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Nick Markakis, former O's teammates agree: return will be 'weird'

Nick Markakis and several former O's teammates used the same word to describe his return as a Brave: "weird."

Nick Markakis admits he's thought a lot about what it'll be like when he takes the field at Camden Yards on Monday evening, the first time he'll do so as an opposing player in his 10-season career.

He also admits he has no idea what his emotions will be.

"I don't know what to expect, but once I get out there and I'm playing right field in a Braves uniform in Camden Yards against a team I played with for nine seasons, I can't say it's not going to be weird," Markakis told The Baltimore Sun this past weekend. "I'm sure it is going to be weird. We'll see. It's going to be fun; it's going to be an interesting experience."

Markakis, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves in December, said he recently spoke with infielder Kelly Johnson about playing against a former team. Johnson was drafted by Atlanta in 2000 and spent his first decade as a pro with the Braves organization before leaving for the Arizona Diamondbacks as a free agent in 2009. He played part of last season with the Orioles and spent most of this year with the Braves before being traded to the New York Mets on Friday.

"Kelly told me that when he went back and played against the Braves for the first time, it was a weird feeling," Markakis said. "He didn't expect anything at first, or he didn't know what to expect. But once you get there and the game starts, it's a little weird. I think I'm along those same lines right now."

For the Orioles players who called Markakis a teammate for so long, seeing the man who patrolled the right field corner of Camden Yards for nine years wearing an opposing uniform at Oriole Park — playing through lean years as well as the club's recent resurgence — will be odd.

"It's definitely going to be weird for me," catcher Matt Wieters said. "When he goes out there in right field with a different uniform on, it will be a little weird. He did so many great things for our organization and for Baltimore."

Markakis, the Orioles' first-round draft pick out of a Georgia junior college in 2003, became a fan favorite in Baltimore for his hustle, professional demeanor, strong all-around game and community involvement. He still has a permanent residence in Monkton, and when he left the Orioles this past winter, he took out a full-page ad in The Sun thanking the community for its support.

He'd like to think that goodwill will carry over to this week's, but doesn't know for sure.

"If they want to cheer, if they want to boo, they have every right to do whatever they want," Markakis said. "They are the ones coming out and paying to watch a ballgame and I'm the one going out there and trying to prevent their team from winning. They can do what they want."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he expects Markakis to be welcomed back to Camden Yards warmly.

"I know what kind he's going to get from me," Showalter said. "I know our [fans]. I hope he doesn't give us a good reception. Nicky is having a good year, like everyone knew he would. We know one thing, he can play the right field wall well, right? I'm sure they'll use him in the advance meeting."

Shortstop J.J. Hardy, who played four years with Markakis in Baltimore, said players always wonder how they will be received when they return to a city they've played several years in.

"I think guys are always interested in how it's going to be when you come back," Hardy said. "I know I was when I went back to Milwaukee. How's it going to be? Are you going to get boos? Are you going to get cheers? Is it going to be nothing at all? So, I'm sure it's crossed his mind, but I can only imagine it's going to be cheers and everyone hopes for the best for him.

"I can tell you it'll be good to see him. I'm sure the fans will be excited to see him. We played four years together and had some good times but in this business, this happens quite a bit. You play with someone and play against them the next year."

Often times when a longtime Oriole leaves for free agency, a sense of betrayal lingers for the fans. This case might be a little different, though. Markakis was close to agreeing to a four-year, $40 million deal in November with the Orioles until an MRI showed a bulging disk in his neck, a remnant of a herniated disk that he had dealt with since 2013.

The Orioles pulled their offer from the table, concerned about the condition that likely would require surgery, and never made another formal offer. Instead, the Braves swooped in and lured Markakis back to the area where he spent his teenage years.

Markakis was irked this spring when the negotiations — and the reasoning for the Orioles' decision not to re-sign him — were characterized as being about money and contract length and not his health. But he said this past weekend that he's not harboring any animosity toward the organization.

"There are no hard feelings. It's a business and I understand the business side of baseball now," he said. "I have never been through it before and it's a tough process. And it is tough to process. [But] I'm coming in for three games and I'm going to try my best to win each game and then I'll move on to the next city."

Markakis, 31, underwent neck fusion surgery in December and couldn't participate in his normal offseason strength and fitness routines. Still, he made it into the Braves' lineup for Opening Day and has started all but one game this season.

He's hitting .286, which would be his best mark since 2012, and his on-base percentage, is .368, potentially his best mark since 2010. He has only one fielding error and is on pace to hit more than 30 doubles — something he hasn't accomplished since 2011. But he also has just one homer, hit last Monday, and likely will fail to reach double-digit home runs for the first time as a big leaguer.

That, he believes, is a byproduct of his inability to train last offseason.

"My homers are down, but you look at everything else and you can argue I'm having one of my better seasons," he said. "It's [lack of] strength. Strength is a big thing for me. I'm not one of those guys that can sit around and then go out there and play a game and be successful without prior work in the offseason with weight training. There are some people in this game that do it the right way and doing it the right way is the hard way. And it takes time; stuff just doesn't happen overnight, so the offseason is big for me."

Markakis said he still keeps in touch with many of his old teammates, specifically Adam Jones, Hardy, Wieters and Ryan Flaherty. And he doesn't expect that to change, no matter what uniform he is in on Monday.

"I've spent a long time playing with those guys and I check up on them out of a personal position," Markakis said. "They are my friends and they were there for a long time next to me and I just don't open the trash can and throw them away. I check up on them and hope they do well and I pull for them."

Markakis' former teammates have also kept up on Markakis from afar, but are looking forward to seeing him again and catching up.

"Even though he's on a different team now, he's still a close friend and we've been through a lot of battles together," Wieters said. "Nick's not the most talkative personality in the world, but it will be nice to catch up and see how he's liking it.

"When you play with a guy so long and you get to admire the way he goes about his business, it will be a little different when he's with another team. You're trying to get him out, but you still have the utmost respect for the guy and how he goes about playing the game."

Markakis said he paid attention to the club's downward slide in July and the inconsistency on either side of Jones since he and left fielder Nelson Cruz left for free agency this past winter. But he doesn't concern himself with what could have been or with the Orioles' outfield carousel.

"I move on. It's not my problem anymore. That's their [outfield] problem," Markakis said. "I'm doing my thing over here and they're trying to do their thing over there."

For the next three days he'll be doing it in Camden Yards again — just for someone else.

"I'm going to have a lot of people there supporting me and I'll get a chance to play against my old boys," Markakis said. "I've got to go out there and perform and help the Atlanta Braves win a ballgame. And hopefully I can run down a couple fly balls and throw a couple of those guys out."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

eencina@baltsun.com

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Encina reported from St. Petersburg, Fla.

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