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Royals’ Whit Merrifield is taking his family along on big-league journey

On an overcast day in 1987, Bill Merrifield climbed out of a cab in downtown Pittsburgh and walked into the clubhouse at Three Rivers Stadium. The first thing he did was ask for money.

It was the late summer, and Merrifield, a 25-year-old career minor-leaguer, had spent the summer playing for the Edmonton Trappers, a Class AAA affiliate of the California Angels. A former second-round pick, he had toiled in the minor leagues for five seasons.

On a day in late August, he had been dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a trade for second baseman Johnny Ray. The next day, he boarded a flight to Pittsburgh, prepared to spend his first night in the big leagues. As he entered the ballpark, he suddenly realized: After a summer in Canada, he had no American dollars in his pocket.

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Nearly 30 years later, the afternoon in Pittsburgh is like a memory of a memory, a blur that would become Merrifield family lore. Here was Bill Merrifield, hitting batting practice as Pirates manager Jim Leyland barked out instructions; here he was, navigating the clubhouse, meeting new teammates Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla; here he was, as the afternoon turned to evening, receiving a mild surprise from a clubhouse attendant.

What equipment do you need? You’re starting at first base.

“It was a big day,” Merrifield says.

In the next hour, rain began falling at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. The pregame delay lasted close to 45 minutes. All these years later, Merrifield still can’t explain what happened next. The clubhouse attendant returned, telling Merrifield that Leyland needed to see him. Inside the manager’s office, Leyland delivered a brief message: The Pirates wanted Merrifield to report to instructional league.

When he returned to his locker, his equipment bag was packed. Moments later, he walked out of the stadium gates and headed back to his hotel. He would retire the next season, a 26-year-old with his first child on the way, a North Carolina native ready to start a family and leave baseball behind, a minor-leaguer dreamer who never spent another day in the big leagues.

Nearly 30 years later, the story of his father was somewhere in the recesses of Whit Merrifield’s memory as he reached for his cell phone on a golf course in the Pacific Northwest. It was May 17. The sun was setting off the coast of Puget Sound. And Merrifield, a 27-year-old career minor-leaguer, was finishing a round of golf at Chambers Bay Golf Course, the renowned track that hosted the U.S. Open last year.

There was little hint of what would happen next. In the next two weeks, Merrifield would become an unlikely Kansas City folk hero, hitting .360 in his first 12 major-league games, setting a Royals franchise record with hits in his first 11 career starts, helping his club back atop the American League Central with a blazing start to his big-league career.

A versatile Whit Merrifield has become super utility option for the Royals 

But this was still a May afternoon in Tacoma, just hours after a day game, and Merrifield was still a minor-leaguer. The green fee was close to $500, and Merrifield almost didn’t go, telling his father he couldn’t afford it.

“That’s like half my monthly paycheck,” he said.

Merrifield’s father had convinced him to play, and when he completed the 18th hole, a message was waiting for him. After nearly six full years and 683 games in the minor leagues, Merrifield was being called up to the Kansas City Royals. As he processed the news, he picked up his phone and called his parents. Bill Merrifield had been waiting for this call, too.

The next day, Bill climbed out of a car at Kauffman Stadium, walked through the stadium gates, and took a seat in the stadium’s lower level. Accompanied by his wife Kissy and two younger children, Costner and Hite, Bill watched his son play his first major-league baseball game, starting in left field against the Boston Red Sox. When the game was over, the Merrifield family gathered outside the Royals’ clubhouse. They did not talk about the close call 30 years ago, Whit Merrifield says, but in some ways, they didn’t have to.

“It was definitely a family relief,” Whit Merrifield says. “It was definitely unsaid, but I definitely knew it was there.”

More than two weeks later, the relief has now turned to something else, a combination of joy and incredulity. Last offseason, Merrifield was not a member of the Royals’ 40-man roster, left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft, available to any team in baseball that wanted to keep him in the big leagues.

Today, he is the de facto starter at second base for the defending world champions, a former ninth-round pick who turned himself into a utility man with the ability to play seven positions, a throwback whose start ignited an offense missing three All-Stars and inspired wonder among his teammates.

“We’re just kind of in awe of what he’s doing,” left fielder Alex Gordon says. “It’s special.”

“It’s the mentality he brings every day,” first baseman Eric Hosmer says. “It fits with everybody in here.”

The story of Whit Merrifield can feel uniquely baseball, of course, a sport where players must toil in the minor leagues for years, where Hobbsian tales of mystery rookies fill the sport’s canon. Yet this particular story is one the Merrifield family understood for decades. To survive the grind of minor-league baseball, one must weather years of uncertainty, of low wages and creeping doubt. To survive six years in the minors, Whit Merrifield had to lean on his family.

“He never doubted he would get an opportunity to play in the big leagues,” Bill Merrifield says. “He always believed that. He’s that kid.”

In 2015, Whit Merrifield spent the year at Class AAA Omaha, batting .265 with 29 doubles and 32 stolen bases in 135 games. When the season was over, he headed back to the same house he had spent the previous five offseasons: his parents’ home in Davie County, N.C.

