Merrifield a third-time all star: almost called it quits in 2015

Published 3:07 pm Monday, July 10, 2023

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By Brian Pitts

Enterprise Record

Whit Merrifield was named to the American League All-Star Team for the third time on July 2. There’s no way Merrifield would have believed that sentence eight years ago, when he almost called it a career.

It was 2015. It was the end of his sixth year of toiling in the minor leagues.

In the middle of the season, Kansas City left fielder Alex Gordon was injured chasing a fly ball that wound up being an inside-the-park home run. He was carted off the field and later diagnosed with a severe groin strain.

At first, the next man up was Triple-A Omaha’s Merrifield, who received the call he had long been waiting for and was finally heading to The Show.

Then he was left at the altar. It was soul-crushing.

Merrifield relived the story when he appeared on Foul Territory several weeks ago. The show is hosted by former major leaguers.

“In 2015 I had spent a couple years in Triple-A, playing pretty well and waiting for my shot,” he said. “KC had gone to the World Series in ‘14, and in ‘15. I was the last cut in Spring Training. I had a really good year in ‘14 but didn’t make the team out of camp. I was like: ‘OK, I’m on the radar. I’ll get my chance.’ In June or July of 2015, Alex Gordon goes back on a ball and rips his groin in the third inning. I think it was our third inning as well and I had just scored (for Omaha). I’m about to go on the field to play defense and our manager says: ‘Hold on, you’re out of the game. Alex Gordon just got carted off the field.’

“So for six innings, I was sitting on the bench knowing what was happening. Everybody on my team knew what was happening. I was getting hugs. My parents were watching the game. My family got in the car and started driving to Kansas City because that’s where the game was the next day.

“After the game I go in the locker room, pack my stuff up and make phone calls. People were congratulating me. I walk out to my car. Our manager runs out and goes: ‘Hold on, Whit, come here.’ So I drop my stuff in my car, walk back to the manager’s office and he said: ‘Hey, the team just called and they changed their mind. They’re going to bring up a pitcher instead.’

“I was pretty crushed. I was playing pretty well. I was hitting around .300 at the time. It crushed me a little bit and it was my own fault not to handle it better, and I ended up not playing great for the next couple of months.”

In the late stages of the 2015 season, there was more heartbreak.

“I still thought in September I’d get a chance to get the call when rosters expanded,” he said. “September came and I never got the call.”

The Royals won the World Series in 2015. That rubbed salt in the wound. Merrifield felt like he should have been a part of that team.

He was ready to throw in the towel.

“That offseason I went home with the full intention of retiring and doing something different,” he said. “My dad (Bill) had gone through a similar situation and he talked to me. He said: ‘I’m not going to fault you if you want to hang it up. But just know if you hang it up, that’s it, you can’t put the cleats back on.’ I said: ‘Alright, I’ll give it another shot.’”

Just when you think you’ve absorbed the biggest gut punch the game can deliver, more heartache came in 2016. Although he made his major league debut on May 18, 2016, he was sent back to Triple-A in August. He had to overcome even more adversity in 2017.

“I was the last cut in Spring Training and I went to Triple-A,” he said. “I was only there for a month and a half before I got the call.  I was hitting .280 (for Kansas City) and got sent down in August. I had gone 0 for 11 or 12 and 1 for 20. We had faced (Corey) Kluber, (Yu) Darvish and (Trevor) Bauer. They were like: ‘I don’t think you’re ready for this.’ I was like: ‘I’m hitting .280.’ So that kind of put me in a dark place.

“Then after coming back and killing it in September (for the Royals), I didn’t make the (Kansas City) team in ‘17. That was the darkest place I’ve ever been. I went down (to Triple-A) and for 12 games I hit like .480 with five home runs. I was just angry. I was angry all the time.”

After playing 744 games and seeing 2,864 at-bats in the minors with Burlington, Wilmington, Surprise, Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, the fire-breathing Merrifield was called back up to Kansas City early in the 2017 season and he hasn’t looked back. He’s truly a testament to perseverance.

“I got back up,” he said. “It makes for a good story because not everybody’s path is clean and not everybody gets to the big leagues and just takes off. Everybody’s got their own story. It’s kind of a wild ride.”

After making the All-Star Game  in 2019 and 2021 while playing for Kansas City, Merrifield made this year’s Midsummer Classic as a second baseman/left fielder for the Toronto Blue Jays.

From April 19 through May 2, he maintained a .300-plus batting average. He dipped to .267 before going 4 for 4 in a May 22 game at Tampa Bay. He went 3 for 6 the next day against Tampa. He endured a 2-for-21 slump before getting on a terrific roll right before the All-Star Break: 2 for 4 in a 4-3 win over the White Sox, 2 for 4 with two home runs in a 5-4 win over the White Sox and 2 for 5 with a homer in a 12-2 win at Detroit.

“I’m trying to get more aggression in my swing,” he said. “I’m always making tweaks.”

The 34-year-old from Advance leads the Blue Jays in stolen bases with 19 (the stats are through July 7). He’s third in batting average (.286). He’s fourth in hits (84) and doubles (17). He’s fifth in RBIs (38). He’s sixth in games played (80), at-bats (294) and runs (36).

At 49-41, the Blue Jays are playoff contenders. Although they’re 7.5 games back in the American League East, they are in position to grab a wild-card berth.

“(Merrifield’s) numbers and track record speak for themselves,” Toronto manager John Schneider said. “We move him all over the field when we have to late in games. He’s been a huge part, a deserving All-Star.”