On the brink of being eliminated from the American League wild card race, questions concerning the Kansas City Royals turn to next year. Who’s coming back? And which player will lead the team?
Royals fans have a good idea by now about the leadership qualities of one player in particular, Whit Merrifield, for next year.
The Royals drafted Whit Merrifield only a few days before the final game of the 2010 College World Series in Omaha where Merrifield clubbed the title-clinching hit for South Carolina. Whit’s father, Bill Merrifield, played in the minor leagues and watched with his wife from the stands in Omaha.
“Just to watch him play at that level, that was the epitome for us. That was perfect for us,” says Merrifield, who is an assistant athletic director at Wake Forest University.
Barely over 6-feet tall, Whit Merrifield has always faced doubters. When Whit was a high school senior, Bill Merrifield admits he was skeptical about his Whit’s long-term aspirations when they watched South Carolina as fans. He says most of the players were at least a few inches taller than Whit. “I was joking, saying, ‘Whit, they’re not going to even have a uniform to fit you. You’re so small and when you get down there, are you okay with being a pinch-runner?’”
But Bill Merrifield knows his son is driven.
“All he talked about in high school was, ‘I want to play in Omaha. I want to have a chance to play in Omaha.’ He decided to go to South Carolina for a chance to go to Omaha,” says Bill Merrifield.
At South Carolina, Whit Merrifield developed into an everyday player. But as a senior, all the individual top honors like all-conference or all-tournament teams were awarded to his teammates. In South Carolina’s 2010 baseball media guide, however, there’s a phrase in Merrifield’s bio that defines him to this day: consummate team player.
J.J. Picolo is the right-hand man for Royals general manager Dayton Moore. When the Royals drafted Merrifield in the ninth round, Picollo says the Royals viewed him as a prospect who needed to prove himself. “He wasn’t an afterthought. You expect a guy like that to get to high (Class) A, then after that you’ve got to fend for yourself a little bit. You’re going to have to earn your at-bats.”
And Merrifield did. From outposts such as Burlington, North Carolina and Wilmington, Delaware, Merrifield worked his way up the Royals minor league ladder.
After the 2014 season, when Merrifield batted .340 for Omaha, he came to Kansas City for an MRI on an injured wrist. It took place during the World Series, so Merrifield watched Game 7 against San Francisco from a Kauffman Stadium suite in right field.
“Just to be at Game 7 of any—whether it be basketball, baseball, World Series, NLCS, ALCS—whatever it might be Game 7 is pretty intense,” says Merrifield. “It was electric here, it was loud and it was pretty fun to watch.”
Merrifield crossed that off his bucket list, but only fueled his desire to play on a Royals post-season team. But whether he’d get a chance was the big question. He played six years in the minors before getting his first shot at the big leagues. This season, he didn’t even make the Royals opening day roster.
But after rejoining the team, Merrifield locked up the every-day duties at second base and provided some punch when the Royals needed it.
Before this year, Merrifield had never hit more than eight homers in one season as a professional, but he’s approaching 20 this season. He has also reached 30 in stolen bases. But all that takes a back seat to playing in the post-season. That’s why you might’ve seen him turn his back and glance at the scoreboard to check the other contending teams.
“I probably watch it more than other people because I’m new and I haven’t been to the playoffs yet, so I’m probably more eager to scoreboard watch than these other guys,” says Merrifield.
There might be some doubt about the Royals chances to contend next year, but as one who has already heard the doubts about his career, Merrifield says he’ll continue to drive himself and his teammates to succeed.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter.