Markakis talks nutrition at youth event

Braves host PLAY campaign to promote healthy living, avoiding PEDs

ATLANTA -- Nick Markakis is a firm believer in "You are what you eat."

It's an important enough message that it inspired the veteran outfielder to come to sweltering Turner Field nearly seven hours prior to the Braves' Monday night series opener against the Cincinnati Reds to talk to youth about it. He came to participate in the Atlanta stop of MLB's national PLAY (Promoting a Lifetime of Activity for Youth) initiative.

"We want to be good role models for the kids," Markakis said. "We understand that a lot of kids are put in tough situations. From my standpoint, if I can help out 1, 2, 3 kids, that can go a long way. This is a great opportunity to work with kids and help kids out and preach doing things the right way. I was honored to do it."

PLAY was initiated in 2004 by the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS) to help raise awareness for children's health issues, including diabetes and child obesity.

Representatives of the Taylor Hooton Foundation, which helps educate youth about the dangers of performance-enhancing drugs, and the Henry Schein Cares Foundation, whose mission is to provide access to care for at-risk and underserved populations, along with Braves head athletic trainer Jeff Porter and assistant athletic trainer Jim Lovell, were on hand as mentors to more than 50 area kids ranging from ages 11 to 18.

A Taylor Hooton Foundation advisory board member, Markakis held his 10-minute talk and Q&A on Turner Field's Right Field Patio to conclude the nearly three-hour clinic, which visits all 30 teams over the course of the season.

"It started with the Major League Baseball athletic trainers and the issue of diabetes. 'We really want to have a conversation with young people about this and about healthy eating,'" said Neil Romano, chairman of the Taylor Hooton Foundation and president of The Romano Group, who has been involved in baseball-related causes for nearly a quarter of a century. "From there, it kind of evolved into what you see today."

The clinic featured three stations: one in right field, which ran agility drills, sprints and other activities; one at the indoor batting cages, where kids took cuts off the tee; and the third seated in the home dugout along the first-base line, where Eric Kearns of Henry Schein Cares spoke on the importance of nutrition.

Porter and Lovell were among the enthusiastic team personnel helping out on the field. It's an event neither would miss, nor has.

"We love this. It's a great event for all the young folks, and this is a special, special group," Porter said. "They are so attentive to everything that we're talking to them about and so willing to learn. We have a broad message for them, but the main take-home message is to be outside and play and be active on all the days that you can. Then move to your electronic stuff on rainy days and cold days when you can't get outside and don't have access to a gym."

"It's a lot of fun to see the kids come out. They really enjoy being here and getting to see some things behind the scenes," said Lovell, who escaped the heat by working on the first of two indoor cages, setting the ball up on a tee for BP. "It's for a good cause and everybody has a good time. We look forward to this day every year."

In addition to running around and talk of nutrition, possibly the most important message was about staying away from PEDs. That point was brought home by Tavis Piattoly, a renowned sports dietitian and a member of the Taylor Hooton Foundation.

Piattoly went into the story of Taylor, a 17-year-old pitcher in West Plano, Texas, who used steroids to try to make the jump from JV to varsity. He quit using but suffered from depression and committed suicide shortly after. Piattoly expressed that steroids are not only dangerous, but they aren't necessary to gain size. Proper nutrition can do the job just fine.

"Nutrition is the missing link to the puzzle today," he said. "A lot of kids are not thinking about what to put in their body. They're training hard, they're practicing, they have specialist coaches, but I work with a lot of kids on an individual level and I see their diets and I analyze their diets, and we look at how much of a deficiency that is and how that's limiting their ability to reach their peak performance."

If Piattoly's talk wasn't enough, Markakis' shining example should be.

"You want to preach do it the right way and hard work and dedication pays off," he said. "You don't need to take any shortcuts. Just have a good mind, a good head on your shoulders and work hard, and anything's possible."

The kids seemed to get the message.

"I got a lot of things out of today. Most of all, play the game right, in a respectful manner and always respect the game as a whole," said 18-year-old Theron Freeman, a recent graduate from Stockbridge High School who has enrolled into the Army -- the first in his family to enter the military. "I also learned a lot about eating healthy, maintaining healthy eating habits, and making sure you're doing the right things and not putting anything into your body that will harm you in the long run. It's really not hard [to resist doing steroids] because I think of myself as a leader not a follower."

Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com based in Atlanta. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.