis hit three home runs and Loewen allowed four hits, one run and no walks in eight innings against a Minnesota Twins team that was leading the majors in hitting.

Heck, it's even hard for the Orioles players to temper their enthusiasm.

"A guy like Markakis even exceeded my expectations," said Orioles reliever Bruce Chen, who was highly touted when he debuted at the age of 21. "At first I thought he'd be a decent hitter, then I saw him go all the way to .300. Then I thought he could be a .300 hitter with not that much pop. And then after [Tuesday] night, man, he just keeps getting better and he's only 22."

It's understandable if some Orioles fans are giddy about their two rookies. For so long, there has been so much disappointment. For so long, Orioles fans were forced to feign excitement for Larry Bigbie and Matt Riley, Luis Matos and John Stephens, Jerry Hairston and Rocky Coppinger.

They had to watch as kids who were supposed to blossom into legitimate big leaguers turned out to be downright mediocre. At best. Just products of being decent players in a terrible farm system.

Now the fans get to see two guys who were the club's top picks in consecutive years playing at Camden Yards. That hasn't happened since outfielders Mark Smith and Jeffrey Hammonds were drafted in 1991 and '92, respectively.

It gives hope. Hope that more help might be on the way to join homegrown talents Markakis, Loewen, Chris Ray, Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera and Brian Roberts. Hope that this string of nine straight losing seasons could be ending in the near future.

"We are getting better [at developing talent]. Obviously, we drafted some very good pitchers and they are producing," Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said. "We'll get even better once our position players [blossom]."

Still, caution is understood. Markakis has posted the majors' best average since June 28 (.378 through Tuesday), an amazing accomplishment for a rookie. But when scouts talk about Markakis, they think more in terms of Paul O'Neill, B.J. Surhoff or Trot Nixon - solid players who were key components of playoff teams. They don't lump him into the can't-miss-superstar discussion with the New York Mets' David Wright or Cleveland Indians' Grady Sizemore.

And though Loewen has impressed lately, there's still concern that he'll never develop consistent command. One scout who saw him earlier this year said he was a fringe major leaguer, a fifth-starter type. That scout has upgraded Loewen to a No. 3, with room to grow. But he's far from a sure thing.

In other words, there is a possibility that the over-hyped Orioles train will ride again with one or both of these players. It's happened with such regularity here that it wouldn't really be a surprise.

But then you watch the moonshots come off Markakis' beautiful swing and you think, yes, he will have 30-homer power. And you watch professional hitters flail at Loewen's phenomenal curveball and well-placed fastball coming from unfair angles and you think, yes, this guy can get ahead in counts.

Then for an at-bat, an inning or a strangely magical night like Tuesday, you think key pieces of the Orioles' future might actually, finally, be the real deal.


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