ATLANTA — As usual with Whit Merrifield’s baseball career, there’s good mixed with bad.
Of course he’s one of the best players in the major leagues, but on a team that while it's won nine of its last 15 games, is on pace for a second straight 100-loss season.
Yes, Kansas City showed its commitment with a four-year, $16.25 million contract in January. But it's so back-loaded that it’s perfect trade bait (although the Royals have reportedly told teams not to ask this season).
He's living the dream, not only of playing in the big leagues but excelling. And yet he didn’t get his taste until after the small-market Royals saw their near-30 year rebuilding plan pay off with the 2015 world championship, which quickly begat another rebuild.
All of it’s OK. Really, it is. He’d prefer it be better but that’s the situation.
Merrifield is used to it.
The “yeah, but” has been life ever since his last college game.
“I don’t know,” Merrifield said, eyes downcast and head shaking. “I don’t know why I wasn’t seen as a major league guy when I came out of college. People saw me as a utility guy or bench guy, but people never seemed to think of me as a good major league player.”
Who could forget that moment going on 10 years now when Merrifield, one of the best pure hitters South Carolina ever had, slashed that single to win the 2010 College World Series?
Who could forget him, tongue hanging out and arms outstretched, swooping toward first as Scott Wingo crossed the plate, delivering the Gamecocks’ long-awaited baseball national championship?
Nobody, which is what makes it so mystifying and stupefying how it took the Royals this long to realize Merrifield’s potential. Regional bias and glory-earned adoration aside, Merrifield’s always been terrific, yet Kansas City tagged him early as merely OK.
“I knew the young man was a ballplayer. He’s earned everything he’s gotten,” said USC athletic director Ray Tanner, Merrifield’s coach from 2008-10. “There was no easy path to the big leagues for him. He had to work and work and work and say, ‘Hey, I’m over here.’”
He was considered no better than a ninth-round draft pick and after dawdling progression through the minor leagues, the Royals left him unprotected in the Rule 5 draft five years later. That’s where the “glue” guys, the “chemistry” guys, all the guys that get called everything but “great” get put so some other team can pick them up.
At least that kind of excused the Royals from not taking advantage of what they had until then. No other major league team looked Merrifield’s way, either.
“I tell everyone all the time, minor leagues suck,” Merrifield said. “The baseball wasn’t good, and baseball wasn’t fun. That was hard for me, and my numbers reflected how I felt about it.”
Why? Why the stall? Was it that he was good but other prospects were better? Was it genetic as the son of two-time ACC Player of the Year Bill Merrifield, a can’t-miss phenom who never made it to the big leagues?
It was eerie how Whit’s career seemed to channel his dad’s. Bill was called up in 1987, took batting practice with the Pirates and sent back down before he could actually play.
In 2015, Whit was pulled out of a Triple-A game and told he was finally headed to the majors. The same night, he was informed the Royals were promoting a pitcher instead.
“That’s really when I sort of lost it, thought that was it, and contemplated hanging it up,” Whit said. “It was a feeling I had for two or three years. It came to a head, and I called my dad, said, ‘I want to quit.’”
Bill understood. He played one more season after his brutal same-day promotion and demotion before telling his Triple-A manager that he was done (coincidentally, he retired in the same stadium where his son would win the College World Series 22 years later).
“He was supportive, but he also said, ‘You take the cleats off, that’s it. Can’t put ’em back on,’” Whit said. “I decided to stick it out a little bit longer.”
Whit didn’t get his call-up in 2015, thus depriving him of a World Series ring, but he finally made it the next season. There was another send-down and call-up that summer, a failure to make the Opening Day roster in 2017 and another call-up soon after that.
That time, Merrifield was there to stay. He led the American League with 34 stolen bases, then embarked on a 2018 season that as much endeared him to the Royals as it raised questions for them.
He led the major leagues in hits and stolen bases, something only two other players had done in nearly 75 years. If he did that at age 29, how was he not on the team before?
Nobody has a good answer, but all are glad he’s here now.
The Braves’ Dallas Keuchel hadn’t allowed a baserunner through three innings as Merrifield led off the fourth Tuesday night at SunTrust Park. He dropped a bunt down the third-base line and easily beat it out, scoring on an Alex Gordon double in what became a win and a two-game series sweep.
Keen managerial strategy?
“That was his decision,” skipper Ned Yost said.
“I probably should have done it the first at-bat,” Merrifield said. “We didn’t get many barrels on him early so I figured I’d try to break up his rhythm a little bit.”
It worked, as has most of Merrifield’s season. He’s three off the major-league lead in hits, is batting .302 with 12 home runs and 54 RBIs and was named to his first All-Star game.
He’s relaxed with his new contract; excited for his brother Hite, a freshman at Wake Forest this season; and gracious to his teammates and opponents. Before Wednesday’s game, the Braves promoted Triple-A pitcher Jeremy Walker, who also hails from Advance, N.C., Merrifield’s hometown.
It sounds like a joke (“You hear the one about the two boys from Advance who made the major leagues?”) but Merrifield wrote him a note on Braves stationery welcoming him to the bigs. It wasn’t that long ago he was so tired of waiting for his own call-up that he was ready to quit.
It was frustrating to wait so long, frustrating to be on the lip of making it and told no and frustrating to finally get there only to be on a losing team. But he’s here, proven, and not going anywhere.
Merrifield swatted the third pitch on that Omaha night nine years ago.
Sometimes, you have to wait before becoming a legend.