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Quiet Man,

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- You know his swing, so short, sweet and powerful that it prompted one baseball lifer to say that Nick Markakis could become one of the Orioles' best hitters ever.

But everything else about Markakis is hidden. He gives few clues to teammates, reporters and fans, who imagine the 23-year-old outfielder as the organization's cornerstone for the next decade.

Out of uniform, he is almost always in sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt, most advertising baseball equipment companies. He has bought a new truck since entering professional baseball, but he prefers driving his old one, a red 1994 Ford Ranger with 170,000 miles and a busted air conditioner.

If eyes tell the story, Markakis' are often obscured, either by dark sunglasses or a baseball cap that he pulls tightly on his closely shaven head. The same dark eyes that stare down pitchers 60 feet, 6 inches away droop to the floor the second he is asked to talk about himself or his talents.

"Throughout his life, he's always done all his talking on the field," said Markakis' father, Dennis.

His teammates jokingly call Markakis, "The Natural," marveling at his patient approach at the plate and the ease in which he goes about everything.

"It honestly looks like he is out there playing a T-ball game," new Oriole Aubrey Huff said.

It wasn't always so easy. As a scrawny teenager, Markakis was essentially a benchwarmer on a traveling team that featured several future major leaguers. When he was 16, he pitched in a high school playoff game on the day of his best friend's wake.

He contemplated giving up baseball his first year as an Orioles minor leaguer. Even last year, when his emergence energized a frustrated fan base, there were times when Markakis wondered whether he even belonged.

"I remember at one point last year when I was struggling real bad, I am a couple of lockers down from Ramon [Hernandez] and I looked at him and said, 'Man, I can't believe I am still up here,'" said Markakis, who went into June hitting .209 with two home runs and 13 RBIs before finishing the season at .291 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs.

"He kind of yelled at me. He said, 'What are you talking about?' They were behind me 100 percent. That's when it really clicked."

Markakis had dealt with far more serious matters than a batting slump, anyway.

Honoring a friend

The call came after midnight as Markakis was lying in bed. He immediately recognized the trembling voice of one of his friends.

"Something happened to Taylor," Markakis was told.

The 16-year-old jumped out of bed and rushed to his truck. He arrived at the house of Taylor Randahl, one of his best friends from their Georgia neighborhood, and was met at the door by Taylor's father, Doug.

"I just remember him answering the door all hysterical," Markakis said. " He couldn't even talk to me. One of his friends was over there and he told me what happened. I just kind of lost it, too."

Taylor Scott Randahl died April 14, 2000. An avid mountain biker, Randahl was riding home when a car going in the opposite direction hit a deer. The deer went across the road and knocked the 16-year-old off his bike. Markakis said Randahl died about two hours after the accident.

"I never did get to see him again," said Markakis, his quiet voice filled with regret. "I was with him earlier that day, but he was cremated."

He and Randahl first met in 1993, when they were elementary-school age. That year, Markakis' family moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Woodstock, Ga. A few weeks after their arrival, the Randahls moved to the neighborhood. Doug Randahl remembers their moving van pulling up to their new home and seeing Markakis waiting outside.

"They were best friends since about the day they met," Doug Randahl said. "They were Frick and Frack. They were out running in the neighborhood, making forts in the woods. They did what boys do."

Markakis mourned Taylor's death by spending more time with the Randahl family.

"I was in and out of my son's room, but I remember [Nick] being in there for hours on end [after (Taylor) died]," Randahl said. "We were the only two people there. We shared some moments together. Nick was torn apart when my son died."

Markakis says he thinks about his friend all the time. He talks regularly with the family and calls Doug and Kelli Randahl his "second parents" and their 21-year-old daughter, Lindsay, his "little sister."

Last July, the Randahls rented a 15-passenger van, stuffed it to capacity and drove from northern Indiana to Chicago to watch the Orioles and their star rookie play the White Sox. Markakis greeted Taylor's parents and almost immediately rolled up his right uniform sleeve. There, tattooed on his arm was a cross over the name, Taylor Scott Randahl.

"We were floored by it," said Doug Randahl, who has made plans to attend Orioles games in four or five cities this season. "We don't ask anything from Nick other than a little love, and we try to give it back in spades. He was always around. He was always our boy."