The housing arrangement was just one facet of a plan hatched six years ago, when Merrifield was drafted out of South Carolina in the ninth round. When Bill Merrifield was drafted out of Wake Forest in the early 1980s, he had to use his five-figure signing bonus to live on. Year by year, the money disappeared. In the offseason, he loaded trucks and sold cable television subscriptions to make ends meet. The seasons took a toll, Bill says.

When Merrifield signed for $100,000 in 2010, Bill didn’t want his child to have the same hardships. They put the signing bonus in the bank — close to $60,000 after taxes — and they made an agreement. Every year, Whit would be responsible for his rent and meals during the season. The rest would be subsidized by Bill and Kissy, an investment into their son’s dreams. The bonus would remain in the bank, a nest egg for when baseball was over.

The agreement included cell phone bills, car payments and meals during the offseason. Last winter, when Whit took on a hellacious workout regimen that included seven meals per day, the Merrifields began wincing at some of the grocery bills.

Still, the family never thought twice. In his sixth season of minor-league baseball, Whit was set to take home less than $15,000 for a full season. Bill viewed it as a way to give Whit something Bill never had: An opportunity to focus on nothing but baseball.

“It’s just part of it,” Bill said. “People don’t realize what it takes.”

Another factor, of course, was that Bill and Kissy simply believed in their son. When Whit — short for Whitley — was a senior in high school, he was a three-sport athlete who stood just 5 feet 10 and 155 pounds. When South Carolina, one of the top programs in the country, offered a scholarship, Bill offered some advice: You may have to sit for a while.

“Dad,” Whit said, “All I care about is going to Omaha (site of the College World Series).”

Three years later, Merrifield lined the game-winning hit against UCLA in the 11th inning of the College World Series, lifting the Gamecocks to their first NCAA title.

At South Carolina, Merrifield gained a reputation as a player who “played above his tools,” says Casey Fahy, the Royals’ area scout who saw him during college.

“When things are put down on paper, maybe he’s average or a little above average,” Fahy says. “But when he’s on the field, he’s above that.”

On his pre-draft report, Fahy noted Merrifield’s versatility. A high school shortstop, Merrifield had converted to center field as a college freshman. By his junior year, he was playing all over the field. As Fahy finished the report, he put one name down as a comparison: Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist.

“That was the Ben Zobrist of 2010, of course, not the player he is now,” Fahy says. “But it’s kind of funny to look back on now.”

The scouting report would hold true as Merrifield climbed the rungs of the minor leagues. In his first two seasons, he played all three outfield spots and second base. By 2014, a breakout year split between Class AA Northwest Arkansas and Class AAA Omaha, he had played every position but catcher. As his minor-league teammates took turns doling out nicknames — “Two-hit Whit,” “Multi-hit Whit,” “Get-A-Hit Whit” — Merrifield began to emerge as a fringe prospect.

“He’s always just been the best pure baseball player,” says reliever Scott Alexander, who played with Merrifield the last three seasons. “It always seems like people say that, and it’s like a jab, and it’s not. It’s the kind of player you want.”

Still, Merrifield had to remain patient, biding his time in the system. He was not a high draft pick. He was not a member of the Royals’ 40-man roster. During spring training in 2015, Royals manager Ned Yost praised Merrifield for his versatility. He still spent the entire year in Omaha.

This spring, Merrifield batted .347 with two homers and five doubles in 25 games in the Cactus League. The Royals opted for roster inventory. They couldn’t afford to strip another player from the 40-man roster. Merrifield was assigned to Omaha again.

“He, in all rights, could have made our team easily out of spring training,” Yost said. “Everybody in that locker room knows how good he is.”

In the days after Merrifield was called up, his 86-year-old grandfather, Bill Sr., jumped in a car in North Carolina and made the 645-mile drive to see his grandson play at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. When the series was over, Bill kept pushing his Subaru westward, taking in three more games in Minnesota before trekking 1,400 miles back home.

Back home, Whit says, they call their grandfather “Grump”, a nickname born of an ever-present scowl and quiet demeanor.

“Nicest guy in the world,” Whit says.

A retired contractor, Bill Sr. works three days a week at a golf course, a job that offers a few perks — namely, the ability to drive around the country and see his grandkids play sports. For now, though, the whole family is taking advantage of the opportunity.

On Friday, Bill Merrifield sat inside the Royals clubhouse as his son ate dinner, taking part in the club’s annual Dads’ Trip. Kissy and Costner are headed to Baltimore on Monday.

When Whit was growing up, his mother would tell him that his father could have made it to the majors if he had just held out for a couple more years. Bill isn’t so sure. As he watches his son in the big league, he stresses he has never lived through Whit. Maybe some wonder about that, he says, but it’s never been about that. He just wanted to let his son chase his dream. And anyway, Bill says, his son is doing stuff he never could.

“I didn’t love it like Whit loves it,” Bill says. “I did it because it paid me some decent money in Triple-A, and I was good at it. But I didn’t love it. He loves it.”     

This story was originally published June 04, 2016 10:41 PM.

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