Former Oriole Nick Markakis waited 12 ½ big league seasons to make an All-Star team, but he insisted Monday that it means much more now than it would have early in his career.
Sitting with his three young sons during an afternoon media session at Nationals Park, he was very much in the moment, and the enjoyment of it, he said, is quadrupled because the boys are all old enough to enjoy it with him.
“I’ll always remember it, but if I was there by myself [back then], I’d only be able to remember it myself,’’ Markakis said. “To have these guys here means the world to me and I’m more excited for them than myself. I know they’re really excited about the Home Run Derby.”
Clearly, Markakis is more excited about the reason he’s here and the way this season has gone for the surprising Atlanta Braves, who entered the All-Star break just a half-game behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East.
Former Orioles and current Braves player, Nick Markakis, talks about being an All-Star for the first time. (Peter Schmuck, Baltimore Sun video)
He’s having the season of his life, batting .323 and leading the NL with 120 hits, and you don’t have to go far to find someone to give him a lot of credit for his team’s surprising emergence as a strong playoff contender.
Freddie Freeman was actually just a few feet away, doing his own media thing, but he couldn’t say enough about the contributions Markakis has made from his first days with a Braves team that was in a very different place.
“It’s been amazing,’’ Freeman said. “Obviously, at that time, you’re not winning like you want to win, but you have a veteran guy who plays and posts every single game. True pro. Does his work. Always the same guy every single day, and the young guys who come into the clubhouse see him doing that every day, and I think that rubs off on everybody else.
“Now that we’re winning, he’s still the same guy, and we have a lot of young guys who want to work as hard as he does, and that’s what makes us good.”
When Markakis first arrived in the Orioles clubhouse in 2006, he was 22, and the average age of the rest of the Orioles’ starting lineup was 32. For a good chunk of his time in Atlanta, the now-34-year-old has been the oldest player on a much younger team.
“The roles are kind of reversed right now,’’ he said. “I play with a lot of 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds on my team. I feel younger. I look at age as just a number. The older you get, you do have to work harder. I understand that and I’m devoted to that. That’s why I’m able to stay healthy. I take care of myself and do the little things that keep you playing as long as you can.”
Of course, age certainly was an issue when Markakis reached free agency after the 2014 season. The Orioles were hesitant to offer him a four-year deal and the Braves were not. It was a curious deal made more curious when the Braves quickly moved into a rebuilding mode. They must have known something, because this is that fourth year and Markakis is putting up the best numbers of his career while helping his young team develop much faster than expected.
“Nobody expected us to be where we are today,’’ he said “We’ve proven a lot of people wrong. It’s awesome to go out there and compete with those guys every day. To see from when I got there to where we are. It’s a long transition, with the ballpark and the team and everything. It’s been fun and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”
For those think he has been pining for Baltimore all this time, think again. Markakis doesn’t seem particularly interested in making the Orioles regret not keeping him.
“It is what it is,’’ he said. “Everything happens for a reason. That’s pretty much all I want to say on that topic. I wouldn’t change anything that happened and I’m happy where I am right now.
“The biggest thing I take pride in is being healthy and staying on the field. You ask any guy, you can’t do very much on the [disabled list] to help your team. I try to stay consistent, be on the field, help out my team and win as many ballgames as I can.”
The Orioles also balked at giving six-time All-Star Nelson Cruz a fourth year that same year, and he’s also having a terrific season. He played alongside Markakis on the Orioles’ 2014 AL East title team and said Monday that he’s particularly thrilled to see him voted into the National League starting lineup by the fans.
Markakis got the most votes of any NL outfielder in the fan balloting.
“He’s having one of his best years,’’ Cruz said. “I played with him. I know how hard he works and what a pro he is.”
Freeman has seen that up close for the past 3 ½ seasons and he has no problem with the Orioles’ decision to let Markakis get away.
“I’m glad we gave him the fourth year,” Freeman said, “because of what he’s done and what he’s meant to this organization. Everybody in Baltimore knows who Nick Markakis is and he brought that right to us.”