It’s not what you think. Nick Markakis himself, the person, the baseball player, never makes me sad. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. I remember following his every spring training at bat in 2006. After hearing about Nick reaching base in 9 of his first 10 plate appearances and hitting the cover off the ball in then Ft. Lauderdale, I knew he was going to be my favorite player. Despite some early struggles in his first year in the big leagues, my appreciation for Nick has never waned. Whether he’s gunning down runners at home plate, working the count for a walk, breaking up a double play with a hard slide, or mashing line drives into the gap, there seems to be almost nothing Nick can’t do.
But when I think of Nick Markakis lately, I’m sad. I’m sad because as good as he is and as much as I love watching him play, he’s never had the chance to be on a winning team. If there is a “culture” of losing, you would have to think Nick could defend a dissertation on the topic at this point. But, whatever your misgivings about the future hope of the Baltimore Orioles, you would be hard pressed to argue that he is responsible for their demise.
Here’s an experiment you can try sometime. The next time you turn on an Orioles game or head out to Camden Yards, pay special attention to Nick. See if you can spot him giving away an at bat. See if you can catch him not running out a ground ball.
Only 26 years old this year, Nick is as professional and consistent as they come. As I’m writing this now, his current career on base percentage of .369 is only 1 point lower than that of Eddie Murray’s mark of .370, which ties him for 16th all-time in the Orioles record book. His current career batting average of .297 is actually 10 points higher than Eddie Murray’s career average of .287, and yet I don’t think many fans think of Nick Markakis as being in the same league as Eddie Murray. Yet, if we wanted to draw conclusions about Nick as a player based solely on statistical benchmarks, the comparisons would be largely flattering to Nick’s body of work.
But, I think there’s more to Nick’s value than that.
Beyond his baseball ability, Nick is one of the few players in recent history to truly invest in the city of Baltimore. Not only has he started a foundation to prosper underserved kids in the area, but he actually makes his home in Maryland. How much more committed to the team and its a parent community could a player be?
Now, look, I know what you’re thinking. Nick is going to make 11 million dollars this year playing a game that he loves. Putting forth his best effort and consistently representing the city well is the least he can do. I get that. Maybe it’s a sad commentary on the status of professional sport when a well-compentsated player is canonized for playing hard and doing his best. But in the city of Baltimore, I’d like to think that kind of day-in and day-out dedication to excellence as Ripkenesque, and his attitude as perhaps one the last throwbacks to the fabled ‘Oriole Way’.
Unlike some sports writers (and probably very much like everyone else on the planet) I found Ripken’s streak a profound affirmation of the humanity that is so often overshadowed in the “it’s a business” culture of modern pro sports. During his consecutive games streak, Cal was not always the best player on the field, but you can be sure that no one was more committed or tried harder. I feel the same is true about Nick today. While I understand there will be those that take issue with his power or production numbers, I’ve never heard anyone argue that he doesn’t hustle, or that he makes too many fundamental mistakes. If anything, he seems to all the little things right, even if he doesn’t hit tape measure home runs or lead the league in RBIs. But isn’t that the Oriole way? To my mind, the difference between Cal and Nick is that when Cal espoused those same principles and used them to undergird a career that inspired people to care about baseball, he was still doing so in an era when the ‘Oriole Way’ wasn’t viewed as a punchline or a casualty of history.
But here’s what really gets me: We, as fans, can turn off the game or stop paying attention. We can ignore the Os alltogether or try to insist, as I’ve heard people do, that no one cares about the Orioles, and no one should. But you know Nick Markakis won’t. Not for a second. Like Ripken before him in 1988, he will show up and try his best even as the season spins out of control. And as a result, he’ll have the unfortunate fate of being a footnote in the most futile Orioles season in recent memory, mentioned only when someone wants to point out how little his efforts availed his team.
How sad is that?
A few years ago, my sister gave me an illustrated book written by Cal Ripken Jr. about the infamous 1988 season in which the Orioles set a record for consecutive losses to begin a season. On the final page of the book, Cal reflects back on that year in a surprising way:
Winning is easy on a person, but you learn more from losing. You learn to keep trying, each day a little harder than the day before. You learn how to be a better teammate and how much you need one another to play well as a team. You even learn how to win.
I can only hope that Nick feels the same way.