Nick Markakis is hanging up his spikes after a 15-year MLB career. The former Orioles outfielder told The Athletic on Friday that he is retiring from baseball. He said that he knew since after the 2020 postseason that he was leaning toward retirement and that he hadn’t seriously pursued any opportunities this offseason. Of his next step, Markakis said, “I’m gonna be a stay-at-home dad.”
The Orioles selected Markakis with the #7 pick in the 2003 draft, plucking him from the junior college ranks in Georgia. This was an uncommon decision back then and it hasn’t been any less rare since Markakis was drafted. There have been only two top 10 picks from a junior college since then. It just doesn’t happen very often.
When a team is fortunate enough to find the right player, it doesn’t matter where they found him. Markakis, only 19 when he was drafted, turned himself into a quality prospect and pushed his way to make his MLB debut on Opening Day 2006. Looking back on it now, it’s remarkable they made this choice, given that Markakis had played only 33 games at Double-A Bowie; the Orioles had him skip Triple-A entirely.
I have a strong memory of the day that he debuted. It was the first Opening Day I ever attended. Not that Markakis was a huge part of the game. He only entered as a defensive replacement for the top of the ninth inning. A small number of people, including me, stood up and clapped. To the rest of the crowd he was just another guy. They clearly had not been reading in the paper about his minor league performance.
Markakis was immediately one of the best players on the team, outhitting veteran players like Javy Lopez, Jeff Conine, Melvin Mora, and even Brian Roberts. He followed up a rookie year batting line of .291/.351/.448 by hitting even better in 2007, adding home run and doubles power on the way to a .300/.362/.485 line.
There was no sophomore slump for Markakis, nor a “junior” slump either: In 2008, he hit .306/.406/.491. No Orioles batter has topped either that batting average or on-base percentage in a full season since Markakis played here. And he was only 24 years old after hitting like this, so you could imagine there might be even better performance coming.
The Orioles must have done so, since they locked up Markakis to a six year, $66 million contract extension following that 2008 season. This was one of many sources of false hope during the 1998-2011 dark years that things would soon be better.
Markakis instantly became one of the central parts of the team’s marketing, despite not seeming to have any personality beyond saying “you know” a lot in interviews. You might still have a “2110 Eutaw Street” shirt, printed in honor of Markakis’s and Adam Jones’s uniform numbers, buried in your closet somewhere. Maybe you have the all-outfield bobblehead set including Markakis, Jones, and Nolan Reimold.
Things got a bit more complicated for Markakis after signing that contract. If you were hoping for a continued ascent through his mid-20s to a late-20s peak, you did not get it. He never again hit 20 or more homers in a season for the Orioles. After 2011, the doubles dropped off, and although he managed to win Gold Gloves in 2011 and 2014, his strong arm declined to his pedestrian and his range eroded.
By the 2012 season, when the Orioles actually were good again, there were a dozen players with more WAR on Baseball Reference than Markakis. Not all of that is his fault. His season was cut short with three weeks to go thanks to Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia hitting his wrist with a pitch and breaking Markakis’s hamate bone. Markakis being absent from that year’s ALDS against the Yankees, where the O’s nearly pulled off the upset, remains one of the low-level irritations of my Orioles fan life, proof against the existence of baseball gods who reward the just and punish the wicked.
Was it a slow recovery after the hamate surgery that sunk Markakis to a .271/.329/.356 batting line in the 2013 season? Maybe. That’s disappointing performance for a guy hitting the $15 million/year parts of his contract. Although Markakis rebounded a bit in 2014, that rebound still involved his slugging percentage being below .400. You could talk yourself into moving on being the right thing, and indeed, the Orioles did this.
Perhaps the true mark of a player’s quality can be found when there is chaos left in his absence. Then-GM Dan Duquette decided he could replace Markakis for cheaper, a defensible decision on its own until you look at the ripple effects of the series of idiotic moves that followed Markakis’ departure, things that plague the franchise to this day.
The Orioles traded for Travis Snider to fill in at right field, giving up pitching prospects Steven Brault and Stephen Tarpley. Snider was a bust, failing to even make it through one season with the Orioles. This necessitated another move, which turned out to be trading pitching prospect Zach Davies for Gerardo Parra.
On the surface, with Parra batting .328/.369/.517 at the time of the trade, you could say that looked pretty good. Except that immediately below the surface for anyone who cared to look - and anybody running a baseball team’s roster certainly should have - was the glaringly obvious fact that Parra had never been anywhere close to that good in his career and was being fueled by obscenely good batted ball luck. That luck immediately reversed in Baltimore and he was another bust.
With Brault and Davies out of the rotation picture in those ill-advised trades, Duquette then had to chase free agent pitching, settling eventually on the dunderheaded decision to give up the #13 pick in the 2016 draft to sign Yovani Gallardo even after Gallardo was whacked by the Orioles physical. Imagine if they had just kept Markakis instead. No, wait, don’t. Down that path lies only pain.
In the years since Markakis left the Orioles, I’ve been rooting for him as a dark horse candidate to find his way into the 3,000 hit club. Some time missed in 2019 plus the pandemic-shortened 2020 really ground even that longshot chance into dust. He might have finished the 2020 season near or above 2,600 hits without those things.
Instead, Markakis retires at 2,388 hits. That’s still pretty good. Only 126 men who have ever played have gotten more. On the all-time doubles list, only 53 guys sit above Markakis. It was an impressive career. Every one of the six teams that picked ahead of the Orioles in that 2003 draft would have rather taken Markakis instead, and among that year’s first round picks, the only player who came anywhere close to his career bWAR of 34.0 is his longtime Orioles teammate, Adam Jones, who headed to Japan with 32.5 bWAR.
Over nine years with the Orioles, there were a lot of great Markakis moments. The one I will remember the most was one of the last ones he had in an Orioles uniform. You might remember it too, from after the “Clinchmas” game in 2014, when the O’s sealed their first division title since 1997. At one point during the celebration, after the stadium PA announced the Orioles as the division champions, the typically taciturn Markakis looked up and smiled. He made it. I was just as happy for him when he was finally an All-Star in the 2018 season.
In our 2020 edition of the Greatest Orioles of All Time, Markakis placed at #17. Guys as good as him don’t come along every year, and the few who do show up aren’t guaranteed to be around here for nine seasons.
Now if you’ll excuse me, with the announcement that a player whose debut I remember keenly, who was born in the same month and year as me, has retired, I’ve got to go feel some feelings.