In his first-day-of-spring look — beard trimmed tight, hair shaved tighter, the message T-shirt (All Me – No PED) fitting him like shrink wrap around a galvanized threaded pipe — Nick Markakis looked even more like a man not to be trifled with within the Braves’ clubhouse. The style accentuated the impression of a special-forces fellow who just might have graduated first in his Bare-Handed Spleen Removal Class.
And when he opened up on the Houston Astros on Tuesday, both barrels, suggesting that every player on the team that participated in the sign-stealing scandal “needs a beating,” that certainly did nothing to soften the look.
His passionate condemnation of the Astros was priceless — filled with the kind of raw anger and outrage that perhaps someone in authority at MLB should share.
The highlight was his suggestion that somebody should literally take the fight to the Astros players since no other punishment seemed to be coming their way. And you got the feeling that Markakis would volunteer for the job, in installments, so long as the odds were no more than 3- or 4-to-1 at any time.
(Remember, this is the same guy who, after hearing John Hart yell at manager Brian Snitker after a game in 2017, reportedly passed the message to the former president of baseball operations to prepare for a butt-kicking if he ever did it again. He doesn’t care who you are.)
Meanwhile, back in Astros camp, poor Dusty Baker, the new manager dumped into this mess, joked: “I didn’t think Markakis talked too much — he doesn’t. Maybe he had his Wheaties in him.”
No, Markakis doesn’t talk much. His career has been 14 years – the past five in his hometown environs of Atlanta — of tending sternly to his own business. He is the fiber in this team’s diet, the constant, no-nonsense reminder of what’s good for it. The fact that he broke from his long-standing policy of saying nothing of interest to expound on this subject only accentuated just how much the Astros cheating offended him. He went into Tuesday looking for a reason to sound off.
And, yes, as a matter of fact, Markakis always looks like he has had his Wheaties.
He obviously did not spend his offseason lounging poolside, drinking pina coladas while watching his waistline and his 401(k) grow. At 36, the Braves’ oldest position player who has been shunted to the margins of the team’s outfield plans, did not report to camp looking any less ready to play.
“I feel as good as I ever have,” he said in non-Astros related news Tuesday. “I feel like I’m 21 years old, which is a good thing. To me age is just a number. You just have to work harder the older you get. I’m up for the challenge. I’m excited. I’m here to help out this team win as many ballgames as I can.”
Markakis finds himself in a tenuous position with these Braves. There were doubts around him when he signed back in 2013, as he came back home off neck fusion surgery. Those he answered by being a consummate pro and unbending constant during the Braves rebuild, averaging 159 games played his first four seasons. In 2018, Markakis finally made his first All-Star game. A year earlier, had had become the 10th active player to reach 2,000 hits (he currently has 2,355).
These doubts, born of encroaching age and a search for more pop in the lineup, may be more difficult to address.
When the Braves imported Marcell Ozuna to play left field and to fill the lineup hole left by the departure of Josh Donaldson, that further muddied the water for Markakis. Last season, after missing 43 games with a fractured wrist, he appeared in 116 games, hitting .285 with nine home runs and 62 RBIs. This season, the Braves declined his option and then re-signed him. He made $11 million two seasons ago. Between a buyout and salary, he’ll make $6 million this season. A big cut, but he’s still not likely to need government assistance.
Markakis says he begrudges neither the Braves nor Ozuna one little thing. “They’re trying to do everything to make this team win as many ballgames as they can and go as deep as you can in the postseason,” he said Tuesday. “No hard feelings. (Ozuna’s) a teammate, he’s here to help us win and we’re happy to have him. I didn’t like him last year in the playoffs (as he abused the Braves in the National League Division Series), but we’re glad to have him.”
As for his own spring plans, when not discovering all that untapped power of his voice, “I’m just going to do my thing,” he said.
“Snit’s going to make the lineup every day. I just got to worry about helping this team out any way I can to win as many ballgames as I can. Whether it’s being in there every day or getting a lot more days off, that’s up to them. We’ll go from there and I’ll go about my business like I always do.”
Snitker is careful about how he casts Markakis’ potential role here at the start of camp. He is going to get a full springtime to show what he has left.
The team has made it clear to him that its doesn’t see him as a regular. But at the same time, the manager said, “Is he capable (of playing every day)? Absolutely. No doubt in my mind. I look at him I don’t know if that guy ever ages. But the situations have changed and that’s what we’re going to use spring training for to try to decide how we’re going to go. A lot of things can happen.”
However this plays out, you don’t think Markakis is just going to fold up like a fading day lily and give in to the inevitable decline, do you?
If everyone stays fit and reasonably productive, I don’t see exactly where he fits in the Braves plans now.
But I’m not going to be the one to tell him he has no more future here.
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