He’s 34, as lean and fit as he’s been in a decade, with a full head of wiry hair, a dark beard and the quiet intensity to make any man fearful of doing something to upset him.
It’s good to be Nick Markakis in his 13th major league season, enjoying a late-career renaissance, silencing the skeptics while helping lead a resurgent Braves team to its best start in years.
The three-year rebuilding project is fading in the organizational rearview as they enter the third month of the season in first place in the National League East, better than anyone outside of the clubhouse expected them to be.
Markakis, in the final year of his contract, has been a huge part of that turnaround, batting a sizzling .333 before Friday with a .401 on-base percentage, .505 slugging percentage, seven home runs, 38 RBIs and league-leading totals of 74 hits and 17 doubles in 56 games.
“He’s that engine that makes the thing run,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who has been steadfast in Markakis’ corner since taking over as manager just over two years ago, even during periods when he wasn’t producing offensive numbers comparable to his current robust production. “Every day he’s dependable, you can count on him, you don’t have to worry about him. He just shows up and he’s the same person every day. Handles everything.
“Unbelievable presence on our team.”
After a strong April, Markakis turned things up another notch in May, batting .362 and tied for the NL lead in hits (42) and doubles (11) for the month. The 42 hits were the second-most in May a Brave since the team moved to Atlanta in 1966, behind only Ralph Garr’s 47 in 1974.
“Happy to be healthy, so that’s the biggest thing,” Markakis said. “We all know if you’re not healthy you can’t contribute (as far as) baseball activities. I’m happy I’m healthy and happy the team is playing as well as they are right now.”
Markakis, who graduated from Woodstock High School in 2001 -- when Ronald Acuna was 3 years old and Ozzie Albies was 4 – plays virtually every inning of every game and never goes anything less than full-bore when running out a ground ball or routine fly ball. There are no concessions made to age or to injuries and surgeries he’s had over the years including the major vertebrae-fusion neck surgery in December 2014, shortly after signing a four-year, $44 million free-agent deal with the Braves.
While it was obvious when Markakis hit only three homers in 2015 – after averaging more than 13 in Baltimore and never hitting fewer than 10 – that the decline in strength from the surgery and required winter of rest had taken a toll, Markakis still hit .296 with 38 doubles and a .370 OBP that season. And he never used the neck surgery as an excuse for his declined power numbers that season or last year, when he hit eight homers, his second-lowest total.
There were questions if Markakis would be ready for that first season with the Braves after not being permitted to work out all winter and not playing spring-training games until the final week of camp. But he was in the opening-day lineup and played 156 games in 2015, one of 10 times in the past 11 seasons that he played at least 155 games.
He was asked Friday how much better he feels now that he’s nearly 3-1/2 years removed from the surgery and hitting the ball as hard and far as he ever did early in his career, plus playing solid defense. His answer was as close as he’s come to admitting the surgery sapped his power for some time.
“The first year I had surgery I wasn’t able to do anything in the offseason,” Markakis said. “I was just happy to be on the field, as close to the season as the surgery I had was. Nothing’s guaranteed, anything can happen in the recovery process. I was just glad I recovered healthy and quickly and I was able to be on the field, be in the opening-day lineup in 2015. That was my main goal. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle from there, especially as much time (as he spent rehabbing) over several years starting in 2012 with my sports hernia. Then I had a couple of hand injuries that sidelined me.
“Once you have significant injuries and you have to go under the knife, it’s not easy. A lot of work goes into it, and the past couple of years I’ve been able to build on it, strengthen myself, and here I am today. I feel almost as good as I’ve ever felt on the baseball field, and we’re playing good baseball and it’s a pleasure to be around these guys and watch these guys compete every day.”
His .333 batting average before Friday was 27 points higher than his best single-season average (.306) set a decade ago in 2008, and his OBP would be the second-highest of his career (.406 in 2008). His slugging percentage before Friday was 14 points higher than the personal-best .491 that he posted in that ’08 season.
Markakis had a .905 OPS before Friday, eight points higher than the career-best .897 he had in 2008. His highest OPS since then was .834 in 2012 and he finished with an OPS below .750 each of the past five seasons.
There were many outside the organization who questioned the wisdom of signing Markakis at the start of a Braves rebuilding project, and still more who questioned keeping him the past couple of years. But he’s never been anything less than universally respected and appreciated within the clubhouse, the proverbial quiet team leader whose impact and stabilizing effect on young and often-struggling Braves teams has been profound.
Freddie Freeman and other Braves will tell you he’s one of the best teammates they’ve ever had. Freeman calls him the “ultimate pro” and often notes that you don’t get 2,000 hits in the big leagues without having a substantial career. Markakis had 2,126 hits before Friday, sixth-most among active players.
It’s hard to believe Markakis has never made an All-Star team, but the two-time former Gold Glove winner may well be in position to finally add that honor to his resume.
“I hope so. He does (deserve it),” Snitker said. “Like I say, we’ve got another month to play (before the All-Star Game). He surely does. He’s been one of the best, most consistent hitters in the National League from opening day on.”
The way he’s playing now, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think Markakis could have another five or so productive seasons.
“I’ve always thought that,” he said. “I’ve thought that if I stayed healthy and took care of myself, everything else will play itself out. I’ve had some good veteran leadership when I was first called up to the big leagues and I was around a great group of guys that instilled those type of qualities in me. I give those guys credit for who I am today and what I bring to baseball today. It’s just like I said, it’s all about being healthy, and when you’re healthy and you have a good group of guys together, it can be a big force.”
Ten years from now, when some current young Braves are in the late stages of their careers, they’ll talk about Markakis the way he talks about veterans who helped guide him in his early seasons with the Orioles, where he played nine years and was a hugely popular figure before coming home as a free agent.
“I learned a lot from Jeff Conine, outfield-play wise. He was a great guy and always willing to help. I had a lot of guys – Jay Gibbons, Brian Roberts, Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez, Kevin Millar, Aubrey Huff … a lot of guys that I played with played the game the right way, and played hard.”
Play the game the right way, play hard. That’s what Markakis is all about. He doesn’t do a lot of talking; that’s not his personality. But his leadership is the kind that can be the most effective coming from a player of his stature. Leadership by example. That’s what he wants younger players to get from him.
“I think the biggest thing is just how you go about your business, how you prepare yourself for 162-game season,” he said. “Hopefully, if the young guys are motivated and they want to become better, they watch how certain guys go about their business and how they do prepare for a season. You’ve got to take care of yourself. The human body is one of the most amazing things on this planet and if you can take care of it it’ll take you places you never thought you’d be part of. It’s all about being healthy, taking care of yourself, hard work and being on a good team.”
The rebuilding years were difficult for all the Braves, particularly the ones like Freeman and Markakis, who were here for all of the past three seasons with 90 or more losses. But where the team is now, and the enjoyment they’re getting out of playing and winning, has made the difficult road worthwhile for Markakis. He likes being around this group of guys, from his contemporaries – Kurt Suzuki is one month older, Peter Moylan is five years older – to the “kids.”
“We enjoy being around each other, we enjoy competing each day with each other,” he said. “It’s a good group. We’ve got some great young guys, as you guys see and everybody else is starting to see. We’ve got some guys that have been around, and we all learn from each other – it’s not just (the young guys) learning from us, but as veterans we can learn from those guys, too.
“It’s a learning process, the season’s still fairly young, we we’re still working hard to work with each other every day and trying to get better each day. Hopefully throughout the course of the season we build on that and we get better as we go along.”
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