Quiet Man,

Loud Bat

As his career blossoms, Nick Markakis remains modest in lifestyle and loyal to a late friend

Baseball 2007

April 01, 2007|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN REPORTER

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- You know his swing, so short, sweet and powerful that it prompted one baseball lifer to say that Nick Markakis could become one of the Orioles' best hitters ever.

But everything else about Markakis is hidden. He gives few clues to teammates, reporters and fans, who imagine the 23-year-old outfielder as the organization's cornerstone for the next decade.

Out of uniform, he is almost always in sneakers, jeans and a T-shirt, most advertising baseball equipment companies. He has bought a new truck since entering professional baseball, but he prefers driving his old one, a red 1994 Ford Ranger with 170,000 miles and a busted air conditioner.

If eyes tell the story, Markakis' are often obscured, either by dark sunglasses or a baseball cap that he pulls tightly on his closely shaven head. The same dark eyes that stare down pitchers 60 feet, 6 inches away droop to the floor the second he is asked to talk about himself or his talents.

"Throughout his life, he's always done all his talking on the field," said Markakis' father, Dennis.

His teammates jokingly call Markakis, "The Natural," marveling at his patient approach at the plate and the ease in which he goes about everything.

"It honestly looks like he is out there playing a T-ball game," new Oriole Aubrey Huff said.

It wasn't always so easy. As a scrawny teenager, Markakis was essentially a benchwarmer on a traveling team that featured several future major leaguers. When he was 16, he pitched in a high school playoff game on the day of his best friend's wake.

He contemplated giving up baseball his first year as an Orioles minor leaguer. Even last year, when his emergence energized a frustrated fan base, there were times when Markakis wondered whether he even belonged.

"I remember at one point last year when I was struggling real bad, I am a couple of lockers down from Ramon [Hernandez] and I looked at him and said, `Man, I can't believe I am still up here,'" said Markakis, who went into June hitting .209 with two home runs and 13 RBIs before finishing the season at .291 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs.

"He kind of yelled at me. He said, `What are you talking about?' They were behind me 100 percent. That's when it really clicked."

Markakis had dealt with far more serious matters than a batting slump, anyway.

Honoring a friend

The call came after midnight as Markakis was lying in bed. He immediately recognized the trembling voice of one of his friends.

"Something happened to Taylor," Markakis was told.

The 16-year-old jumped out of bed and rushed to his truck. He arrived at the house of Taylor Randahl, one of his best friends from their Georgia neighborhood, and was met at the door by Taylor's father, Doug.

"I just remember him answering the door all hysterical," Markakis said. " He couldn't even talk to me. One of his friends was over there and he told me what happened. I just kind of lost it, too."

Taylor Scott Randahl died April 14, 2000. An avid mountain biker, Randahl was riding home when a car going in the opposite direction hit a deer. The deer went across the road and knocked the 16-year-old off his bike. Markakis said Randahl died about two hours after the accident.

"I never did get to see him again," said Markakis, his quiet voice filled with regret. "I was with him earlier that day, but he was cremated."

He and Randahl first met in 1993, when they were elementary-school age. That year, Markakis' family moved from Long Island, N.Y., to Woodstock, Ga. A few weeks after their arrival, the Randahls moved to the neighborhood. Doug Randahl remembers their moving van pulling up to their new home and seeing Markakis waiting outside.

"They were best friends since about the day they met," Doug Randahl said. "They were Frick and Frack. They were out running in the neighborhood, making forts in the woods. They did what boys do."

Markakis mourned Taylor's death by spending more time with the Randahl family.

"I was in and out of my son's room, but I remember [Nick] being in there for hours on end [after (Taylor) died]," Randahl said. "We were the only two people there. We shared some moments together. Nick was torn apart when my son died."

Markakis says he thinks about his friend all the time. He talks regularly with the family and calls Doug and Kelli Randahl his "second parents" and their 21-year-old daughter, Lindsay, his "little sister."

Last July, the Randahls rented a 15-passenger van, stuffed it to capacity and drove from northern Indiana to Chicago to watch the Orioles and their star rookie play the White Sox. Markakis greeted Taylor's parents and almost immediately rolled up his right uniform sleeve. There, tattooed on his arm was a cross over the name, Taylor Scott Randahl.

"We were floored by it," said Doug Randahl, who has made plans to attend Orioles games in four or five cities this season. "We don't ask anything from Nick other than a little love, and we try to give it back in spades. He was always around. He was always our boy."

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