Ryan Flaherty's first major league locker mates, Nick Johnson and Nick Markakis, were firm believers that rookies should never speak unless expressly asked for their opinion. Johnson retired after Flaherty's rookie year, while Markakis dressed beside Flaherty in the Baltimore Orioles' home clubhouse at Camden Yards from 2012 through 2014.
"He didn't talk to me for three years," Flaherty said. "The first conversation we had was about his sister-in-law, who I ended up marrying. He's a man of few words."
That's the way most people see Markakis -- as a stoic producer who churns out numbers in a publicity vacuum. He is about to become the first player since World War II to have 2,000 career hits, 400 doubles and 1,000 runs (he's at 998) without ever making an All-Star team.
Flaherty has tapped into an alternate side of Markakis as his commuting partner, workout buddy, comic foil, daily antagonist and the guy who passes the gravy at holiday dinners. They're sharing a clubhouse and National League East title hopes this summer as teammates and brothers-in-law on a surprise contender in the Atlanta Braves.
Markakis married Christina Dutko of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2008. Flaherty became part of the family in 2016 when he wed Christina's sister, Ashley. As a tandem, the two Braves aren't quite as entertaining as Ozzie Albies legging out a triple or Ronald Acuña Jr. ranging into the gap to steal an extra-base hit. But their biting humor and incessant jibes have provided a nice diversion for teammates during the 162-game hamster wheel of a season.
"I think generally they get on pretty well," Braves reliever Peter Moylan said. "But they're the first at each other when something isn't up to speed, so to speak. They'll say things you probably couldn't say to another teammate. They get all the bulls--- out of the way early and there's no holding back. They're like, 'This is what I think and I'm going to tell you,' and it works both ways. I think it's hilarious."
Baseball has a rich history of fathers, sons and brothers, from the Boones and Alous to the DiMaggios, Niekros, Alomars and Bells. Brothers-in-law aren't quite as prominent in MLB lore, but several prominent players have been linked by marriage through the years. The list includes Manny Machado and Yonder Alonso, Ian Desmond and Josh Roenicke, Neil Walker and Don Kelly, and Brandon Crawford and Gerrit Cole, who were in the news recently when Crawford took Cole deep during a San Francisco Giants-Houston Astros matchup.
Every now and then, brothers-in-law wear the same uniform. Outfielder Rick Miller married Carlton Fisk's sister, Janet, in 1973, and they played together for four more seasons in Boston. In 2014, pitcher Michael Tonkin and outfielder Jason Kubel were in-laws and teammates in Minnesota.
The Atlanta tandem has contributed its share of impact moments in April and May. Markakis is batting .341 with a National League-leading 72 hits and is driving the ball with authority three years after neck surgery threatened to derail his career. He has caught enough of a second wind to leave Kirk Gibson, Tim Salmon, Eric Chavez and a select few others behind on the list of "best players to never make an All-Star team."
Flaherty, a former Vanderbilt Commodore who was a first-round pick by the Cubs in the 2008 draft, ranks third among Maine natives behind Del Bissonette and George Gore with 37 career home runs. He led the National League in hitting three weeks into April before losing the starting third-base job to Jose Bautista and, more recently, Johan Camargo. But he remains a handy piece for Braves manager Brian Snitker off the bench because of his versatility, reliable glove and ability to run into a fastball.
As teammates in Atlanta, Flaherty and Markakis are baseball's answer to Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in "Step Brothers" -- minus the bunk beds. They'll bicker or needle each other in the clubhouse, the dugout, in airport terminals and on bus rides to and from the ballpark.
"We ride to the field together every day, and he'll give his opinion on some nonsense," Flaherty said. "Then we get to the field and we hardly ever talk until the next day, unless we're working out or he's telling me how bad my swing looked. I'll come back to the dugout and he'll say, 'What kind of swing was that?'"
Flaherty has a stock response whenever it appears Markakis is gaining the upper hand in the relationship.
"Nick has more hits than me," he said. "He has a bigger bank account than me. He's got a bigger car than me. But I have better hair than him."
Over seven big league seasons, Flaherty has earned a reputation as a popular teammate with a flair for guerilla prankster warfare. By Flaherty's estimate, reliever Darren O'Day sliced up eight articles of his clothing during their time together in Baltimore.
Flaherty achieved a measure of revenge in 2015, when he gained secret access to O'Day's gear as it was being packed for a trip to the All-Star Game. O'Day, who loathes the New England Patriots, arrived in the visiting clubhouse at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati to find a Tom Brady jersey hanging in his locker.
Markakis, the stoic brother-in-law, is most comfortable when engaged in four activities: playing baseball, working out in preparation for baseball, hanging out with his wife and three sons, or sitting in a tree stand on a hunting trip. With his dark eyes, brooding countenance and ultra-quiet demeanor, he has been known to intimidate teammates in the clubhouse without even trying.
"Guys think he's probably got a body count somewhere," Flaherty said, laughing. During Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas gift exchanges, the respective wives see the same dynamic on display.
"If you're a fly on the wall listening to them and you really don't know them, you're like, 'Is this really being said right now?'" Christina Markakis said.
"Ryan is Mr. Social Butterfly, and Nick is the polar opposite," Ashley Flaherty said. "You see them and you're like, 'What in the world do they have in common?'"
