O's make right calls with Markakis

The Baltimore Sun

The wait is over. The Orioles got it right with Nick Markakis.

Yet before offering a "Hallelujah" and ending an 11-season novena that has endured presumably since the last time this club didn't embarrass you, know this:

The Orioles have almost always done things right with Markakis, their right fielder who signed a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension at a news conference yesterday.

Sure, there were some rough patches during the past year of negotiations, but club president Andy MacPhail clinched the deal and deserves credit for accomplishing his No. 1 offseason priority.

Markakis praised his boss yesterday, saying, "Since [MacPhail's] been here, I don't think I can complain about one move or one decision he's made."

Yet the credit for making Markakis the new face of the organization must be spread out to many people over the better part of six years, well before MacPhail stepped into the Warehouse and provided some hope to a downtrodden fan base.

Whether it's bad luck, bad management or both, the past decade-plus has been riddled with questionable moves. The club has drafted, traded for or signed enough wince-inspiring names to fill the phone book for a medium-sized city.

I'll see your Chris Smith, Marty Cordova and Omar Daal and raise you a Wade Townsend, a Sammy Sosa and a Danys Baez.

Markakis very well could have been another discarded chip in that disastrous poker game. But the Orioles made the right call every step of the way.

He was considered by some to be a reach as the seventh overall pick in the 2003 draft. There were murmurs that the Orioles picked him solely because of the Greek heritage he shared with owner Peter Angelos (not true). Or because they had just given a record $3.2 million bonus to 2002 first-rounder Adam Loewen and didn't want another protracted negotiation that would end in a bank buster (partially true).

Markakis, who immediately signed for a below-slot $1.85 million bonus, likely would have dropped to the middle of the first round if not for the Orioles. Former scouting director Tony DeMacio, however, was enamored of him. Unlike most other teams, DeMacio preferred Markakis as a smooth-swinging outfielder rather than a left-handed pitcher.

Backed by the two-headed general manager of Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan, DeMacio went with his gut, and Markakis became a hitter, despite his own doubts while in the minors. In 2004, he played on the Greek Olympic team and flashed a 96 mph fastball - but the Orioles stuck with their plan.

By 2005, Markakis emerged as the organization's best prospect with breakout minor league stints at Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. By all accounts, he was targeted to start 2006 at Triple-A.

But in a decision that split the front office, Flanagan and his new partner, Jim Duquette, rewarded Markakis with a big league roster spot.

An aggressive move. Another potentially disastrous decision. Markakis looked overmatched, batting just .223 through the Orioles' first 49 games. The whispers grew that he had been rushed and that the club was endangering his development.

But he stayed and responded with three tremendous months that proved he belonged in the majors. Two years later, at age 25, he is the second-richest player in Orioles history. He is locked up through 2014 and is among the best right fielders in baseball.

He is by far the club's biggest success story this decade. And he acknowledged that part of the reason he signed an extension is loyalty toward the organization that kept pushing the right buttons in his career.

"That was a big part," he said. "Being loyal is definitely a big deal for me."

It's refreshing to see that the Orioles - through three regimes - can balance risk with convention and develop a player fans feel good about.

For now, and for the foreseeable future.

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