Back in Atlanta, Markakis embracing pressure, opportunity
ATLANTA — Nick Markakis leaned up against a locker in the Braves clubhouse Friday afternoon and glanced down at the hat in his hand.
It had been seven years, the Woodstock, Ga., and Young Harris College product estimated since he had worn that familiar blue hat with the white logo and red brim as a fan. But even through his nine-season run with the Orioles, Markakis let slip he’s still owned an Atlanta hat.
"But I can’t say I’ve worn it," said Markakis, who had played his entire MLB career with Baltimore up to now.
Now, he can do so with impunity after agreeing to a four-year, $44 million contract that brought the right fielder back to Atlanta.
"I think the biggest thing is the comfort level; they wanted me," Markakis said of his decision. "Besides a place I grew up and watched (games) for many years, they made me feel like I was home and I think that was real important to my family."
The 31-year-old’s homecoming arrives just as the city said goodbye to outfielder Jason Heyward, and comparisons of the new right fielder and the former one are inevitable.
Both are two-time Gold Glove winners at the same position. Both went to Atlanta-area high schools — Markakis at Woodstock High; Heyward at Henry County (McDonough). In an interesting parallel, both were born in New Jersey before moving to Georgia.
Hanging next to Markakis in the locker was yet another reason they’ll be linked: he’ll be wearing No. 22, just like Heyward did. In replacing a fan favorite in position and jersey number and doing so in the community where he moved to at 10 years old comes with expectations, but Markakis says that’s nothing new.
"In this game there is all sorts of pressure, it’s just all about how you handle it," he said. "That’s one of the things that you got to deal with when you’re in this business. There’s a lot of pressure; a lot of people depend on you, a lot of people want you to do good."
Count Scott Krug among them.
Now the athletic director at fellow Cherokee County school River Ridge, Krug spent 15 years as Woodstock’s baseball coach.
In Markakis he had an undersized player — when he graduated he was 5-foot-10, 155 pounds — that was seen by most college and pro teams as a pitcher and was drafted by the Reds in 2001 and ’02 as such, but refused to sign.
Markakis wanted to be seen as a hitter, and Krug had seen enough to agree with him.
"We used to have a guy come by — Brad Moore — that was a minor leaguer for the A’s, and he would throw to like four or five of our guys ever year getting ready for spring training," Krug recounted.
"He was always amazed (by Markaksi). He would say ‘Man, that kid right there can really hit.’ We’d have four or five guys hit against him and they’d all do OK putting the ball in play. But Nick was just standing there and would bear down on it like he does now and take good swing after good swing and hit balls hard."
In nine seasons in Baltimore, an organization that valued Markakis as a hitter when it took him with the seventh overall pick in 2003, the homegrown talent hit .290/.358/.435 with 141 home runs in 1,365 games.
When it came time to negotiate a new deal with the only team he’d ever known, there was reportedly a hang-up involving deferred dollars, as well as concerns about a herniated disc in his neck that was diagnosed in March 2013. While it didn’t keep Markakis off the field — he appeared in 160 games that following season and in 155 in ’14 — it did come with it diminished numbers.
After hitting no lower than .284 from 2006-12, Markakis batted .271 in ’13 and .276 this past season. His slugging percentage, which included seven seasons of .406 or better, topped by .491 in ’08, dipped to .356 (’13) and .386 (’14).
The injury causes him only a sporadically stiff neck, but he hinted to reporters during Friday’s availability that surgery is a possibility.
"Everything I hear from it, it’s not going to be an issue," he said. "I don’t have anything now, it’s just a precautionary thing and we’ll get that taken care of and it shouldn’t be a problem."
The procedure, which would require up to three months of recovery time, would allow him to be ready for Opening Day.
FOX Sports MLB Insider Ken Rosenthal reported that the Braves had viewed a report from a specialist who did an independent study on Markakis and were confident the 31-year-old wouldn’t miss any playing time.
Given the consistency and patience Markakis could provide this lineup, it’s safe to say the Braves can’t afford him to be out.
He batted leadoff in 148 games last season, which would fill a spot the Braves have sorely needed a constant, having used 10 different players the past two years.
On a team that set a franchise record for strikeouts in three of the last four seasons — last year’s 1,369 fell 15 short — he would be among the irregular, with only Andrelton Simmons’ 10.4 strikeout rate besting Markakis’ 11.8. In ’12 and ’13 that figure was at 10.8 and 10.9 percent, respectively.
"My philosophy is (to) go up there and battle," he said. "That pitcher’s not going to have an easy at-bat with me and that’s the way I look at it. I just go up there and grind and the way I look at it you’ve got a 50-50 chance. You’re either successful or not successful."
But the biggest thing Markakis may bring to the Braves clubhouse is something manager Fredi Gonzalez admitted he’d talked to the likes of Heyward, Freddie Freeman and Justin Upton about needing a year ago: leadership.
While Markakis is uncertain on where he’ll sit in the batting order — "They just wanted me and I said ‘Yes’ and I’ll let them figure the rest of that out," he said — he is embracing the opportunity to help set the tone on a young team.
"There are ways to do things right and ways to do things wrong and we’ve just got to pick the right things to do," he said. "I’ve seen the roster, I’ve seen the lineups and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem."
The news of Markakis’ departure from the Orioles didn’t go over well with his former teammates. Baltimore center fielder Adam Jones tweeted out "U don’t want my opinion!!!!!!!"and shortstop J.J. Hardy told MASNSports.com "Everyone thought he’d be back."
It wasn’t likely met with praise from the Baltimore community either as Markakis worked with multiple charities, including work with public schools, animal rescue foundations and the team’s military appreciation program.
When Woodstock High School was in the process of building an indoor batting cage, Krug received a phone call from the recently drafted Markakis. He wanted to know how close the coach was to reaching the financial goal.
"I told him we were about $9,500 short of that and he said ‘My mom will bring a check up tomorrow to finish it up," Krug said.
Even after he began his pro career, Markakis returned to Woodstock, where his jersey is encased in glass in the school’s rotunda.
— Cory McCartney (@coryjmccartney) December 4, 2014
He would tutor the younger Wolverines players, join them in the batting cage or bring friends back and play Pickle ball, a mix of tennis, badminton and Ping-Pong played with a paddle and plastic ball.
"He came back all the time," Krug said. "He loved being around."
When the reports surfaced that it could happen again, Krug exchanged the following text messages with his former player:
KRUG: Are you about to be a Brave?
MARKAKIS: I’ll be the Braves right fielder for the next four years at least.
KRUG: Man, that’s awesome.
MARKAKIS: Are we going to get the pickle ball tournament going?
"He’s ready to come back and play some pickle ball with us," Krug said.