Royals’ Whit Merrifield takes place among AL’s best
Whit Merrifield waited a long time, grinding through bus rides in the minors and bouncing back from call-ups that were probably deserved but didn’t come. His path, trying and discouraging at times, led him to the best view in baseball Tuesday night.
Merrifield stood in center field, right in the middle of the biggest showcase in the sport, and looked out at the sights and sounds of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and a packed house at Progressive Field. He decided not only to soak in the moment for which he’d yearned for years, but he also wanted to capture it, remember it, have it to always carry around with him in his back pocket.
The gravity of where he stood at that moment, and how he got there, wasn’t lost on him. The ultra-competitive, hard-nosed, fight-until-the-last-out Merrifield pulled out his cell phone, which he’d taken on the field with him, and starting shooting video of the scene.
“It’s the All-Star Game,” Merrifield said while getting dressed after the game in the victorious American League clubhouse. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re not playing for home field anymore. Enjoy it. Try to soak in the moments. Obviously, it’s not you would do normally. Special occasion. Special event. I did what I could to take advantage.”
Merrifield, 30, a first-time American League All-Star selection and the major-league leader in hits, took over for two-time AL MVP Mike Trout in center field to start the sixth inning. He played the rest of the game, popped out on a 3-0 count in his first at-bat — he didn’t show up not to swing — and later struck out. The AL won the 90th MLB All-Star Game 4-3, their seventh consecutive win.
Merrifield wasn’t the only one soaking up the moments and the sights with a mixture of pride and the memory of how this game nearly wore him down and almost stole his dream from him. The two biggest supporters in his life, his parents Bill and Kissy, were taking it all in, too, albeit in a different manner.
“We just went out and took a picture with him, and I started tearing up,” Kissy, his mother, said. “I’m just proud, over the top. To see him out there with all those other men and people screaming his name, that’s just a very different feeling as a parent.”
Bill, like Kissy wearing an All-Star jersey with the number 15 and Merrifield printed on the back, explained the “snapshots” that stick in parents’ minds of their children at different stages of their growth: first steps, Little League, going to high school and hundreds more.
A few minutes later, a passerby on the concourse, having recognized the name on the back of the parents’ jerseys, yelled, “Whit Merrifield. That’s our guy!”
“He’s a big, grown man,” Bill said. “He has his own life, but we see him as our kid. He’s our boy. … I’m 57: When I look out there and see him play, I see him playing travel ball. Because he does the same things. He runs the same way. He dives the same way. He slides the same way. He hits the same. That’s what, in our minds, we see.
“So when you come out and go to something like this, it’s another world kind of things. It’s surreal. This is something we would come to, just her and I, as a bucket list thing. Then you turn around and our kid is out there. Oh my God! As a parent it’s a completely different feeling. He’s cried on your shoulder. He’s done all of these different things to make himself who he is. We’ve helped along the way, but it’s him. That’s the snapshot we’re going to have 10 years from now.”
This past winter, when he signed his new contract with the Royals, Merrifeld shared that he came close to walking away from the sport in 2015. This was after his sixth season in the minors, nearly getting called up and then being told the organization changed its mind.
When named to the AL All-Star Team, Merrifield said the experience would special because he’d share it with those who were in his corner back in 2015.
“I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Merrifield said. “I didn’t feel like my opportunity was ever going to come. I didn’t feel like the team valued me. I felt like there were plenty of chances for me to get called up, and I didn’t. I know the business of baseball. I know how it works. I know there’s certain reasons why certain guys got called up, but there was also times when guys got called up in the same situation as myself that I felt like I was better than. I didn’t know why it wasn’t me.”
Bill and Kissy were well-versed in the potential turning point their son faced because they’d already been there. “Full circle,” was how Kissy described it.
Bill, now an assistant athletic director at Wake Forest, chased his own big-league dreams to the point of getting that major league call-up but not getting into a game. Then he got injured and retired.
Whatever decision Merrifield made, to keep pursuing baseball or to go back to school, his parents would’ve supported and helped him in any way possible. But they both knew he wasn’t done.
“In my heart of hearts, I didn’t think Whit was ready to stop, and he wasn’t,” Kissy said.
Bill still saw dogged determination and intensity and fire in his son’s eyes.
“I knew I was ready to quit,” Bill said. “Basically, I was just asking him, ‘Are you ready in your heart to quit? You can walk away and never miss it a day? Because if you can walk away and never miss it a day, then you’re ready.’ I don’t think he was there yet.”
Even after Merrifield reached the majors and got his “shot,” he still had hurdles to clear and things to prove to those both outside and inside the organization. He debuted in 2016 and started 2017 back in the minors before being recalled.
All along, he rejected the label of being an “organizational” guy, code for he’d never be an everyday big-leaguer. He refused to settle for being pigeonholed as a role player, a utility guy off the bench or the 25th man on a roster.
Finally, he became a mainstay in 2018 and became just the third player since World War II to lead the majors in both hits and stolen bases.
“It’s all about your internal fortitude, your intestinal fortitude and what you’re made of, and Whit’s got that in bounds,” Bill said. “He just has it. He will fight through. He will fight you, he will fight me, he will fight everybody to get what he wants, and he has. Look where he is.”
For the fighting to lead Merrifield to the MLB All-Star Game certainly tugged at the heartstrings of his parents.
Neither spoke of the All-Star Game with their son before the day he called and shared the news. They were too nervous. In fact, they were on the sofa getting ready to watch a television show announcing the selections when Merrifield called.
Unusually chatty and purposely coy, he nearly caused his mother to hang up on him so she could see the results she anxiously awaited. That’s when he told her he’d been selected, setting off an explosion of joy and screaming in his parents’ home.
“It’s kind of a little bit emotional for me,” Kissy said. “I’m just so proud of him. He’s so excited and to see that smile and that light in his eye. He’s worked really hard. It’s finally here. One of the best in the world. That’s kind of crazy to even think about.”
Now that he’s reached this echelon, will it take away some of that edge that has become Merrifield’s trademark?
Having always had a carrot to chase and doubters to silence, recognition that had been withheld, could this accomplishment perhaps soften the hard-driving Merrifield?
“I’m never really satisfied with where I am,” Merrifield said. “I just hold myself to a pretty high standard. I’ve got one shot at this — to be in the big leagues — and I’m going to do everything I can to be the best player that I can be. I know I can be better than I am right now. That’s what I’ll continue to work at.”
Bill, who proudly claims to have known when Merrifield reached high school that his son had talents and gifts that he never had, dares anyone to continue doubting or questioning if that chip on his shoulder has disappeared.
“That chip has just become part of him,” Bill said. “It’s not to show you. He’s shown the world now. So what do you do from here? You kind of absorb it and you go about and say, ‘This is who I am now. This is what I’ve made myself, now watch me go.’
“I think he’s got seven, eight more years in him, if he stays healthy, to really be productive. Hopefully, he gets on a winning team. I hope it’s Kansas City; I hope they put some guys around the core that they have. There’s nothing more that he would love than to win, and to win in Kansas City and to win a World Series in Kansas City.”
Yeah, Merrifield still has another stage to chase.