Comparatively speaking, Nick Markakis' road to Major League stardom was a quick one.
While many players languish in obscurity for the better part of a decade before even getting a whiff of "The Show," Markakis played only three Minor League seasons before cracking the Orioles' 2006 Opening Day roster. He accomplished the feat at the age of 22, despite having logged only 33 games above Class A.
That's not to say the Minors weren't a challenge for the former first-round Draft pick, who began his career in 2003 as a member of the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds (a Ripken Baseball-owned franchise in the New York-Penn League).
"As soon as I got [to Aberdeen], I wanted to go home," recalled Markakis, who attended Young Harris Junior College in Georgia before signing with Baltimore. "I had only played two years in college and here I was thrown into pro ball with a bunch of people I'd never met. I was homesick and missed my friends and didn't even know where I would live or who I'd be staying with."
Compounding the uncertainty and frustration was the fact that Markakis was drafted as a hitter. The Woodstock, Ga., native had excelled on the mound during his high school and college career, to the extent that he was selected as a pitcher by the Cincinnati Reds in both 2001 and 2002 (in the 35th and 23rd rounds, respectively).
"I definitely thought I'd be pitching; getting drafted as an outfielder was the last thing on my mind," he said. "I missed being on the mound, but I haven't looked back since."
Markakis made his pro debut on June 17, going 0-for-3 against the Brooklyn Cyclones at Ripken Stadium.
"It was a big jump from junior college to short-season A-ball, and I was a little intimidated to be playing with guys from huge Division I schools," he admitted. "And when I went into pro ball, I still had that college swing, but it's a whole different ballgame when you've got to use a piece of wood. There's only so much of a sweet spot. ... But once I got out there and realized I was still playing the same game, I started to feel at home and things got a lot easier."
The numbers bear that out. After a slow start, Markakis started to produce, hitting .333 in July 2003 and finishing the season with a .283 average and 13 stolen bases in 59 games. His power had yet to develop, however, as he managed just one home run over 205 at-bats.
Despite relatively lackluster numbers, Markakis certainly made an impression on then-Aberdeen manager Joe Almaraz.
"At that point, he was mainly a gap-to-gap hitter. He hit a lot of line drives and sprayed the ball all over the field," recalled Almaraz, who works as a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals. "Size-wise, you could tell that he still had some growing to do, but I always thought he was going to be able to hit homers. ... I still remember the one home run he did hit that year. It was in Staten Island and it got out of the ballpark real quick."
Markakis, who played both right and center field that season, also impressed Almaraz with his defensive prowess.
"Aberdeen has a huge outfield, but he had natural instincts and was able to make running catches toward the right-field scoreboard that I never thought he'd be able to," Almaraz said. "He really made a believer out of me."
With the trials and tribulations of his first Minor League campaign out of the way, Markakis was ready to hit the ground running with Class A Delmarva in 2004.
"That year was awesome because I was playing with so many guys I knew from Aberdeen," he said. "I felt some wear and tear playing my first full season, but you learn to pace yourself, and if one thing's not working you just try another. The game is all about making adjustments."
Markakis hit .299 with 11 homers and 64 RBIs over 91 games with the Shorebirds, missing the final month of the season to play for Greece at the Summer Olympics in Athens. He found even more success the following season, batting .310 and driving in 92 runs over 124 games between Class A Advanced Frederick and Double-A Bowie.
By that time, Markakis had established himself as the Orioles' top hitting prospect.
"I had heard that if I opened some eyes in Spring Training [in 2006], then there would be a possibility I could make the team," he recalled. "It was something I didn't believe could happen until it came true."
Now 26, Markakis has already logged more seasons in Baltimore than he did in the Minors. But he'll never forget the time he spent in the farm system, particularly where it all began.
"I loved playing in the New York-Penn League because we got to visit great cities and play in front of sold-out crowds," he said. "That was the beginning of a journey that had some good and some bad, but it was a great experience and a real eye-opener."
Minor League career breakdown
2003: Markakis is drafted seventh overall by the Orioles and begins his professional career with the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds. The 19-year-old appeared in 60 games, missing 2 1/2 weeks to compete for Greece in the European National Championships. ||
2004: Spent the season with the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds of the South Atlantic League, where he led the team in RBIs, despite spending the final month playing for Greece at the Summer Olympics.||
2005: Split the season between Class A Advanced Frederick and Double-A Bowie, hitting .310 with 15 homers in 124 games. He led all Orioles farmhands with 41 doubles and a .390 on-base percentage en route to being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year.|