The proud parents watched from the stands, as their little boy stepped up to the plate for the first time. Mom, nervously pressing her face into her hands. Dad, holding up his phone to record every second. So what if TV cameras were already capturing the moment from six different angles? So what if their little boy was 27 years old? They’d been to just about every one of his games—so what if this one happened to be at Kauffman Stadium?
Whit Merrifield — with his aw-shucks looks and manners, and game-show-host-worthy name — is only one of the new sensations to make their presence known with the Royals in the past few weeks. May saw two Major-League debuts in Kansas City, along with the ascension of two players whose previous limited experience still qualifies them as rookies this year.
Surprisingly, this is not so common on a team where it seems everyone is young, scrappy, and hungry and all came up together, from the minors to the mountaintop. But staying on top is harder than getting there, and the Royals’ current campaign has proven bumpy. All-Stars and Gold Glovers went down. Opportunities arose.
With a batting average well over .300, Merrifield has been setting early-career records and already worked his way in as the starting second baseman for the foreseeable future.
Outfielder Brett Eibner—in his second Major League game—sparked and then delivered the knockout in the Royals’ unprecedented, seven-run, ninth-inning rally. A freak outfield ankle sprain landed him on the disabled list a few days later, but he’s still on the 40-man roster, eligible to return this week.
And infielder Cheslor Cuthbert and outfielder Reymond Fuentes — currently the team’s hottest hitter — have more than filled in at the bottom of the lineup. Yep, rookies. In the real world, it’s a word often spoken with some disdain. But in sports, “rookie” carries a certain mystique and value—as anyone who’s ever collected trading cards knows. Just about every pro league, from baseball to football, hockey, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse—not to mention NASCAR—crowns an official Rookie of the Year.
Sure, there’s the occasional phenom, who arrives on a wave of hype and expectations. But far more interesting is the rookie who’s been toiling in relative obscurity and finally makes it.
Baseball, with its 40-round draft and multi-tiered farm system, is perfectly structured for just such dramas. At 27, both Merrifield and Eibner are older than Eric Hosmer or Salvador Perez. They may be the newest guys on the roster, but they’re hardly the new kids on the block.
Sports—for all of its populism and big money, unpredictability and dumb luck—is still at least perceived as one of our true remaining meritocracies. Within each game, each championship run, what sports fans are really rooting for is a good story, with a happy ending. And that requires a strong protagonist, on the way up.
So a rookie is that personification of possibility, and the will to work hard to make dreams come true. We love the idea that someone who deserves it, is finally going to get a shot—one they’re sure not to waste, ’cause it may only be one game, one at-bat.
After six years and 683 games in the minors, Whit Merrifield is now leading off for the defending world champs. His parents still refer to him as a “good kid.” His 86-year-old grandfather drove straight through from North Carolina to be at his first games in Chicago and Minnesota.
“It’s only twelve-hundred miles,” he said. “And I don’t know how long he’ll be here. I want to follow him as much as I can.”
Don’t we all.
Victor Wishna is a regular commentator on KCUR's Up To Date.