LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. — Wearing a No. 22 Atlanta Braves jersey on his back and a full beard on his cheeks, right fielder Nick Markakis said he is comfortable in his new environment — and he says he's not harboring any animosity toward the Orioles.
"It's strange, but it's part of the business. You are not going to play with everybody your whole career," said Markakis, now a Brave after spending his first 11 seasons in the Orioles' organization. "It's good to see the guys. It's different, though. It's a transition process and something I've never been through before. But it's gone smoothly. Guys are great over here and I'm happy where I am."
Markakis, who signed a four-year, $44 million deal with the Braves in December, started against the Orioles on Thursday, batting third and playing right field. It was the first time he had seen many of his old teammates since signing elsewhere — though he did visit Sarasota in February to attend the first birthday party for center fielder Adam Jones' son.
"I still keep in contact with the guys. The game can only bring you so much in a lifetime and a friendship can go a lifetime," Markakis said. "Some of the friendships I have over there with the guys, they're not going to stop. I continue to talk to them and I hope they do well and I hope they have a healthy season."
Markakis wasn't so positive about the Orioles' organization in February, when he told a USA Today reporter, "Don't believe a word they say." Markakis has since said the quote was in response to a question that suggested the Orioles front office alleged their decision not to re-sign Markakis had more to do with length of contract than his need for neck surgery.
"I'm OK with what I said and everything. It's just one of those things he caught me in a bad spot at the wrong time," Markakis said. "The thing that frustrated me was, if you're going to ask a question, put the question in the paper that you're going to ask, not just the answer. I cleared it up. Everything's good now and it's behind me."
Markakis acknolwedged his frustration increased as the offseason progressed and he failed to reach an agreement with the Orioles. The two sides were seemingly closing in on a four-year, $40 million deal in November, but after an MRI revealed a bulging disk in Markakis' neck, the Orioles basically stopped negotiating. So, to hear that it was being characterized as a disagreement over terms irked Markakis.
"I have no animosity toward anybody. It was frustrating at the time. You poke a balloon long enough with a needle, it's going to pop, right?" Markakis said. "I just felt like I kept getting poked and you hear one thing and the other thing and nobody knows the true story. So there's no point in even talking about it."
Markakis had neck fusion surgery in December with the goal of being ready for Opening Day. Despite entering Thursday 2-for-19 this spring, Markakis said he felt good and that there was a "95 percent chance" he'll be ready for the Braves' opener in Miami on Monday. He said playing on Opening Day is something he wanted to do for him and his teammates — and not to prove anything to the Orioles.
"It's a personal goal. Opening Day is a big day," said Markakis, who played in eight consecutive openers with the Orioles from 2007 to 2014. "I've been out there the last eight years and for me to be out there this year is just as important. As far as being important for anybody else, no. For me and my team, yes."
His new teammates have certainly taken notice of their new right fielder and his attempt to make it back for the start of the season.
"It speaks for itself. It's not as common as you would like it to be," said Braves outfielder Jonny Gomes. "What's a week out? What's two weeks? But this guy wants to play 162 [games] and, in this day and age, that's hard to come by. He's a heck of a ballplayer, carries himself like a pro."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter had a close relationship with Markakis in their four-plus seasons together. He didn't get a chance to talk to him before Thursday's game, but they text on occasion. Showalter admits that at times he still considers Markakis, who spent his teen years growing up in suburban Atlanta, an Oriole.
"Will I ever get to that point [where that's not a thought]? I don't want to forget good things that good people [do]," Showalter said. "He's a player that played for a team that I managed, but he was more than that. He's a good human being and a good teammate, and we miss him.
"That's kind of the coldness of the reality of the way it works," Showalter added. "[The Braves] did something. They wanted him, and they were able to do what they needed to do, what nobody else in baseball, not just the Orioles, could do. Hats off to Atlanta."
Despite playing for the Braves, Markakis said he, his wife, Christina, and their three boys will continue to live in northern Baltimore County. He said he expects to build another house in Monkton in "the next year or so."
"That's where we're going to be," Markakis said. "That's where my kids were born. It's where they've got their friends. We love the area. We love the community, so that's where we're going to call home."
On Thursday against former teammate Wei-Yin Chen, Markakis saw 11 pitches before hitting a fly out. In his second plate appearance, he stroked a single up the middle. The two at-bats were classic Markakis — with a couple twists.
He now sports a full beard, something he wasn't allowed to do under team rules in Baltimore. And he is now wearing uniform No. 22, instead of the No. 21 he's had since debuting with the club in 2006. He can't wear 21 in Atlanta — that's been retired in honor of Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn.
"Every time I come up to the plate I'm expecting 21 [to be announced]," Markakis said. "But it's part of change, though, it's part of life. We'll get used to it. I'm comfortable right now. I love the guys here and I think that's the biggest thing."