On Monday morning, Nick Markakis went to Camden Yards to fully clean out his locker, the final step of separation for him and the team that he had been with for his entire professional career.
"It's still sinking in now," said Markakis, who agreed to a four-year, $44 million deal with the Atlanta Braves on Dec. 3. "I just left the clubhouse to go clear out my locker, and it's just a weird feeling knowing that I'm not going to be back in Sarasota. I'm not going to be back at Camden Yards, or at least not until July 27," when the Braves play an interleague series in Baltimore.
In his first public comments to the Baltimore media since signing with the Braves, Markakis told The Baltimore Sun on Monday that he is dealing with a situation he didn't think would occur.
"It's a weird feeling. It's different. You don't realize it until you go through it. And I always thought I'd be coming back as an Oriole," he said. "But I've been through it all now and the business side and I understand. And I have to keep my focus on the Atlanta Braves and doing what I can to help them win and help them be a better organization."
The Orioles and Markakis appeared to be near a four-year, $40 million deal in early November, but negotiations stalled -- presumably because the Orioles were concerned about an MRI on Markakis' neck that showed a bulging disk. Markakis, 31, dealt with a herniated disk in his neck during spring training in 2013, but he returned for Opening Day that year. He played 160 of 162 games in 2013 and 155 last year.
Although he said he has not had any pain stemming from the neck, Markakis will undergo preventive surgery Wednesday in Atlanta. The bulging disk will be removed and his neck will be fused by surgeons chosen by the Braves. He said, "I have no doubt" that he'll be ready to play for the Braves on Opening Day.
"They are going to take the disk out and then fuse me up. It's just a single-level fusion, and it has a six-to-eight-week recovery," Markakis said. "They said within four weeks I should be able to start my workout regimen, not full-go, but I'll be able to start doing stuff again. And when I hit that six-to-eight-week level, I'll be able to start doing baseball stuff. That will bring me toward February and get me ready for the baseball season."
Although he said he and the Braves aren't concerned about the situation, the Orioles must have been.
"I'm sure that [the neck MRI] had everything to do with it," Markakis said of the stalled negotiations with the Orioles. "I've been doing this for a long time now, and I know when my body feels right and when it feels wrong and what I need to do. We've been talking to the doctors and there are no symptoms that I have now.
"I just felt confident that I would be able to get back in time. Whether or not that is the whole deal with why they didn't [sign me] or not, who knows? But the doctors in Atlanta are confident enough in it that [the Braves] gave me $44 million and are confident enough knowing that I'll be able to get back on the field. And, for me, that's all that really matters. I will be out there playing again, and I'll be able to do it with no worries."
When asked if he thought there were other reasons why the Orioles didn't push harder for Markakis to return, he said, "I don't know. To be honest, I don't know if I'll ever know. … Overall, I can't pinpoint it, I don't know. Some people do know, but I don't. It is what it is. I have to deal with where I am now. You can't change the past, and I'm not going to start now."
Markakis, who was drafted in the first round out of a Georgia junior college by the Orioles in 2003 and debuted with the team in 2006, said it was his intention to play his entire career with one team, but it didn't work out.
"These days in the game, if anybody stays with the same team for their whole career, that's pretty impressive," he said. "It's hard to do. It's something you want to do. You'd take pride in it. But sometimes the business aspect of the game takes over."
Markakis' family moved to suburban Atlanta from New York when he was about 10 and he grew up watching the Braves play. That had an impact on his decision, as did the Braves' significant interest in him. The Braves sent a contingent to Baltimore to have dinner with Markakis on Dec. 1 and tell him how much they wanted his services.
The three men who flew up from Atlanta were Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, assistant general manager John Coppolella and Markakis' former Orioles manager, Dave Trembley, the Braves' new director of player development. It was a personal touch that impressed Markakis and his family.
"Trembley had a big part in it, but so did the other couple guys that came. They made me feel welcomed, they made me feel wanted," he said. "I don't know if it was from the business aspect or what, but I believed them. I chose to believe them and believe in what they are doing and what they say. It made me comfortable as a player going to a new team and they made me feel comfortable from the family aspect."
Markakis said his family expects to continue to live in Baltimore in the winter and he took out a two-page advertisement in The Sun last week to thank fans. He said that will be the most difficult part of leaving.
"The fans are why I stood out in right field every day. They are the reason why I am the person I am today, the player I am today," he said. "I think more players should realize that."
Markakis said he knows there are some people who will question his loyalty and say he left for a little bit more money. But negotiations had stalled with the Orioles, and the Braves were the ones that were making a big push.
"I have no hard feelings. I had great memories of every day that I played," he said. "I can sit here and preach and talk until I'm dead in the face, but it was not about the money: 100 percent. People can think of it however they want. But I am telling the truth about it. It wasn't about the money. Far from it."
He said his entire family is preparing for a new chapter in Atlanta, including his three young sons. "The boys are running around the house practicing the tomahawk chop."
For three games starting July 27, Markakis and his family will be back at Camden Yards -- but he'll be on the visitors' side.
"It's going to be fun. It's going to be different. But it's a job, no matter where I go, and I've got to do what's best for my team and my organization," he said. "I'm going to be in a different dugout, but memories are things that will never, ever be taken from you, and it's going to be memorable when I come back. Hopefully, it will be a good one."
How does he think the crowd will react to him the first time he steps to the plate as a Brave in Camden Yards?
"I don't know," he said. "We'll find out, won't we?"