ATLANTA — As the Orioles trickled into SunTrust Field on Friday afternoon after a late arrival in Atlanta overnight, they were met with a pair of reminders of what they lack.
By their dugout, former outfielder Nick Markakis, in the middle of a season that's about to earn him his first All-Star appearance in his 13th major league season, was out catching up with old teammates and staff. The late arrivals encountered utility man Ryan Flaherty taking early batting practice, joking with them the same way he did when he wore their colors.
In a season where consistency on the field and levity off it have been mostly absent for the Orioles, the pair showed why they were so beloved in their former team’s clubhouse when they were there — and the hole that each left. Markakis started in the Orioles outfield from 2006 to 2014, while Flaherty was the club’s utility man from 2012 to 2017.
Consider Markakis, in a resurgent season at age 34, is focused more on how he fits into the young, emerging Braves lineup than his own .323/.387/.479 batting line with eight home runs entering Friday’s game.
"I've put myself in position to play every day," he said. "To play with this group of guys, the young talent that we have, we play well together as a team. We feed off each other, and we all put ourselves in positions for that next guy to be successful.
"Whether it's walk, hit — we're not a team that's going to go out there and hit a ton of homers, but we're going to get on base, we're going to get runners over and we're going to do the little things. We're going to feed off that. We each make ourselves better throughout the lineup."
Markakis, as ever, credits being able to play every day for his success. He posts regardless of whether he's healthy or not, as evidenced by just one season under 150 games since his rookie year of 2006.
But because of the four surgeries he had between 2012 and 2015, including the neck procedure that gave the Orioles pause about offering him a contract that extended four years — through this 2018 season — he takes no pleasure that this renaissance is happening now.
"If you go out there and sign a 10-year, $300 million contract, there's always going to be doubters," Markakis said. "You've just got to go out and do what you're capable of doing. From 2012 to ’15, I had four surgeries. It's tough to come back, especially the first year, when I came back here in ’15. It's tough when you're not able to do anything. But the last couple of years, I've been healthy, I've been able to get myself where I want to be, and being with these guys over here, they've helped me out a lot, too. It's not just one person doing it. Everybody is helping each other and making each other better."
The Orioles have struggled to replace him in right field since letting him leave after the 2014 season. Center fielder Adam Jones frequently cites Markakis' departure as the point when the Orioles’ outfield defense dropped from a high level. The team has traded for the likes of Travis Snider, Gerardo Parra, Mark Trumbo and Seth Smith to fill that space since, and this year brought in Colby Rasmus to try to replicate what Markakis did.
Only Trumbo in that 2016 season really clicked, and now the Orioles arrive in Atlanta having one of the worst seasons in club history, watching Markakis play for a winning Braves team and lead the National League outfield voting for the All-Star Game.
Markakis, who has played in all 74 Braves games at this point in the season, sees the All-Star break as a necessary recharge for the second half. But he realizes what it would mean for those around him, including his three children.
"My kids are at the age where they realize now what's going on — they love baseball, they know all the players and they understand the game,” Markakis said. “If I were fortunate enough to get in, I'd be more excited for my kids than anything. Because you play 162 games, four days off in the middle of the season is nice, too, to go home and relax and spend with your family. I think my kids will enjoy it more than anything."
Said Orioles manager Buck Showalter: “I don't think Nick needs that. But he'd certainly consider it an honor and be happy to do it. I know what Nick puts into a season at this point, but I don't think he's got to show anybody how good he is. He's a special player, and I think everybody is happy that he's had this success and continued the reputation that he's had.”
As Markakis spoke to reporters in the dugout, Flaherty was taking batting practice and ribbing whichever Orioles came into his view in between rounds. He asked Brad Brach, who was wearing flip-flops, whether they were at the ballpark or the beach. He caught up for a while with Chris Davis and Craig Gentry. His presence has long been an uplifting one for the Orioles, and that's something that was sorely needed Friday, even if he greeted his former mates in Braves colors.
Markakis said Flaherty now fills the same role for their new team.
"It's awesome," Markakis said. "He's been through a lot. For him to come over here and then start out the way he did was awesome. He's a baseball player. He gets his role, and he's good at it."
Showalter made clear the Orioles miss what Markakis brought to Baltimore.
“It's like that old country music song, who's going to fill their shoes?” Showalter said. “The game of baseball, it's going to be hard to fill. Not just on the field, but off the field, in the clubhouse, just the whole culture he brings. I know it's been a lot to the Braves. They're lucky to have him.”