No moment was more a microcosm of the Braves’ crumbling fortunes and front-office dysfunction in the third season of their rebuild than the night in late August when deposed closer Jim Johnson blew an eighth-inning lead and then-president of baseball operations John Hart dressed down manager Brian Snitker. Shouting at him so loudly in the manager’s office that some players heard from the clubhouse.
And perhaps nothing better exemplifies Nick Markakis and what he stands for than the veteran right fielder’s reaction upon hearing what Hart said to Snitker, who appeared almost ashen and uncharacteristically sullen minutes later when reporters entered the office, and really was never quite himself again the rest of the season.
Markakis made it known, had the message sent up the chain, that if Hart ever treated the manager that way again that Markakis would, in so many words, kick his ass.
This is not something that you will get Markakis to talk about, because the stoic 13th-year big leaguer doesn’t ever call attention to himself, or air out proverbial dirty laundry publicly, and prefers to look ahead, not back. But multiple others with knowledge of the situation confirm the account.
Here’s all that Markakis said when asked Sunday in general terms about the way that Snitker was treated.
“In this game everybody needs to be treated like a human being, and sometimes some things are unfortunate, they happen,” he said. “But that’s all taken care of now. I understand the process and I understand what’s going on, but everybody is a human being here and everybody should be treated like a human being. Respect each other. And that starts from the top.
“We respect our manager, he respects us, and that’s about all I can say on that. But we love Snit. We’re going to try to win for him and the fans and the city, and we’re going to go out there and play hard every day.”
The Braves are in the fourth year of a rebuild that has seen them lose 90 or more games in three consecutive seasons, after losing as many as 90 games only once in the previous 24 seasons.
Markakis, 34, has been a Brave through the process and enters the final year of a four-year, $44 million contract. He came to camp fit, strong and of a positive mind. He’s 6-for-9 in five games this spring after going 1-for-3 with an RBI single Sunday against the Marlins.
“He’s on a mission, I can see it,” Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer said. “He’s on a freakin’ mission. He wants to get 200 hits. And the way I see him swinging, just the adjustments that he’s made this winter – his swing looks as good as I’ve ever seen it since I’ve been with him, right now. Which, this early in spring training, is amazing. And he could be 0-for right now and I’d say the same thing.”
The Braves are under new management. Hart and former general manager John Coppolella are gone, and new GM Alex Anthopoulos has been straightforward and honest in his dealings with players and Snitker and his coaching so far – something they all seem to appreciate.
“The vibe around everything has been pretty awesome,” shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “Everyone has kind of been in tune with each other. I think the communication not only between us players but everybody else has been very clear, so that kind of allows everyone to operate freely within that. … There’s obviously lots of reasons for that, and we’re thankful for that.”
Many thought Markakis, a former Orioles two-time Gold Glove winner, Woodstock High School graduate and ex-Young Harris College standout, would have been traded during this past offseason. But he’s still here and teammates and coaches are thankful.
Markakis hit a modest .275 with just eight homers in 2017, but had 39 doubles and a .354 OBP only four points off his career mark. He doesn’t have the arm strength he once did, and his defense was just OK, solid if unspectacular.
But he has something else that doesn’t show up on paper – leadership, which can be an important factor for a team that hopes to take a significant step forward this year and will still be relying on several rookies or other young and relatively unproven players to contribute in a big way.
“He’s such a pro. Ultimate professional,” said Seitzer, who compared Markakis to legendary Royals third baseman George Brett when Seitzer was starting his playing career with Kansas City. “Reminds me a lot of George when I came up, just the way he carries himself and goes about his business. Just the way he plays the game. (Brett) wasn’t a big rah-rah guy but led by example.
“Alex Gordon, same way in Kansas City (when Seitzer was Royals hitting coach), same type of personality as Nicky’s. Very quiet, but takes care of business, very prepared. And you’d never know if he’s hitting .400 or .100.”
Swanson said, “I’m super thankful to have Nick back. He’s the same every day, and especially in this game that’s so hard to do. He does it almost with ease, at least it seems that way. So it’s pretty inspirational and it’s awesome just because all the knowledge that he brings and the experience that he has in this game and in life and all that kind of stuff. So I’m very happy to have him here.”
Braves franchise cornerstone Freddie Freeman has said several times this spring that it’s time for the Braves to show marked improvement and that he believes they will be competitive if some young players who gained experience in the past year take the next step in their development.
Markakis wants that to happen, too, for the sake of the team and especially for Freeman, who’s halfway through a long-term contract extension that’s seen more losing than the big slugger ever envisioned when he signed the deal.
“We’re going to compete. We’re going to compete hard every day,” Markakis said. “Freddie is the one guy that deserves it over here. He’s been around here for a while, he’s gone through his ups and downs with the team and I think he’s ready to see it turn the corner just like everyone else. We’re going to do our best. There’s no guarantee in this game; all you can do is stick together, play hard and try to win as many ballgames as you can.”
If plenty of observers thought Markakis would be traded, more thought late in the 2017 season that Snitker would be finished as manager. But with all the turmoil surrounding a Major League Baseball investigation into team infractions – mostly in the international free-agent market – which led to the forced resignation of Coppolella and his eventual lifetime ban from baseball, the Braves picked up the option on Snitker’s contract for some stability on that front.
Freeman was among the many players who lobbied for Snitker and said they were glad he kept his job.
“Everyone loves Snit, that’s no secret,” Swanson said. “He always has our back, he respects us, he’s clear with us. He’s everything you can ask for and he allows us to do our thing and be free with who we are, which is important these days. And him being able to do that and allow us to creates that mutual respect and that’s something that’s very valuable.”
Markakis said, “Being a manager, it’s all about how your players respond to you. It’s tough to play for a manager that you don’t get along with. Everybody around here understands Snit, a lot of guys have played for him already. I love the guy. He understands the game, he’s been around it for a long time, he gets it (from a player’s perspective), he’s trying to make us better and we’re trying to win for him.
“It’s awesome that they gave him another chance to come back this year, everybody was happy about that and we’re going to do our damndest to keep him here as long as we can.”