When Nick Markakis opts out, question everything

Credit: AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
Braves outfielder Nick Markakis explains his decision to not play during the 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Atlanta Braves)

Credit: AJC

When Nick Markakis opts out of anything, it is startling. When he opts out of playing baseball, it makes you question whether the sun will rise to the west tomorrow or if down is the new up.

Markakis is not the opt-out type. He is one of the more committed players of his day, the one who took the field like he was fulfilling a solemn oath. His approach to baseball has always been to play through anything – averaging 151 games over his 14 seasons – and do it while demonstrating the kind of consistency that would cause a watchmaker to question the sloppiness of his craft.

One of the last times I was allowed in the same room with baseball players – on Feb. 19 early in Braves spring training in Florida – Markakis was standing at his stall wearing an "All Me – No PED" T-shirt and telling the world he was ready to fight the cheating Houston Astros. "Every single guy over there needs a beating," he said. Vegas just may have made such a fight even-money.

So, when he announced Monday that he was going to take a pass on the abbreviated season in the long shadow of COVID-19, it was particularly unsettling. If Markakis, after speaking to the stricken Freddie Freeman, is shaken by the prospects of competitively coexisting with the virus, if one of the true gamers can’t bring himself to perform during a warped and shortened campaign within empty ballparks, then what hope is there to pull off a credible restart?

What must the chilling effect be on a clubhouse that has looked to Markakis for his example as the Braves went about their great rebuild? His manager just called him one of the backbones of the club, even as his role figured to be reduced this season with the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna. The Braves will suffer for a loss of experience and depth – especially against right-handed pitching –as well for the loss of an institutional vertebrae.

Still, Brian Snitker said Tuesday, “I think everybody to a man is behind him in his decision.”

A few days after writing about the disappointment of Tiger Woods not showing up for the PGA Tour's restart, here I go looking at another absent performer from a different angle. However it's framed, the theme of people not playing is growing just a tad tired.

Markakis, who will turn 37 well before next season, said that his playing future is unclear. Isn’t everyone’s? For now, it would be a mistake to let this moment pass without appreciating the quality workmanship that went into his career.

Reared in the northern ’burbs, Markakis returned home before the 2015 season in a Braves signing filled with trepidation. But those who worried about the effects of offseason neck fusion surgery underestimated Markakis’ resolve.

A Baltimore Oriole for the bulk of his career, the Braves acquired a steadying presence in right field. So measured in his preparation, he was the guy you could set your sundial by, as serious as a Trappist monk about playing a game - a sterling example for a young team. To draw a smile from him at the ballpark was a medal-worthy feat.

And with the Braves, Markakis got his first and only All-Star recognition in 2018 (when he hit .297 with 43 doubles and 14 home runs that season). That same year he won his third career Gold Glove. He began that charmed season, which marked the Braves’ return to the postseason after a five-year absence, with his first ever walk-off home run on opening day.

And he already had banked his 2,000th career hit, in a quest that was highlighted by his family in the stands in 2017 with a makeshift countdown sign (his hit total stands at 2,355 now).

A downside: He was a non-factor in two postseasons for the Braves – going 4-for-33 (.121) with no RBIs. And in an age of power, he wasn’t a big bopper, averaging just over nine homers a season with the Braves.

His 2019 with the Braves was a fitting example of his tenacity. After suffering a fractured wrist, he returned earlier than expected and had six hits in his first two games back in September.

This disciple of routine decided he just could not function in a time when routine has all but been outlawed.

He is a man of little variance. At his best, he hit .306 (2008). And at his worst, he hit .271 (2013). There were no wild swings – either at the plate or in his numbers.

Pillars of constancy are collapsing all around us, and now this: Nick Markakis has opted out.