Warming up

The Baltimore Sun

Their lockers were very close, but Brian Roberts and Nick Markakis barely spoke during the Orioles' 2006 season. There was no animosity, no lingering jealousy between one of the team's biggest stars and its hot-shot rookie.

Roberts and Markakis were perfectly compatible as teammates. They just decided very early they weren't going to be good friends.

"I just didn't feel myself hanging out with him or talking to him," Markakis said. "I didn't dislike him. I just didn't see him as a guy I'd hang out with."

Now, Roberts and Markakis are entering their fourth season as teammates, and they share not only a close friendship but also a common goal. They both signed multiyear extensions with the Orioles this offseason, believing the organization was headed in the right direction and they wanted to be part of it. And they needed to make sure they were in it together.

"If you asked me three years ago if I was going to be wondering what Nick's situation was going to be before I decided to stay here or not, I'd have told you, 'No chance,' " Roberts said. "But when you know that your closest friend on the team is going to be here for the same amount of time as you are, that really helps. You're playing a game, but this is our life for 7 1/2 months; this is our family. If you don't have people that you really enjoy being around on a daily basis, you're not going to want to be in that place."

Markakis, a 25-year-old outfielder who is one of the majors' most well-rounded young players, signed a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension in late January. A month later, Roberts, 31, a two-time All-Star second baseman and one of the game's top leadoff men, agreed to a four-year, $40 million extension.

With the two moves, Orioles president Andy MacPhail accomplished two of his offseason priorities, and an organization that had failed in the past to retain a couple of its stars secured its two best and most popular players for years to come.

"On a variety of fronts, I think it sent an important message," MacPhail said. "It's a plus when you sign and develop players that are that kind of quality. It tells your players that are coming through the system that if you do well, the opportunity is available for them, too. Oftentimes, the best money you spend is on players that you already have, guys that are young and have a chance to get better and help you on offense and defense."

The Orioles will start the 2009 season against the New York Yankees on Monday at Camden Yards in a familiar situation, facing a host of question marks and extremely low expectations. Their lineup should be improved with the addition of Ty Wigginton and the continued emergence of center fielder Adam Jones. Gold Glove shortstop Cesar Izturis has upgraded the defense, and the bullpen will be a strength if its core stays healthy.

However, uncertainty reigns in the Orioles' starting rotation, which will seemingly remain the team's weakest link at least until heralded prospects Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman get summoned to the big leagues. Three of the five rotation spots went undecided until the past couple of days. Though Roberts and Markakis stressed the unpredictability that seems to define every baseball season, they also noted that they didn't sign extensions thinking things were going to get better immediately.

"Nick and I both were thinking two, three and five years down the line when we set out in the negotiations," Roberts said. "Our organization has an identity again for the first time in a long time. I think your identity comes when you start building from within."

Roberts and Markakis spoke about once a week this offseason, updating each other on their contract negotiations and talking about their personal lives. Both were married this offseason, and their wives were once classmates at St. Thomas Aquinas High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Markakis and his wife, Christina, also welcomed the birth of their first child.

The players' relationship started to build during the 2007 season, when Markakis moved in with teammate Adam Loewen, who lived next door to Roberts in Canton. Away from the ballpark, Roberts and Markakis quickly realized they had plenty in common. They were both quiet guys who normally spoke only when spoken to. They loved playing golf and pingpong, and eventually found plenty to talk about.

"I'm not the type to stay out too late, but he'd ring my doorbell at 2 in the morning," Roberts said. "I guess, in some way, he kept me young. I wasn't the guy that was going to go out with him at night, but I could count on him to wake me up when he got home. He's got a really good personality that a lot of people don't get to see."

Roberts and Markakis would stage epic pingpong battles in the latter's garage. They started when the two returned home from Camden Yards and often didn't end until the wee hours of the morning. They talked plenty of trash, and the conversation also occasionally shifted to baseball. Markakis would ask Roberts about everything from base stealing to dealing with the fame and pressure of being a professional athlete.

"Once you get to know him, he's a completely different person," Markakis said of Roberts. "He's a guy you look up to and respect. He plays the game well, handles himself on and off the field better than anybody out there. You can learn a lot from him."

After signing his long-term extension, Markakis pledged to start his own foundation, similar to what Roberts has done in Baltimore for the benefit of the University of Maryland Hospital for Children. Though Markakis is still finalizing plans for the foundation, he said he and Roberts have discussed doing some charitable work together.

"I was talking to [Derek] Jeter during the [World Baseball Classic], and he was saying how great it has been to play so long with Mariano [Rivera], [Jorge] Posada and those other guys," Roberts said. "You have lifelong friendships built from playing baseball together. There aren't a lot of guys who get to do that because there's so much turnover. I think what Nick and I have developed already, and will continue to develop over the next five years, is a friendship that will last forever."

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