Nick Markakis donated baseball gloves and served lunch this morning to students from Alexander Hamilton Elementary School in Baltimore as part of the 35th annual OriolesREACH Holiday Party for Kids at Dave & Busters at Arundel Mills Mall.
I barely recognized Markakis when he walked through the door. The thick beard and curly hair fool me every time.
"Duck Dynasty" comes to Hanover? Nope, just the Orioles' starting right fielder and, possibly, their leadoff hitter.
More on that later.
Markakis has been working out and enjoying his offseason.
"Quiet, but it's been relaxing so far," he said. "I was able to start working out a little earlier than I was the past couple of years. Get a couple extra weeks to a month ahead of where I've been.
"I feel good, I feel healthy. The offseason and the workouts are going good so far."
Markakis is coming off a season where he posted career-lows with 24 doubles, 10 home runs and a .685 OPS in 160 games. He had spent the winter recovering from a broken thumb, and missed significant time in spring training with neck stiffness.
"A lot went on the past year as far as injuries and stuff," he said. "I got myself in as best of shape as I could in the time I was given. It was a tough year for me, but I was able to make it through healthy. That's your main goal at the beginning of every season. It was productive to some points, and some points it wasn't productive."
His power numbers were in serious decline, and that's an aspect of his game that needs to improve next season, especially if he's batting in the middle of the order.
"I guess going back to it, yeah, you can say it, but my main thing is I want to be healthy and I want to get stronger," Markakis said. "I'm on my way to doing what I want to do right now, so I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing."
Asked if he's motivated to put the 2013 season behind him, Markakis replied, "I don't necessarily need the motivation. I do this because I love doing it, and the love and appreciation I have for the game. That's enough for me to, I guess you could say, be motivated. I'm always excited to work and get better at the game anyway you can."
Manager Buck Showalter confirmed during the Winter Meetings that Markakis could bat leadoff if the Orioles don't sign or trade for a more suitable candidate.
"That's the first time I've heard of it," Markakis said. "No mention of it, but if that's what's got to happen, that's what's got to happen to make the team better and the organization better. It is what it is and we'll address that situation if it comes up."
Markakis is a career .329/.375/.441 hitter in 88 games and 405 plate appearances atop the order.
"It's different," he said. "I like it because, nine times out of 10 on the road, you're going to get five at-bats. I like the extra at-bats, especially when you're feeling good. Getting that extra at-bat helps. It's a different position, but I liked it. I enjoyed it."
The offseason brought news of closer Jim Johnson's trade to the Athletics, and it hit Markakis especially hard. Johnson was selected in the fifth round of the 2001 First-Year Player Draft. The Orioles made Markakis the seventh overall pick in 2003.
Tough to see him go?
"Yeah, absolutely," Markakis replied. "Jim's a guy who's been here his whole career. He was drafted by this team. I played through the minors with him and my whole career with him. We had something a little more special than a lot of the players.
"Speaking for all the players, yeah, Jim was a great guy to have in the clubhouse. His work ethic and what he does translates on the field. If you're an Oriole fan, you saw what he did the past two years. It's a tough one to bite, but this is baseball and anything can happen. That's the business aspect of it.
"I was kind of in a little bit of shock, but like I said, from a business standpoint, if things need to get done, it's not always what people want. It's going to be tough losing him, but I wish him well and hopefully we'll see him somewhere down the line."
The Orioles still haven't found a replacement for Johnson. They're considered the favorites to sign Grant Balfour, but he's kept them on hold since the Winter Meetings.
They also must decide on a second baseman. Brian Roberts remains on the free agent market, and as I wrote last week, the Yankees have contacted his agent.
"I've talked to him here and there, but no talk about his future or anything," Markakis said. "I'm sure they'll get that worked out."
Markakis insisted that he isn't concerned about the Orioles' slow offseason or the direction that the organization is headed.
"No, not at all," he said. "There's still a lot of time left between now and the beginning of the season. That's why Buck and Dan (Duquette) and those guys up there do what they do. Those are the things we don't have to worry about. We'll get it done and we'll be talking differently probably in April."