Vahe Gregorian

Whit’s wisdom: Royals’ Merrifield taught us as all the more during 31-game hit streak

Royals Whit Merrifield talks hitting streak

Royals infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield spoke to reporters prior to a game against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. He came into the day with a 29-game hitting streak, one shy of matching George Brett's franchise record.
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Royals infielder/outfielder Whit Merrifield spoke to reporters prior to a game against the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. He came into the day with a 29-game hitting streak, one shy of matching George Brett's franchise record.

Even before this season started, we’d already learned so much from Whit Merrifield, hadn’t we?

Particularly about what can be accomplished with infinite determination and perseverance and resilience, all of which it took merely for him to break free from the minor leagues with the Royals in 2016 at age 27, and helps explain achieving stardom by leading Major League Baseball in hits and steals in 2018.

The guy once dismissed (even within the organization, to some degree) as either too small or not strong enough or not having the so-called measurables is a walking monument to how heart and smarts and subtle talents and intangibles can add up to be more than the sum of the parts.

But it turns out Merrifield is one of those gifts that keeps on giving, as he has demonstrated along the way to breaking Baseball Hall of Famer George Brett’s 39-year-old franchise record 30-game hitting streak on Wednesday.

His record-breaking hit, a textbook-perfect bunt to drive in a run, was a symbolic, symmetrical tribute to a journey that started with, well, plenty of bunts before he developed as a hitter. He laughed as he told of a text message after that hit from Ray Tanner, his coach at South Carolina: “Aren’t you glad I made you bunt all those times in college?”

Along the way to becoming just the fifth American League player to break the 30-game hit-streak barrier since the fabled Joe DiMaggio, Merrifield reaffirmed that he is one of the Royals’ top few players and further emerged as an eloquent voice of the team, one of class, confidence, good humor and zero arrogance.

He also continued to prove himself a great teammate, who used his pulpit to cast light on others (including lovingly singling out Terrance Gore) and acknowledge the bigger picture by asking fans to bear with this reeling team and thanking them for their support in a social media post.

In the process, Merrifield also performed a refreshing public service.

He demystified an entire wrong-headed way of thinking, as much applicable to life itself as baseball, by flouting a time-honored convention of a game hard-wired in superstition.

There is no such thing as a jinx, something he began to prove last year by talking about his pursuit of leading baseball in hits and steals.

By openly embracing what’s been at hand, Merrifield has been taunting and even downright trolling the very nature of jinxes — those often-colorful excuses for failure or desperate catch-alls for the unexplainable.

Right up to when the run ended with a 0-for-6 performance against Seattle on Thursday, after which Merrifield would post online that “Joe D is safe … for now,” Merrifield just kept staring into that forbidden direct sun.

And guess what?

The streak didn’t end because he audaciously dared address it by peppering his remarks with references to eyeing DiMaggio’s seemingly immortal mark and with other unflinching assurances. Like his playful daily “see y’all tomorrow” after pre-game news conferences that were going to be ongoing until the streak ended.

“I LOVED that,” Brett told The Star. “You know what, if you don’t have confidence in yourself, how do you expect other people to have it in you?”

Or as Merrifield put it: “Why would you not want to go out and play with that kind of pressure and try to do something that they say can’t be done?”

Appropriately enough for a guy who’s very presence here has been fueled by doing what so many said couldn’t be done, a guy who long has thrived off pressure (like he did in driving home the winning run in the 2010 College World Series), Merrifield now has defied another false boundary.

There are no jinxes, revolutionary thinking to those who so long have conformed to the game’s quirks.

“If Whit was a pitcher and Whit had a no-hitter in the eighth inning, Whit would run in the dugout and say, ‘Hey, guys, I’ve got a no-hitter! Come on, let’s go, I need three more outs!’ ” manager Ned Yost said, smiling. “I admire the fact that he’s able to look it square in the eye and not blink.”

So this all has been a revelation for Yost, despite the fact he insists he has no superstitions (which may or may not be entirely true, but … ) and offers up one of the best jinx-debunking anecdotes you’ll ever hear.

When Yost was a coach in Atlanta, his late friend, legendary NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, attended a couple of Braves games only for them to lose. When Earnhardt told Yost he wasn’t coming back because of that, Yost chastised him.

“I said, ‘Well, let me tell you something, pal: If I come to the race track and you finish 31st, I’m going to tell you it ain’t my damn fault,’ ” Yost said.

Nevertheless, Yost typically has been transfixed by baseball tradition. If he doesn’t believe in the mumbo-jumbo stuff, exactly, he’s always subscribed to the dictates of the game that mum’s the word amid a pending achievement.

It’s been “foreign” to him to do anything but fold his arms in silence during a possible no-hitter, “kind of taboo … to talk about that stuff,” he says.

Yost was so dug-in that he initially gave guff to Royals vice-president for communications Mike Swanson for making Merrifield available to the media for group interviews during the streak — a win-win move that allowed access to Merrifield while streamlining the demand.

“Why in the heck are you allowing the press to go out and get in his face when he’s trying to do a streak?” Yost wondered, perhaps in more colorful language.

Bottom line: Because Merrifield was embracing it.

Something that made one of the most stubborn of men reconsider his completely reflexive perspective — meaning you, too, are capable of shrugging off that psychological burden.

“He’s really changed my thinking on that,” Yost said, later adding, “He’s opened my eyes.”

Just another chapter in the eye-opening tale of Merrifield, another way of showing you can find ways of making your own luck your own way, no matter what anybody else tells you or thinks.

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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.
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