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Markakis travels long, straight line to first All-Star game

The Nick Markakis-Ryan Flaherty carpool to SunTrust Park – express service to every night game – is as regular as church bells. There’s a Markakis in the car, so how could it be otherwise? 

“Leave at 1:30, every day,” smiled Flaherty, who is both brother-in-law and teammate to the Braves All-Star right-fielder. 

Sometimes on the 20-minute ride to work the famously stoic Markakis is more talkative than others. He’ll carp about Flaherty’s choice of music. They’ll bust on each other. Talk family stuff. But it’s never exactly like Markakis is an AM radio on scan.

And when the two talk hitting, whether it’s in the car or in the clubhouse, that can be a rather one-sided conversation. Markakis comes to the discussion with – as of Friday – 2,168 hits. That’s 1,888 more than Flaherty, a utility player with the Braves. “He tries to talk to me about hitting, but it just doesn’t come as easy to me as it does to him,” Flaherty said, again with the smile. He can be as gregarious as Markakis is reserved.

Once, back before the baseball voting public wised up and placed him in the starting lineup for next week’s extravaganza in D.C., Markakis said the darndest thing on the drive in.

“I don’t even care if I make the All-Star game,” he told his brother-in-law. And it looked for a while that his career was trapped on that one particular dead-end road. Entering this season, nobody other than Juan Pierre had turned out as many hits as Markakis and not been named an All-Star.

But, yes, all you plow horses out there need to know that your steadiness and your dedication to the daily grind might one day be celebrated. That’s regardless of whether you want the attention or not.

For at 34, in his 13th major league season, one of baseball’s ultimate straight-line, no-muss, no-fuss performers gets his All-Star moment. The player who can’t or won’t conform to the modern all-or-nothing, home-run-or-bust paradigm of his sport still is finally allowed to walk among the elite. 

One wondered of Markakis if this late appreciation wasn’t actually a blessing, that after being so long overlooked, just maybe he can savor this moment even more.  

“Yes and no,” he said.

“Whether it happened my first couple of years or toward the later part of my career, it doesn’t really matter to me. In a perfect world it’s awesome that I made it now because of my kids, that they’re able to be a part of it. You work hard, you do what you what you do on a baseball field – that’s what I’ve done my entire career – and whatever else happens outside of that I can’t control.”

Markakis says he’s excited to be an All-Star. Really excited that his three sons, falling between the ages of 5-9, will get one of the great summer-vacation trips of all time. “When I FaceTimed them with the news (the Braves were on the road), seeing the expression on their faces was priceless,” he said.

And excited to be able to share the experience with three of his teammates – Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies and Mike Foltynewicz – guys who, “I’ve played all year with, and we battle every day together,” as he puts it.

The thing about Markakis is he expresses all these very heartfelt sentiments with the flat tone of your server reciting the specials of the day for the 44th time. He changes expression less often than a poker pro holding a straight flush. 

It’s just his way. Flaherty first met Markakis when he was a Baltimore rookie in 2012 and as he joked to ESPN, “He didn’t talk to me for three years – the first conversation we had was about his sister-in-law, who I ended up marrying. He’s a man of few words.”

He’s always been harder to read than the fine print on a rental-car agreement. And even now, a couple of years after joining the family when he married Markakis’ wife’s sister, Flaherty said he hasn’t gotten a whole lot better at it.  

It’s not that Markakis is some joyless drone – how could he be playing baseball for $11 million this year and sharing it all with a family that the camera absolutely loved as he approached and then achieved his 2,000th career hit last season?   

Former Brave and current Fox Sports South analyst Jeff Francoeur can testify that Markakis will enjoy himself on a golf course. Yet, in the grander scheme, Markakis said, “Sinking a big putt really doesn’t mean anything.”

Freeman said the walk-off moment brings out the joy in the man – and it was Markakis who got this season started with a walk-off home run in the opener. “You have to be watching him because it only lasts about two seconds, and he goes back to being stoic,” Freeman said.

As far as his reaction to being named an All-Star, “I haven’t really seen a smile yet,” Freeman said.

“I don’t think he’s exited for himself. I think he’s more excited for his family and his boys. That’s the thing he cares about the most. His boys are old enough to really understand that their dad is a Major League All-Star now. It’s going to be fun seeing them run all over the field.”

What you get with Markakis is the most serious kind of ballplayer. The kind who, beside leading the National League in hits entering the weekend, makes his mark by being every-day dependable, like the best kind of farm tractor. He’s the one who has averaged playing 153 games a season. The one who once went more than two seasons without committing an error (a record 389 games for a position player).

That doesn’t always translate well to the language of public acclaim, which may be a chief reason it has taken this long to get Markakis to an All-Star game. But it works in the clubhouse.

“What a lot of us people say is, he’s a boring professional,” Freeman said. “He isn’t going to capture the headlines, but he’s a guy you want on your team every single night. 

“It has been an absolute treasure – it’s hard to even put into words – what the last four years have been like playing with him.”  

When the Braves signed Markakis as a free agent before the 2015 season, it was a nice coming-home story for a guy with roots at Woodstock High and Young Harris College. That was tempered by the concern over the mixed message of bringing in a veteran to a youth-oriented rebuilding situation. Add one neck fusion surgery to that mix, and there was no shortage of doubts. 

Wasn’t this about the time that, instead of enjoying the most productive season of his life, Markakis was supposed to be well into a full-blown physical breakdown? 

“That’s what a lot of people said. You really can tell a player by his track record. The track record says a lot in this game,” said the guy whose record is one of a product out-performing its warranty. “People are always going to speculate, people are always going to talk, but it’s up to you to go out there and prove them wrong. I believe in myself, I believe in my game. If I can stay healthy and take care of myself, everything else will take care of itself.”

Instead, Markakis has played, and played well, nearly all the way through that iffy four-year contract. And now has left the Braves with a real hard decision on what to do with him from here.

Never bet against a man who describes one of his guiding principles like this: 

“Consistency is what life is about. Whether it’s baseball or a regular 9-to-5 job, you want to be consistent in what you do. You’re going to have your highs and lows, but if you can stay on that main line and have that same consistency things will eventually work their way out.

“You got to be consistent: consistently healthy, consistently performing on the field and consistent with taking care of yourself, especially the older you get.

“Consistency off the field is just as important. You got to take care of yourself, you got to train. If you work out three days a week in the offseason and start going one or two, more often than not it’s going to have a negative effect. Be consistent with everything in life. Don’t stray too far away from what you’re used to doing.”

So, yeah, if the carpool is supposed to leave at 1:30, a 1:45 departure is just not going to get it.

And it is going to take something really special to make Markakis jump up and down in glee.

“Winning a World Series,” he promised, while offering no preview of that reaction whatsoever.

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