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Nick Markakis’ legacy was ‘calming influence,’ in Braves clubhouse

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Brought in amid rebuild, Nick Markakis set tone with leadership, approach to game

Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins
Nick Markakis is one of just 60 players to have at least 500 home runs and 2,300 hits.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

When Nick Markakis showed up for his first spring training with the Braves in 2015, then-manager Fredi Gonzalez welcomed in his veteran outfielder, who was coming off of fusion surgery for a herniated disk in his neck.

How was he feeling? Was he ready to embrace his new surroundings?

Markakis, true to the core of his dry persona, simply replied, “I don’t like spring training.”

Markakis joined the Braves in a tough position. The team had just moved popular outfielder, and local product Jason Heyward, and Markakis came in a four-year, $44 million deal and took both Heyward’s No. 22 and his locker in Turner Field. He seemed a signing that went against the rebuild the front office was just beginning, but instead was the perfect signing for it.

The consummate professional. The pro’s pro. Markakis set the tone as Freddie Freeman came into his own as a leader and Atlanta waited for the fruits of its influx of young talent to take hold, and Friday the 37-year-old called it a career after 15 seasons.

“I’m gonna be a stay-at-home dad,” Markakis told The Athletic. “... I’m just gonna take care of the house and take care of the boys. I’ve missed so much over the years and sacrificed a lot. I think this is the least I can do for them. It’s an important age that these guys are at right now and I need to be there.”

He’s trading leadership of one young team for another with sons Taylor, Tucker and Toby after a career that saw him rack up 514 doubles — 54th all time — and 2,388 hits. Markakis is just one 60 players to produce 500 or more two-base hits and over 2,300 hits in all.

There was the Opening Day walk-off home run in 2018 – the first of his career – and another last August when he opted back into the season after initially opting out amid COVID-19 concerns and his reaching the 500-doubles and 2,000-hits milestones. Add in three Gold Gloves – testament to a defense skillset that saw him reach an MLB record for consecutive errorless games (398) — a Silver Slugger award and an All-Star appearance in 2018, and he left an impact.

But nowhere near the one he left in the clubhouse.

“He brought exactly what we were looking for and that’s stability and everything that he brought in here,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said Friday. “The professionalism, that he’s accountable to everybody. He went through some tough times here and should be commended for that and in the end we got a game away from the World Series and I would have loved to do that for him. He’s what the Atlanta Braves are all about.”

Markakis exuded stoic professionalism, but above all, he fiercely loyal. On August 23, 2017, amid a third straight 90-loss season, Snitker opted to bring a struggling Jim Johnson into a high-leverage situation against the Mariners.

Johnson was shelled in another Atlanta loss — the 11th in the last 16 games and fourth in the last six – and then president of baseball operations John Hart lit into Snitker during he and general manager John Coppolella’s postgame meeting in the manager’s office.

The players heard the dressing down, and Markakis had a message for Hart: if he did that to Snitker again, Hart would have a real fight on his hands.

“You just don’t appreciate a guy like that until you manage him,” Snitker said of earning Markakis’ stamp of approval.

During his Braves’ run, only Freeman had more hits (868) than Markakis’ 841 and more doubles (206) than his 198, or played more innings than Markakis’ 6,495 1/3. No one had more at-bats in that six-year stretch (2,971).

That wasn’t without its criticism as Markakis’ playing time and his spot in the lineup were fodder for Braves Twitter. True, Atlanta never had the version of Markakis who hit at high as 38 percent above league average during his nine seasons in Baltimore, but through his first four seasons, Markakis never played fewer than 156 games, including all 162 in 2018, his finest season with the Braves as he posted a 114 wRC+ and was a 2.6 fWAR player, his best since 2010 and became a first-time All-Star.

Leadership and leading by example are cliches often tossed around to justify a veteran’s place on a roster. It’s Freeman locked room now. He’s embraced his role as a tone-setter, growing into it over the years. But amid those 90-loss years en route to winning three straight National League East titles and coming up one win from the World Series, the Braves needed a stabilizer.

That was, and will be, Markakis’ legacy from his six years in Atlanta.

“It’s a big hole in there without him,” Snitker said. “... We all miss him, obviously. Just the stability and that calming influence that he had on everybody.”