SARASOTA, Fla. — — Nick Markakis' expression and demeanor never changed amid some of the most challenging moments of his young career.
But he acknowledged that the weight of being a first-time husband and father, starting a charitable foundation, making Maryland his family's year-round home and trying to justify the six-year, $66.1 million contract he signed with the Orioles last January took its toll.
So did the Orioles' continued losing and his own on-field struggles that left the normally unflappable outfielder questioning himself at times last season.
"I was trying to be a player that I wasn't," Markakis said. "I was swinging at pitches that I usually don't swing at. I was getting frustrated at times. You do those things and you can only get by so much. In the long run, it's going to catch up to you. This year, I just want to stay within myself and be the player that I am."
That player has hit .298 and averaged 19 homers and 91 RBIs during his first four seasons. In what many considered a down year in 2009, Markakis batted .293 with 18 homers and 101 RBIs, and ended the season wholly unsatisfied.
That feeling led to his changing the way he ate and worked out in the offseason, and reporting to camp in the best shape he's ever been in.
"I haven't seen this from Nick," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "Last year, a lot of things happened very quickly. He was pulled in a lot of different areas and directions, but I think Nick is now settled in. He's a family guy, a father. He's involved in the community. The contract stuff is behind him. He worked his butt off this winter. He's stronger, leaner and he's got a look that is a whole lot more serious. Nick has always been kind of a kid, but Nick is now a man."
When Markakis reported to the Ed Smith Stadium complex about two weeks ago and took batting practice for the first time in nearly five months, he drove pitch after pitch to the roof of the indoor batting cages, well beyond the right-field fence.
In his first spring at-bat during last week's intrasquad scrimmage, Markakis worked the count full against Chris Tillman before launching a double into left-center field, an at-bat that Trembley called "vintage Markakis."
Then, in the Orioles' first Grapefruit League game Wednesday, Markakis stroked three line drives, one right at the left fielder, one off the base of the left-field wall and one off the batter's eye over the center-field fence at Ed Smith Stadium.
"The guys come to me all the time and say: 'Crow, how does Nicky do it? He makes it look too easy. What's his secret?' " Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley said. "The most important secret is, he's a really talented hitter."
Crowley, a mentor and confidant, knows Markakis as well as anybody in the organization and said the 26-year-old appears to be in a great spot physically and mentally.
"He's going about it as hard and as aggressively as any first-time invitee to camp," Crowley said. "These are things that only naturally would lead you to believe he's dedicated to having another fine year.
"He's always been a well-conditioned athlete, but I've seen a little more dedication in riding the [exercise] bicycle when everybody else is leaving. He appears to be stronger. Age-wise, he's still real young, but he sure looks like a strong man right now."
Markakis' numbers dropped in several categories last season. He failed to hit .300 for the first time in three seasons, and he didn't reach the 20-home run plateau for the first time in that span. His .453 slugging percentage was the second worst of his career, and his .347 on-base percentage was a career low. He drew just 56 walks one season after notching 99. But when Markakis is asked what disappointed him most about his 2009 season, his answer is none of the above.
"I don't think I was as physically strong as I had been in the past," said Markakis, who is 6 feet 1 and 200 pounds. "Going into the '09 season, I had just gotten married. My wife was pregnant. We were in the process of moving to Maryland. There was a lot going on. I felt like I didn't prepare myself as well as I needed to."
Markakis, who acknowledged that he occasionally overlooked his eating and sleeping habits during his first three seasons, paid more attention to nutrition this offseason and attacked his workouts with vigor. With his wife, Christina, due to give birth to their second child in June, Markakis thought plenty about balancing his personal life and professional career.
"I had a lot of things going on last year with my family, my new son, Taylor," Markakis said. "I'm not trying to throw it off on them, but I had big priorities in my life and it was tough to balance them. I felt like I did everything I could, but a number of things didn't turn out into what people expected or what I expected. I stepped back and looked at what I needed to improve on and worked hard."
There is some debate in baseball circles about what Markakis will turn out to be, and how much better he can get. Markakis acknowledged that he still has plenty to learn about hitting and the strike zone. His longest-tenured teammate thinks the right fielder has only scratched the surface of his potential.
"I don't think he's peaked at all," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "He's going to hit .320 one year, 25 to 30 homers one year and he's going to drive in 115 to 120 one year. There's no doubt in my mind."
After watching Markakis for a couple of weeks this spring, Trembley said he is convinced that this could be the year.
"Nick Markakis is going to be something to deal with," Trembley said. "I just see a little bit different look in his eye. The way he's going about it, the way he looks physically, it would not surprise me one bit to see him have a breakout season."