KANSAS CITY – Throughout his professional baseball life, Royals super utility man Whit Merrifield has fought for recognition.
After leading South Carolina to the 2010 College World Series championship with a dramatic walk-off hit, Merrifield grinded through the Minor Leagues, waiting and hoping for an opportunity to make it the big leagues.
The Royals admit now it took them too long to recognize Merrifield’s skill set.
“He knew he was good,” Royals manager Ned Yost said, “long before we did.”
Merrifield toiled in the Minors for over six years before he got his Major League break. And even then, after a successful half-season with the Royals, he was shoved back to the Minors in 2017.
But now, finally, Merrifield is being granted that recognition he has long coveted. This past off-season the Royals signed him to a four-year, $16.25 million contract, giving him some financial stability at last.
And Merrifield also has been rewarded with his first selection to the All-Star Game, a commissioner’s office pick for the man who led the Majors in hits (192) and stolen bases (45) in 2018, and leads the MLB in hits now (117).
“It’s a special feeling that’s hard to put into words,” Merrifield said.
Still, there are those, including Yost, who believe Merrifield deserves much more national attention.
“I felt bad for Whit last year,” Yost said. “He should have made it last year. I don’t know if making it this year has made it sweeter for him. It may have been vindication….but he still hasn’t gotten anywhere near the recognition he deserves. But we’ve had that because I don’t think (Eric) Hosmer got the recognition he deserved or Lorenzo Cain. Moose (Mike Moustakas) certainly didn’t. Salvy (Perez) did to some extent. But I think Whit will as time goes on.
“I mean, Whit has more total bases than Mike Trout (Trout passed him Sunday). How many times do you hear Whit’s name mentioned with Mike Trout? He never gets mentioned there. Ever. That’s the recognition I’m talking about.”
Yet that’s been the story of Merrifield’s professional career. He simply forces observers to recognize his talents.
After years in the Minors, Merrifield, 30, grew into a solid hitter who could handle the bat and play anywhere defensively. In 2014 between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha, he hit .319 with 41 doubles, four triples, and eight homers, tacking on 16 stolen bases.
Yet the Royals left him unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft that winter. And even more insulting, no team at the Winter Meetings claimed him.
The next season at Omaha, Merrifield stole 32 bases and hit .265. Still, there was no sense he would get called up.
That’s when Merrifield made a life-changing decision.
“I felt like my career was slipping and I kept thinking about what could get me to the Major Leagues,” Merrifield recalled. “I thought about what team's value and it was about driving the ball and hitting more home runs.
“I hit .340 one year [with Omaha], and then I hit 41 doubles in 2014. But, I thought I should maybe hit more homers. I talked to a guy I worked out with, and we talked about setting a goal of reaching 190 pounds. I was at 170-175 at the time. I wanted to add upper body strength.”
In the winter of 2015, Merrifield went on a drastic, well-documented conditioning program that included multiple workouts a day and seven meals a day. Yes, seven meals a day.
"I don't know how many calories that is," Merrifield said "But it was nine eggs and oatmeal in the morning. Then chicken and rice and vegetables, three times a day. Then some red meat for dinner, and then a couple of protein shakes mixed in.
“We did that. Then really heavy weight training once a day for four days, and then cardio every day. It was football training, heavy training.”
When he was done, Merrifield was at 195 pounds, adding mostly upper body strength but still retaining his agility and speed.
The reborn Merrifield impressed Yost in Spring Training in 2016 and then went on to hit 19 doubles with eight homers and 20 steals in a half season at Omaha the same year.
That was enough to finally get his chance. Merrifield was promoted halfway through the 2016 season and raised eyebrows with a .283 average in 81 games with 22 doubles and eight steals.
Merrifield thought he had established himself as a big league player.
But the following spring, Merrifield’s hopes got slammed again. Though he had a decent Spring Training with a .348 OBP and three doubles, two triples and six stolen bases, the Royals took Adalberto Mondesi north at the end of camp instead of Merrifield.
Merrifield was devasted.
But it wasn’t any disrespect Merrifield hadn’t seen before. For some reason, throughout his career, teams and managers couldn’t even get his name correct.
Even Yost often referred to Merrifield as “Whitfield” in the spring of 2016, no doubt confusing him with Michael J. Fox’s character “Whitfield” in “The Secret of My Success.”
“Believe me,” Merrifield said, “I got that all the time.”
On the lineup card for his first Double-A game, he was reported as “Marrifiled.” In 2014 after winning the Royals’ Minor League hitter of the year, he was reported on some sites as “Whitfield.”
Eventually, though, Merrifield’s skill set broke through the barriers.
After Mondesi looked overmatched and hit .103 in early 2017, Merrifield got the call in April. He finished the season hitting 32 doubles, 19 home runs and 78 RBIs. He also stole 34 bases, leading the American League.
Merrifield was a big leaguer to stay, with the 2017 demotion inspiring him once again.
“You can either go down there and pout,” he said. “Or you can keep working and try to prove them wrong. I chose the latter.”
And Merrifield chose to keep working. He had an incredible year in 2018, leading the Majors in hits and stolen bases while hitting .304.
“Looking back where I was in 2015 and now where I am, the barriers I had to keep breaking down, it’s a huge thing for the people that kept believing in me,” Merrifield said. “Without my family and the few people who believed in me, I wouldn’t’ have made it. I had to go through a lot to get to this point. There’s more players who had to go through a lot more than me to get where I am, but I had a family base to support me.
“They were there beside me. I was making $10,000 a year at 26 years old but it was OK because I had the upbringing to manage money and was able to come home and live with my parents. I had that opportunity to chase that dream when other players didn’t. Now I’ve gotten one of those dreams.”