Whit Merrifield’s roots explain his unyielding path to stardom with Royals at age 30

Watch Whit Merrifield ‘play ball’ as a toddler in North Carolina

Whit Merrifield, now the Kansas City Royals' starting second baseman, got an early start to the game of baseball. In this snippet from a family home movie, he shows off his swing.
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Whit Merrifield, now the Kansas City Royals' starting second baseman, got an early start to the game of baseball. In this snippet from a family home movie, he shows off his swing.

Born intrepid and indomitable, Whit Merrifield was about 8 when he demonstrated that pesky conventional concepts such as gravity need not hinder him. Or stop him from trying, anyway.

Short and scrawny as he was for his age, his limits only were going to be defined by his imagination.

Which explains how the future Kansas City Royals infielder concocted a plan to be “like Michael Jordan and run and dunk the ball,” his mother, Kissy said. On his own, he lowered the basketball goal in their driveway to a height semi-conducive to the feat and enlisted to the cause a bucket turned upside down. It may or may not have been placed on top of a chair, too.

“It didn’t go well,” she said, meaning a trip to the emergency room, a concussion and mangled thumb. “He didn’t do that again.”

But the misadventure did little to diminish Merrifield’s reckless abandon — he later suffered a concussion diving into a pile for a loose ball in a basketball game — that came with an unquenchable belief in himself.

That self-confidence was catalyzed by a grit that his father, Bill, described almost literally terms of intestinal fortitude.

It said something that the pre-teen child kept insisting on playing baseball even as he complained he wasn’t feeling well with what proved to be appendicitis. But what happened next made an indelible impression on his parents.

With Whit still in distress after the surgery because of an infection, they returned for treatment. They were startled and incensed when the doctor went from pressing on the wound to suddenly cutting anew on their boy, who had received no anesthetic or painkiller.

“I was like, ‘Whoa, hey, no-no-no-no. No!’ ” Bill Merrifield said.

As they set about stopping the doctor and reconciling the medical care, their son lay in quiet agony. He didn’t know how it was supposed to go or feel, didn’t know he could say stop.

“You could tell he wanted to scream, but he didn’t,” the father said.

That’s when he figured his son was remarkably emotionally steeled. And he was right.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield runs sprints with teammates on Monday, February 18, 2019 in Surprise, AZ. KC Star photo

“I’ve never seen a mental weakness in Whit Merrifield,” said former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, who still revels in Merrifield’s 11th-inning walk-off hit to win the 2010 College World Series. “He always had that presence about him: ‘I should be in this moment. I can get this job done.’

“I’ve never seen him in a position of doubt. I’ve never seen his face where (it’s showing), ‘This is a tough moment.’ ”

His face might not ever have revealed it. But there were tough stumbling blocks along the way to establishing himself with the Royals, with whom in 2018 he led Major League Baseball in hits (192) and stolen bases (45) — the second straight year he led the American League in steals.

In fact, he was tempted to walk away from it all in 2015.

“It’s actually a great story about perseverance,” said Mike Herndon, Merrifield’s coach at Davie County High School.

Much as he wishes everything had come sooner for Merrifield, he laughed and added, “It makes the story that much better.”

Face of the Royals

The story is that as much or more as the splendid athletic genes passed on from his father the All-American baseball player and mother the tennis star, a blend of self-confidence and guts sustained Merrifield.

It’s what enabled him to navigate a gantlet of pivot points and naysayers and flickering moments of doubt to become arguably the best player the Royals have right here, right now.

Courtesy of the Merrifield family

“You can tell me better than I can tell you, but from where I sit he has sort of become the face of the Kansas City Royals,” said Tanner, now the athletic director at South Carolina.

At their son’s high school baseball stadium, Whit Merrifield’s parents reflect on his early development in baseball.

Even with the season-ending injury to Sal Perez, that may or may not exactly be true of the versatile player who is likely to spend most of his time at second base. But this indisputably is:

Force of character carried Merrifield through being underestimated and no doubt even forgotten at times within the organization to today, when his capabilities seem truly valued for the first time at age 30 as he enters the season with a worthy new contract.