On the day of his best friend's wake, Markakis was scheduled to pitch for Woodstock High in the second game of a doubleheader in the first round of the state playoffs. After attending the wake, he arrived in the second inning with his team down 3-0 to state power Walton High. Markakis entered the game and didn't allow a run. Woodstock lost, but the tribute was complete.

"That is when I knew he had it," Dennis Markakis said. "To have something like that happen and to be able to put that out of his mind, I knew there was something there."

Believe it

A few years earlier, it was hard for his son to reach the same conclusion while seated on the bench. Instead of showcasing his talent on the East Cobb Astros' 13-to-16-year-old traveling team, Markakis watched teammates and future major leaguers Jeff Francoeur and Kyle Davies (both Atlanta Braves), and Jeremy Hermida (Florida Marlins) from the pine.

"I was the one sitting the bench," Markakis said. "I never played. They gave me the option to go down to another team, so I could actually play. But I wanted to stick up there. Just being around those guys motivated me a lot.

"In 2001 and 2002, my buddies that I had been playing with all my life were getting drafted in the first round, second round, third round. They were actually doing something. It kind of made me wake up. I worked hard and busted my butt. I wanted to feel like them. I was just like any kid. I wanted to play in the big leagues."

Dennis Markakis said his son had the talent, but "his body just wasn't there."

Markakis, who is now 6 feet 2, 195 pounds, was only 5-9, 165 as a senior and didn't hit a home run until his last year in high school.

He went to Young Harris College, a two-year school in Georgia, "not knowing if I was good enough to play college baseball."

By 2003, the power-hitting outfielder and hard-throwing pitcher was regarded as one of the top prospects in the country. The Orioles drafted Markakis with the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft. Though he was a left-hander who could throw more than 90 mph, the Orioles selected him as an outfielder. The decision was criticized by several organizations. Some joked that the Orioles only drafted Markakis because like the club's owner, Peter Angelos, he is of Greek descent. Not long after he was signed, the Orioles knew they had made the right decision. It was Markakis who wasn't so sure.

"My first year of pro ball, I never really said it, but I didn't know if that is what I wanted to do," said Markakis, who started his career at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. "I didn't know anybody and the minor leagues is a tough lifestyle. You kind of have to start over from scratch. There were times that I thought to myself, 'Is this what I want to do?'"

Those close to Markakis told him to stick it out. He has always been shy and taken longer than other kids to adapt to his surroundings. But on the field, he always looked so at ease.

Markakis went to spring training last year hoping to open some eyes. His dynamic play wound up dominating the conversation.

"There was probably more discussions and battles over him [last spring] than any player I've been involved with," said executive vice president Mike Flanagan. "Is it too fast, too soon, too much? Are we risking his development? Every possible question came up. But to me, good players are ready fast."

It would take awhile for the Orioles to find out how good Markakis was. Club vice president Jim Duquette acknowledged that the club privately set a deadline on its prized rookie. If he was still struggling by the All-Star break, he'd be sent to the minors. By July 1, Markakis' average was up to .271. He hit .403 in July and .354 in August, when Markakis also set a club rookie record with 10 home runs in a calendar month.

Breaking through

On Aug. 22, Markakis hit three home runs against the Minnesota Twins, earning a curtain call from the Camden Yards crowd. Markakis was practically shoved out of the dugout by hitting coach Terry Crowley, who said he was one of the people who wondered whether the organization was putting too much on Markakis too soon.

"The first two months were a bit of a struggle, but he never once complained with a 'why me' attitude. Early on, even though he was very, very young in age, I knew I had a man on [our] hands," Crowley said.

"He'll get better with experience. We don't want to rush to look for the greatness. I really feel like he's going to be a great player. I really do. And I say that with a lot of respect to players that have gone in the past and been great. It's not a statement that I just throw out there, but he has a chance down the road to be one of the best hitters in Oriole history."

On a Sunday late last season, the Orioles' right fielder took his family out for breakfast at a Fells Point establishment that he and his closest friend on the team, pitcher Adam Loewen, frequent. It wasn't long before the place's owner came out to greet the Markakis family. When they were done, the Orioles' newest celebrity, wearing his standard attire - T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and a hat - led a procession out the door.

"This little kid, probably like 7 or 8 years old, pointed at him," recalled Dennis Markakis. "The kid said, 'Hey Dad, that's Nick Markakis.' I don't think Nick heard it, but it was pretty special for me to hear."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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