The foundation of the relationship was laid in 2012 in Baltimore, after the Cubs left Flaherty off their 40-man roster and the Orioles chose him in the Rule 5 draft. Markakis, who has a softer, more generous side than he likes to reveal publicly, went on an annual shopping trip to buy Louis Vuitton wallets for the rookies, and he asked Christina to accompany him to help pick out a special gift for Flaherty.
A couple of years later, Christina mentioned Flaherty as a potential match for her sister Ashley, who was working as an attorney in Florida. When Markakis casually raised the topic in the Baltimore clubhouse, heads snapped in unison, because the gesture was so out of character.
"I just relayed the message and one thing led to another," Markakis said. "I don't do matchmaking."
The night Flaherty met Ashley Dutko, he had just received a pie in the face from Adam Jones and emerged from the clubhouse with remnants of pie cream still in his ears. He took her to the Abbey Burger Bistro on their first date, and the relationship blossomed over time before they were married in Florida in December 2016.
As Flaherty gradually infiltrated the Dutko-Markakis family dynamic, he and his brother-in-law grew more comfortable probing each other's weak spots. They live five minutes apart in suburban Atlanta, and Flaherty swings by Markakis' house for the commute to SunTrust Park. During the drive, Markakis typically will complain about Flaherty's insistence on blasting rap music on the car stereo. Or he'll give Flaherty grief over his addiction to his cellphone.
"Nick calls Ryan a 'damn millennial,'" Christina Markakis said. This might be a salient observation if Markakis weren't 34 years old and Flaherty 31.
The fellow Braves snipe at each other over their golf games or respective diets. Markakis has a sweet tooth and a fondness for Wendy's cheeseburgers, while Flaherty is a stickler for nutrition and never touches fast food. "Ryan eats like a bird," Markakis frequently tells his wife.
But nothing bonds or divides them more than the debate over their wardrobes. Flaherty is partial to skinny jeans, sweatpants, hoodies and tube socks over Jordan sneakers. He likes camouflage gear because it's fashionable, while Markakis prefers camo because it's functional and great for hunting.
During a recent bus trip, Flaherty and Markakis sent photos of their outfits on a family text chain and declared each an embarrassment to the entire clan. In one text, Flaherty derided Markakis for wearing a pair of slacks that looked like "my grandmother's curtains."
So where do the other Braves come down on the topic? Pitcher Brandon McCarthy prefers to remain neutral.
"They're at opposite-but-equal ends of the terrible fashion spectrum," McCarthy said.
On the field, the brothers-in-law are bonded by a love of the game and an appreciation for old-school fundamentals. Flaherty's father, Ed, is an accomplished Division III coach who recently logged his 1,000th career victory at the University of Southern Maine. Flaherty was a longtime favorite of Orioles manager Buck Showalter, who saw a value in him that far surpassed his .639 career OPS with Baltimore.
Markakis has never hit with prototypical corner outfield power. But he's a two-time Gold Glove winner who appeared in 155 or more games in 10 of his first 12 seasons. He has shown a discerning eye, an appreciation for the craft of hitting, and professional staying power at a time when the game is increasingly skewing young.
Among modern-day athletes, Markakis stands out for his aversion to self-promotion. He doesn't have accounts on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, and he tells his wife he would rather be anonymous than succumb to the temptation of raising his profile as a social media gadfly.
"He does things so quietly, and he doesn't want any of the attention," Moylan said. "He's quite happy just going out there, being a professional, playing the game the right way and leading by example. Sometimes in this day and age, it's more about trying to get the attention than it is trying to do the job, and he's the complete opposite. That's a nice, refreshing change."
Contrary to public perception, Markakis insists that he is not the joyless, robotic presence people make him out to be.
"We spend a lot of time together [as teammates] and you can't be serious 24/7," Markakis said. "You have to have a little fun with it. If I'm at the plate and I get jammed so bad I pop it up to the pitcher, I'm cool with people making jokes about it. That's one of the single most embarrassing things that can happen as a hitter. When that happened to another player when I was in Baltimore, Adam Jones and I would die laughing in the outfield. I'd rather strike out than pop up to the pitcher."
When Markakis looks back on his career post-retirement, it might be hard to top events of this summer for entertainment value. He has been energized by Atlanta's young roster and the daily commutes to the park with his brother-in-law, who has loosened him up and allowed him to have more fun than ever around family and teammates.
Markakis, in turn, has reinforced Flaherty's faith in the importance of dedication and commitment to the job. Beneath the insults and put-downs, they're just two ballplayers with shared values and a common affinity for winning.
"It's funny," Flaherty said. "The first thing every teammate asks me is, 'What's Nick like at home?' The first time you meet him you're like, 'Do you not like me?' But that's not it at all. He's just a quiet human being.
"You always hear people talk about athletes and say, 'He doesn't care about the fame.' But Nick literally doesn't care about anything except baseball and his family. He doesn't pay attention to any other external stuff going on in the world, which is a special character trait he has. It's the same reason a lot of people don't know how good he is."
Lest those comments come across as overly sentimental -- or give people the impression these two guys actually like each other -- Markakis has no plans to cut Flaherty any slack when they're getting after it in the gym. He will continue to push and prod Flaherty to be better because the Braves are counting on both of them. And isn't that what a good brother-in-law is supposed to do?
"I think deep down, they really do respect each other and admire each other," Ashley Flaherty said. "And we're all glad that they have each other."