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Nick Markakis’ Simple Legacy with the O’s

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The news that Nick Markakis is retiring from baseball was about as understated and nonchalant as his remarkable career. The 37-year-old announced he’d be calling it quits after 15 seasons in the big leagues, finishing with a .288/.357/.423 line, with 2,388 base hits. It was always a long shot, but last season’s pandemic-shortened season probably tanked his effort at the elusive 3,000-hit mark. Markakis spent his first nine seasons in Baltimore, playing for the team that drafted him seventh overall in 2003. He left after the memorable 2014 campaign in which the O’s won the American League East to go play six more seasons for his hometown Atlanta Braves.

Part of what made Markakis so important to the Orioles (and for that matter the Braves) was his steadiness. He only played all 162 games in a season once (2018 in Atlanta), but was such a presence in the everyday lineup that he probably was taken for granted during most of his stay in Baltimore. For a city that has a legacy of celebrating those who go to work every day, Markakis probably doesn’t get recognized as much as he should for doing just that.

He won two Gold Glove Awards in Baltimore followed by a third in Atlanta, but the advanced defensive metrics never shone a great light on Markakis’ abilities. He never stood out as one of the top defenders in the game, but always seemed to play such an even-keeled right field, especially in Baltimore. Part of his charm in the Charm City was how he mastered the large out of town scoreboard and was able to play the ball coming off that large 21-foot wall. There were a number of times where an opponent would slap a ball off the wall and come out of the box thinking double, but Markakis was there to either make them re-think or throw them out trying to stretch into second. He also had to have great awareness of balls that ducked into that deep corner in foul ground where the groundskeeper’s shed opens up. Markakis was never speedy, but was able to cover ground and make that space in right field his own. He linked up wonderfully for so many years with his friend Adam Jones to provide cover in an outfield that entertained those in the bleachers. “2110 Eutaw Street” might have just been a marketing ploy by the club, but it also put a stamp on two-thirds of an outfield that really meant something in Baltimore for a number of seasons.

Not only did Markakis show up and play right field with such class and consistency, he did it with the bat as well. His steadiness with that left-handed swing was what made him such a stalwart at the top of the batting order. Markakis spent most of his career hitting in the third spot in the order, but also spent a significant amount of time hitting cleanup, or even in the second and leadoff spots. His .358 on-base percentage as a leadoff hitter is part of the reason Buck Showalter would play him there, to set the table for others.

Some of those “others” include Jones and catcher Matt Wieters. While Jones wasn’t drafted by the Orioles, those three players were the core of something special the Birds had come up with in the early 2010s that led them back to the postseason. Markakis was part of the proof that the Orioles actually COULD draft and develop a player and have him turn out to be a very good, productive piece of a winning club.

The most heartbreaking moment for Markakis in his tenure with the Orioles was certainly when he took a CC Sabathia pitch off the hand, breaking his thumb in early September of 2012. He’d miss the Orioles’ postseason run that season, which ended their long drought. He wouldn’t get to experience playing in the AL Wild Card Game in Texas or in the Division Series against those same Yankees where he’d seen his season cut short.

But it made 2014 just that much sweeter.

When the Orioles clinched the AL East title on September 16, 2014 by beating the Blue Jays 8-2, “Clinchmas” was born and fans rejoiced. It was made memorable by Steve Pearce hitting a homer, Jones doing a lap around the warning track a la Cal Ripken Jr. and pieing fans, and Ubaldo Jimenez turning in a quality performance on the mound. But the most memorable image from that game for me will always be Markakis. For a guy who never showed much emotion and was the perfect example of a “boring” if not steady ballplayer, Markakis’ smile made the wait worth it. He hadn’t been able to share in the revelry of the moment two years earlier when the Birds were a wild card team and took part in the postseason. But that moment where he looked up at the scoreboard after the final out and realized the Orioles had accomplished something they hadn’t done since 1997 was “magic” personified. You could almost see the relief, joy, and accomplishment all wash over him in one small snippet of video. It’s what baseball players like him work so hard to do each day.

Five years from now Markakis will surely show up on ballots for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and not long after that, his name will surely slip off said ballot. He is extremely unlikely to have a true case at immortality in Cooperstown. He’ll certainly be honored by the Orioles at some point and have a plaque in the team’s Hall of Fame, and it will be a fun day to look back when it happens. He’s cemented himself as a top-25 Oriole in my book, and I’d even go as far to say he could creep into the top 20 or 15 in some circles. He was that important to bringing glory back the city’s baseball legacy in what was a dark timeline. The Orioles are still looking to fully replace him now, more than half a decade after he left. They are looking for more players with his work ethic and attitude toward the game as they try to turn the direction of the franchise back around. My big hope for Markakis and his legacy in Baltimore is that he isn’t overlooked because he wasn’t the outspoken leader like Jones or the steady, stoic leader like Wieters. He was just a presence that didn’t need to take either approach to make his impact.

Markakis’ former skipper Showalter summed it up brilliantly to The Athletic this week, saying Nick’s “substance was his style” while adding that he was someone who had a universal respect and could count on.

Substance was what Nick Markakis was all about. Respect and admiration is what he deserves in return.

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