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Ex-Oriole Nick Markakis says absence of fans, Freddie Freeman’s COVID-19 illness factored into decision not to play in 2020

In this July 5, 2020, photo, Atlanta Braves' Nick Markakis, right, talks with a coach during team practice at Truist Park in Atlanta. Markakis, an outfielder, has opted out of the 2020 season. The 36-year-old Markakis said he was uneasy about playing the season without fans and then was swayed by his telephone conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and has fever and other symptoms.
In this July 5, 2020, photo, Atlanta Braves' Nick Markakis, right, talks with a coach during team practice at Truist Park in Atlanta. Markakis, an outfielder, has opted out of the 2020 season. The 36-year-old Markakis said he was uneasy about playing the season without fans and then was swayed by his telephone conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and has fever and other symptoms. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

ATLANTA — Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis has decided not to play in the 2020 season, manager Brian Snitker announced Monday.

Markakis, 36, a former Oriole, made his decision a few days into camp. The Braves held their first workouts Friday, two days after players began filing into camps.

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“I was excited to get back to playing just as much as everyone else,” Markakis said. “When you show up to the ballpark, and you’re used to your certain ways over so many years, and then coming into this, it makes it tough, especially with what you know is going to happen throughout the season.”

Snitker said in his opening statement: “It was a tough call for a guy who’s the ultimate pro. We’ll miss him. He’s a backbone of our club. I know he’s been thinking long and hard about it. We had a long talk [Sunday]. We fully respect his decision, we’re behind him. We appreciate everything he does for this team and I know he’ll be a phone call away.”

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Markakis became the second Braves veteran to decide against playing thus far. Starter Felix Hernandez, 34, opted out Saturday, with his agent citing concerns around the coronavirus.

The Braves had four players test positive for COVID-19 before the weekend: first baseman Freddie Freeman, left-hander Will Smith, right-hander Touki Toussaint and utilityman Pete Kozma.

In this July 5, 2020, photo, Atlanta Braves' Nick Markakis, right, talks with a coach during team practice at Truist Park in Atlanta. Markakis, an outfielder, has opted out of the 2020 season. The 36-year-old Markakis said he was uneasy about playing the season without fans and then was swayed by his telephone conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and has fever and other symptoms.
In this July 5, 2020, photo, Atlanta Braves' Nick Markakis, right, talks with a coach during team practice at Truist Park in Atlanta. Markakis, an outfielder, has opted out of the 2020 season. The 36-year-old Markakis said he was uneasy about playing the season without fans and then was swayed by his telephone conversation with teammate Freddie Freeman, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and has fever and other symptoms. (Brynn Anderson/AP)

Freeman and Kozma were battling fevers, with Freeman suffering body chills, headaches and other symptoms, according to his wife, Chelsea.

A recent phone conversation with Freeman played a role in Markakis’ decision.

“The biggest thing is I talked to Freddie Freeman the other day,” Markakis said. “Just hearing the way he sounded on the phone kind of opened my eyes. Freddie didn’t sound good. I hope he’s doing good and he’s healthy. I know these guys need him more than anybody. Just to hear the way he sounded on the phone, it was tough. It was eye-opening. With everything that’s going on, not just in baseball but in the world, it makes you open your eyes.”

Markakis, who before fracturing his wrist last year had played 155 games or more in each of the previous six seasons, continued by explaining how his family and playing in empty stadiums influenced his choice.

“I have three kids that I’ve missed for 11 years now,” he said. “I love the game. I love competing every day. But the biggest thing in my decision is we play this game for the fans. To be able to go out there on a daily basis, compete and entertain for them, that’s what it’s all about. To have to go out there and have them not part of that, it’s tough.

“That was my ultimate decision. We play for the fans. To take them out of the occasion, it’s tough. I think that was the blow for me. I knew that was the situation coming in, but until you get in there and experience it, it changes things. I love the game. I hate to see it the way it’s going right now, but that’s the way things have to be. I love it but I think the decision I’m making to sit out this year and be with my family is the right decision for myself and my family.”

Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis loosens up his arm with Marcell Ozuna during a workout at CoolToday Park on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in North Port. Since joining the Braves, Markakis has hit .284/.359/.403 with 47 homers, 183 doubles and 373 RBIs across the past five seasons.
Atlanta Braves outfielder Nick Markakis loosens up his arm with Marcell Ozuna during a workout at CoolToday Park on Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020, in North Port. Since joining the Braves, Markakis has hit .284/.359/.403 with 47 homers, 183 doubles and 373 RBIs across the past five seasons. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

In losing Markakis, the Braves are without one of their most respected clubhouse leaders. Snitker and the team continuously rave about Markakis’ intangible effects on the club. He’s considered the teammate who sets the example in how he carries himself on and off the field.

While elaborating further on his decision, Markakis — lauded for his preparation — mentioned it’s difficult to properly prepare for games under the current circumstances, which are substantially different because of health-and-safety protocols.

“It’s tough to go out there and prepare for this game, it’s a lot of time and commitment,” he said. “A lot of that’s kind of taken away. It’s hard to be able to prepare and get ready for games with the kind of restrictions we have. I don’t think it’s fair to myself or my teammates to not be able to get 100% prepared for baseball games every day.”

The Braves re-signed Markakis to a one-year, $4 million deal in November. Because Markakis is deciding against playing, rather than falling into the high-risk classification, he’s forfeiting his prorated salary this season.

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Markakis has earned more than $110 million across his 14-year career, according to Spotrac.

“I’m at the point in my career that I’m not chasing the money or anything like that,” he said. “I want to win and have fun. There’s a point in time — this game is about having fun.

“Just hearing the way he sounded on the phone kind of opened my eyes. Freddie didn’t sound good.”


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“To have to go out there and play in front of an environment with no fans, it’s not baseball to me. That’s not how I grew up. That’s not how I was brought up in the game. It’s all about the fans. The fans are what make this whole operation run. To have to go out there and not have them part of it, it’s tough. Baseball is baseball, but to me it’s not baseball without fans in the ballpark. It’s a tough decision but the right decision for myself.”

On the field, the Braves are losing one of their key players against right-handed pitchers. While Markakis was going to play in a reduced role this season, he would’ve been valuable versus righties, against whom he hit .298/.371/.446 in 356 plate appearances last season. That’s compared with .245/.310/.343 in 113 plate appearances against southpaws.

“When you lose a guy of that stature, and what he brings and the player he is, it doesn’t help you, that’s for sure,” Snitker said. “Somebody else is going to get an opportunity. We lost him last year, that was big, these guys found a way to put that aside, too. It was a tough spot in a key part of the season and we rallied around and made it happen. I think this group can make it happen again.”

After nine seasons with the Orioles, the Braves interestingly signed a 31-year-old Markakis as they embarked on their rebuilding project in 2015. It was a homecoming for Markakis, whose family moved to Georgia when he was around 10. Markakis attended Woodstock High School and Young Harris College.

Since joining the Braves, Markakis has hit .284/.359/.403 with 47 homers, 183 doubles and 373 RBIs across the past five seasons. His best year came in 2018, when he hit .297 with 14 homers, 43 doubles and 93 RBIs for the surprising 90-win Braves. In that season, Markakis earned his first and only All-Star appearance, his first Silver Slugger and his third Gold Glove.

Markakis has 2,355 career hits, the 136th most in MLB history. He’s one double shy of 500, a total only 63 players have accumulated.

Noncommittal on his future, Markakis said he will evaluate the landscape when deciding whether to continue playing or retire. In the meantime, he’ll enjoy spending time with his family that he missed over the past decade.

“I have three awesome kids and an awesome wife at home,” he said. “My oldest is 11 years old, and all he knows is baseball, so it’ll be nice to switch into daddy mode for a while and give momma a break. Spend some quality time with the family. I know they miss me, I miss them. Hopefully this isn’t the end of my road. We’ll see how this season plays out and going into next year. I’ll base my decision off what happens after this year. Hope everybody stays healthy. Hope this virus gets kicked soon. Hope everybody can get back to normal, and I hope baseball can get back to normal.

“We play a kid’s game. This game is supposed to be fun. When we have fans in the stands, and a competitive edge, this game is the best game. It’s America’s game right here. I just hate to see it in this state of mind, but I get it. When you’re used to something for so long, and they take it from you, it puts things into perspective.

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“I’m definitely going to miss this year, but if this season does go on, and it continues, I’ll be the No. 1 supporter and their biggest fan. I’ll be watching every day.”

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