Talk about delayed gratification.

Reflecting the halting nature of his professional career path, until three years ago Merrifield returned to his childhood home in Advance to live in the offseason. The last few years, he’s lived with his longtime girlfriend and fiancée in a snug one-bedroom house about 75 yards from her parents’ home on their farm.

Now, they’re about to build a home of their own.

Now, it seems Merrifield might have to invent reasons to feel doubted.

Now, he just has to go from proving them all wrong to proving them right.

“I hope he’s not too comfortable,” Herndon joked with Merrifield’s father before adding, “It’s a beautiful thing, Bill.”

‘I’m not done yet’

The story ultimately sprawls out to Omaha and remarkable twists of fate there, and to Columbia, S.C., and is rooted about 20 miles away in Winston-Salem, where Bill Merrifield works in development for Wake Forest athletics and met Kissy. That’s also where daughter Costner went to school and son Hite currently is a freshman baseball player.

In the simplest sense, though, the story starts in this town of just over a thousand located approximately 75 miles northeast of Charlotte.

“Right here is the crossroads of Advance,” Bill Merrifield said as he gave a tour during the first week of March. Seconds later, he laughed and added, “Now you’re kind out of Advance.”

Courtesy of the Merrifield family

A few minutes away is the idyllic subdivision where the effervescent mother and engaging father raised and doted on their children. From the kitchen window, you can see the neighborhood tennis courts across the back yard where family golden retrievers Jock and K.C. romp and roam when they’re not the center of attention inside.

In this perfect setting to grow up in and play all day, the parents observed an early fascination with winning in Whit. If he was losing at, well, name the game, he might say, “You’ve got to do it over; you’re not playing right.” Or, “We’ve got to eat.”

But most of all …

“It was always ‘One more game, one more time,’” Bill Merrifield said, then invoking a term he believes encapsulates Whit. “‘I’m not done yet.’”

It was here that the basis of that never-done mindset formed — perhaps sparked some by his father the coach relegating his son to the bench to start most games as an 11-year-old.

Pondering the four-year, $16.25 million contract (with a club option for a fifth year) his son signed in January, Bill Merrifield was struck by the idea that this is among the first times he’s had such a sense of security in the game.

Courtesy of the Merrifield family

“He didn’t have that when he played for me. At 11 years old!” Bill Merrifield said. “If you can’t have it with your dad, you can’t have it!”

At the stadium where their son played high school baseball, Whit Merrifield’s parents recall the early days of his career.

Coordinated as he was, Merrifield wasn’t strong. He initially struggled to hit the ball out of the infield, so he often bunted. For a while, he labored to throw the ball in from the outfield. When it came time to choose positions in middle school, he jumped at the chance to play catcher since no one else wanted to and it would give him a chance to play.

“He’s always been that kid,” the father said. “‘I can do that. I’m not done yet.’”

As he was entering high school, some combination of maturation, hunger and innate athleticism inherited from his parents was starting to bubble up into something special. With his father’s tutelage, his baseball IQ was rare for his age and he was beginning to grow into his body, standing about 5-foot-10 entering ninth grade.

Still, his parents had only dared hope he’d make the junior-varsity team as a freshman. They were puzzled and amazed when he was named an instant varsity starter at second base.

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Merrifield’s love of baseball was evident early Courtesy of the Merrifield family

But “skinny runt” that he was, as Herndon put it, Merrifield had a certain something others lacked.

“He definitely had the ‘it’ factor,” Herndon said. “And he wasn’t scared to fail. That’s something a lot of people don’t understand. To be successful, you’ve got to fail. All the successful people in this world have failed.”

Good thing. Because until relatively recently, Merrifield couldn’t know if he would fail to realize his ultimate dream.

