Vahe Gregorian

From snubbed to All-Star, here’s why resilient Whit Merrifield should be Always Royal

Whit Merrifield signs new four-year contract with Royals

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.
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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.

Until right about now, really, Whit Merrifield’s professional baseball career had been fueled by the skeptics and naysayers and snubs:

Like the fact that 268 players were drafted ahead of him in 2011. And that the Royals considered him expendable enough to expose in the Rule 5 draft in 2015 … only for no other team in baseball to deem him worthy of a roster spot.

Like that baffling night a few months before when he was pulled from a game at Class AAA Omaha and told he was going to the big leagues at last — only for the Royals to abruptly change their minds. Stuff like not making an opening day roster until last year when he was 29.

So his has long been a story of resilience and perseverance, exasperating as it might have been along the way. And it’s a tale that takes on a new context as of his being named Sunday to the American League All-Star team, a feat nicely accented by Merrifield, 30, becoming the oldest position player in franchise history to make his first All-Star Game.

Turns out he’s gone from proving everybody wrong all those years to proving them right after finally becoming entrenched.

When I asked manager Ned Yost on Tuesday if Merrifield’s path made it all the sweeter to break the news to him, Yost thought about it a moment and brought up a different word as he spoke of the man who entering that day led the league in hits (108) and total bases (178).

“I don’t know if ‘vindication’ is the right word, but, you know, Whit knew all along that he was a really, really good player. Way before we did,” he said. “Even when he wasn’t on the roster and having great springs and we would send him back to Triple A, Whit knew that if he was given the opportunity he would excel here.

“When he finally got the opportunity, he took advantage of it. So … I don’t think it makes it sweeter for him; I think it just caps off what he already knew.”

While the honor doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know about the man who led the majors in hits and steals last year, it also should cap off how the Royals view him: as not merely a potential part of their future but one of its pillars, right there with Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier and Bobby Witt Jr., etc.

With a four-year contract that guarantees $16.25 million (with a club option for a fifth year), with a versatile game we can all admire and a story of resolve that any fan can embrace, this is a guy who needs to be Always Royal.

It took them too long to recognize he belonged. Now, they need to recognize he belongs for the long term.

Fortunately, that seems to be the preferred stance of the front office, which at a recent baseball camp at the Jewish Community Center handed out Merrifield-autographed balls to players who had stood out for their effort while noting how Merrifield embodied that.

“The young people in our community identify with Whit; that’s really important for us,” general manager Dayton Moore, whose “C You In The Major Leagues” foundation conducted the camp, said that day.

While Moore stopped short of saying Merrifield wouldn’t be traded as the Royals continue to try to replenish their minor-league system, he added that what he would ask for from anyone inquiring about Merrifield “would be just crazy.”

Crazy — like it would have been to figure on Merrifield becoming an All-Star even as recently as three or four years ago.

“I was 26 years old, making $10,000 a year,” he said, acknowledging both his obstacles and advantages. “But it was because I had the upbringing and the knowledge of how to manage money and was fortunate to be able to go home and live with my parents when I was 26 years old ...

“I had that opportunity to continue to chase my dream that other players might not have had.”

Entering Sunday, Merrifield was optimistic about his chance to be named an All-Star a year after he’d been overlooked.

Just the same …

“I’ve seen things in this game happen,” he said, “so I didn’t want to really get my hopes up.”

When he got the news, he was eager to call his family for many reasons. Including that the accomplishment was for them and that he might have quit baseball in 2015 if not for a talk he had with his father, Bill, after the season.

“‘Fine, that’s great,’” his dad, speaking from an experience of his own, told him then. “‘But just know that when you take your cleats off, you can’t ever put them back on.’”

So he stayed with it.

And now, this.

When he phoned home on Sunday, he spent the first few minutes just making small talk before breaking it to his parents.

“I just thought I’d smoothly mix it into the conversation,” he said, smiling. “Mom didn’t appreciate that too much.”

Even as he’s become somebody everybody can appreciate now.

Well, about everybody.

“For somebody who has accomplished what he’s accomplished, he still hasn’t gotten anywhere near the recognition that he deserves,” Yost said.

While qualifying the point to say he thinks that will change soon, Yost added, “Whit’s got more total bases than (Angels star) Mike Trout. How many times do you hear Whit’s name with Mike Trout? Have you ever heard Whit’s name with Mike Trout? No.

“So that’s what I’m talking about. He’s with the elite players in professional baseball, but he never gets mentioned, he never gets recognized. That’s the recognition I’m talking about.”

Meanwhile, here’s hoping this recognition is what the Royals keep talking about: Merrifield shouldn’t be seen as just an All-Star but as a vital part of their bridge to the future.

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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.