A gritty competitor

Tanner recruited Merrifield partly on the basis of his parents, who had been collegiate stars in their respective sports at Wake Forest. When Tanner was coaching North Carolina State, he considered Bill Merrifield the best hitter in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and he knew Kissy was an accomplished tennis player.

Meanwhile, Merrifield wasn’t universally recruited and others were skeptical because his thin frame apparently obscured everything else. But Tanner had a more discerning eye. Or at least was looking for something different.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield is hungry to help the team improve in 2019, after finishing the 2018 season on a high note.

He remembers watching Merrifield play travel ball in Columbia in the 100-degree heat and making like a “mud-puppy,” as Kissy Merrifield put it, down and dirty and relentless on the base paths.

Courtesy of the Merrifield family

Never mind that he didn’t love watching him steal home that day, too risky a move for Tanner’s sensibilities. The spirit of Merrifield’s game still struck Tanner, as did the idea that the other team always was going to have to contend with Merrifield attacking somehow.

In an era of the game increasingly distinguished by cold metrics, Merrifield’s intangibles resonated with Tanner’s old-school instincts for a guy who shows up every day in every way. A player greater than the sum of his parts also has the same impact on a team, he knew.

“All the brilliant minds will give you ‘the five tools,’ you know?” Tanner said. “I’m looking for a guy who brings his lunch pail. Is it good that he runs a little bit? Is it good that he’s versatile? Oh, yeah, you’ll take all that.

“But he’s the consummate baseball player.”

Tanner could be hard on his players, he acknowledges. He laughed at himself as he recalled a tirade yelling at every guy on the team one-by-one — even finding something for those who hadn’t played — but able to call out Merrifield only for having a clean uniform.

“Whit Merrifield,” he said, “didn’t need to be challenged.”

With Merrifield and Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Red Sox among other future major-leaguers on the team, the Gamecocks won the 2010 title on the last pitch of the last game played at historic Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.

CWS Finals Baseball.JPG
South Carolina players celebrate with Whit Merrifield, left, whose single in the 11th inning drove in the winning run by Scott Wingo in game two of the best-of-three NCAA College World Series baseball finals, in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 29, 2010. South Carolina beat UCLA 2-1 in 11 innings to win the championship.(AP Photo/Dave Weaver) Dave Weaver Associated Press

The moment wasn’t too big for Merrifield. Even in that crucible, he did what he always does — play the game right.

“I can remember the pitch like it was 10 minutes ago,” said Tanner, whose team repeated the next year and nearly in 2012, as well. “Down and away, fastball, about 91, 92 (mph). And he stays right on it. He doesn’t hook it. He doesn’t do anything but stay with the pitch.”

The sharp ping of the bat that for a hit to right field that beat UCLA still brings chills to Bill Merrifield. For reasons both obvious and beyond what meets the eye.

Dad can relate

In the summer of 1988, playing for Class AAA Oklahoma City in his sixth minor-league season, Bill Merrifield had suffered a broken foot at Rosenblatt. With Kissy pregnant with Whit, months after a bizarre circumstance in Pittsburgh snuffed out what would have been his major-league debut, he recognized it was time to move on from his own dream. He entered manager Toby Harrah’s office, held up the X-ray and said, “I’m done.”

Somehow, he promptly found a compartment to stash a pro baseball career that began with him being drafted in the second round by the Angels in 1983 and included hitting 19 Triple-A homers in 1987.

He let it all go even without ever understanding that crazy day in 1987, when he was called up to the Pirates from Edmonton, took four plane flights to get there and was written into the starting lineup. He was going to wear No. 11, he still recalls.

Amid a rain delay, he was abruptly summoned into manager Jim Leyland’s office and told that the organization had decided to send him to instructional league in Florida. By the time he got back to his locker, his bag had been packed for him.

He picked it up and walked out, with no real explanation and no real chance ever again.

Also, though, with no regrets and a sense he was better off for it.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield doesn't plan to give up his crown as stolen base leader the past two seasons despite presence of Billy Hamilton, Adalberto Mondesi and Terrance Gore.

He didn’t love the game the way his son does, for one thing, and he wanted to be there for his budding family the way his parents had for him. At home, of course, and on the road: His late mother, Pat, was a baseball junkie who loved the long road trips she’d take with his father, Bill Sr., in their RV to track his career.

(For that matter, his charming father, now 89, says he plans to keep driving from North Carolina to see Whit play as he memorably did when Whit got the call-up to the Royals in 2016.)

Moreover, his experience, that perspective, proved vital when Whit was stalled in the minors and on the verge of surrender.

Whit hit .340 in Omaha in 2014, and he thought for sure his time had come after Alex Gordon was hurt in 2015 .In fact, with his parents watching the Storm Chasers online, Merrifield was pulled from a game and told he was joining the Royals at last.

Unable to reach him but not wanting to miss what they surmised would be his debut, the family packed up to start driving. They got about two exits down the road when Whit called to tell them a pitcher was promoted instead.

“That’ll send you sideways. How many guys has that happened to? Not too many,” Tanner said, laughing and adding, “That night will be in his book.”

In his sixth year in pro ball, it was a jarring parallel to what his father had experienced in the same time frame in the game., a curious full-circle sensation to which few others could relate.

Deflated, his performance plummeted. After hitting .293 with 28 extra-base hits and 29 RBIs into the 2015 Class AAA all-star break, he hit .220 with just 11 extra-base hits in his final 50 games.

He couldn’t even bring himself to watch the World Series. And the Royals didn’t seem to be thinking about him much, either, leaving him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft (though later pleased he went unclaimed.)

That winter, he told his father, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” Merrifield said at a news conference after signing his new contract.

His father replied, “Fine. That’s great. But just know that when you take your cleats off, you can’t ever put them back on.”

The advice compelled him to reconsider. And Bill Merrifield reckons that conversation might have gone differently if not for his own experiences, or how he came to process them.

He was neither bitter nor envious because of that past — just a father wanting to help his son find the way.

Once again, Whit wasn’t done yet.

Finally, The Call

If this was his last shot, he resolved to do something more: add strength and power to his game.

In the spartan warehouse that then housed Torque Performance and Fitness, where coach Adam Barber described the atmosphere as “no heat, no air, no nothing,” Merrifield hit the weights fiendishly that offseason even as he was taking on a seven-meal-a-day eating regimen.

Chicken and eggs were the dominant parts of the diet, though as Barber put it, “The only thing he needed to do was eat. If he ever felt hungry, eat. If he wasn’t hungry, eat. That’s what it took.”

Take it did. Merrifield’s weight-room numbers jumped radically, and he increased his weight from 175 pounds to 196 while maintaining his speed. The power surge enabled him to serve notice of a new dimension to his game that spring (and maintaining it enabled him to hit 19 home runs in 2017 and 12 a year ago.)

A few months later, Merrifield got the call. For real, this time, after 683 minor-league games – 10 fewer than his father played before getting on with his life.

He made the most of it by hitting .360 in his first 12 games and setting a franchise record with hits in his first 11 starts.

“It was kind of like a Twilight Zone moment,” said Barber, clad in a Royals sweatshirt. “Because of the blood, sweat and tears he puts into the game of baseball.”

Kansas City Royals Whit Merrifield talked with the media on Monday January 28, 2019 after signing a new four-year contract with the Royals. The contract also has a fifth year club option in it.

From out of the looming twilight of his career, he’s embedded with the Royals now — albeit after some more ups and downs ahead, including maddeningly not breaking camp with the team in 2017.

Not that you would notice the difference. When Merrifield signed his contract over the phone, Barber said, he was in the gym. When he was done, he resumed working out.

“Like it was any other day,” Barber said.

Like it was meant to be.

Even if it never would have happened if he’d let others define his limits, or didn’t have the capacity to endure pain along the way.

“You can’t count out guys like Whit Merrifield,” Tanner said..

Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.