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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Interview Part 2: Matt Merullo, Got There

Aberdeen Ironbirds manager Matt Merullo in the dugout in July 2013 at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY. (G21D Photo)
Part 1: What Fun | Part 2: Got There | Part 3: Kept Simple

Standing on first base, Matt Merullo tried to soak in the moment.

He had just knocked his first major league hit, in his first major league start. Soon after, though, came his "rookie moment."

With a ball bouncing toward the second baseman, Merullo tried to avoid it, but he couldn't avoid the second baseman. The result was an athletic move that didn't look so athletic, both Merullo and the second baseman's hats knocked off and an inning-ending double play.

"I heard 40,000 people just sign and go 'ugh,'" Merullo recalled of that 1989 home opener, his first major league start. "And I couldn't get off the field. I was just so embarrased."

Then he picked up his hat to get himself back to the dugout. Only thing was, he had forgotten one important thing - his helmet, Merullo recalled.

"Instead of picking up my helmet, I picked up a green and yellow baseball cap, put it on top of my red white and blue uniform, and started jogging off the field," Merullo said. "I was halfway to my dugout before I realized I was wearing his hat."

It was enough for the rookie to get fined in kangaroo court, but the new major leaguer soon made up for it. Later that same game, Merullo picked up his second major league hit, a home run.

Merullo spoke with The Greatest 21 Days recently before his short-season Aberdeen Ironbirds took on the Tri-City Valley Cats in Troy, NY. Merullo took the helm of the Ironbirds for 2013 after several years spent as a scout.
Aberdeen Ironbirds manager waives home runner Jeff Kemp at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, in July 2013.

Merullo spoke of his time growing up in New England in a baseball family, playing youth baseball and then going on to play in college in North Carolina. He also spoke about his transition to the pros, his later unexpected call up to the majors and early success, and efforts to get back and stay back.

In all, Merullo played professionally for a decade, seeing time in six major league seasons from 1989 to 1995, with 223 total games for the White Sox, Indians and Twins.

Merullo made that home opener in 1989 starting his fourth professional season. He signed with the White Sox in 1986, a seventh-round pick out of the University of North Carolina.

Signing with Chicago, Merullo was a professional baseball player, something he'd dreamed about being, he recalled.

"It was a smooth transition, just in the sense that I was really so happy to be doing what I wanted to be doing my whole life," Merullo said of the move from college to the pros. "I was finally a minor league baseball player. I was a professional baseball player. I wasn't thinking about the major leagues. I just knew I was in professional baseball."

In his second season, Merullo played at single-A Daytona Beach, and made AA Birmingham for 48 games. He then played all of 1988 at Birmingham, hitting .261, with six home runs. He also made the league All-Star game.

Then came spring 1989. Merullo played well that spring, but, with Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk and steady Ron Karkovice holding down the major league catching slots, he had few expectations of making the team.
Aberdeen Ironbirds manager Matt Merullo takes his third base coaching spot in July 2013 at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY. (G21D Photo)
Merullo actually pegged that as one of the reasons he did so well that spring, that there wasn't the pressure to make the big league team.

Helping him that spring, though, were White Sox manager Jeff Torborg and hitting coach Walt Hriniak. Torborg helped Merullo with his defense and Hriniak with his hitting.

"The two of them both gave me a lot of confidence that I could play at the major league level while I was in spring training that year," Merullo said.

With that lead in, a major league slot opened up. Days into the season, Fisk went down with a broken hand and Merullo was right there to step in.

"It was literally a dream come true," Merullo said of making the big league team.

Merullo first took the field for the White Sox April 12, at Seattle. Merullo came into the game in the sixth inning, replacing Karkovice. He went 0 for 1 to finish the game.

Two days later, Merullo got the start, for the home opener at Comiskey Park. There was enough lead time for his parents, wife and mother-in-law to get there.

His family, and everyone else there that day, ended up seeing Merullo go 2 for 4, with a single and that home run.

Merullo said he still has that day's lineup card in his office.

"It was, needless to say, a very memorable day, a very fun day, and every kid's dream who wants to play in the major leagues," Merullo said. "My first game was a good one."
Aberdeen Ironbirds manager Matt Merullo, left, talks with a player before a game at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, in July 2013. (G21D Photo)
Merullo ended up getting into 31 games for the White Sox that year, hitting .222, with that single home run.

But then it was back to the minors. Merullo didn't return to Chicago until 1991. In the meantime, he had work to do.

"I knew what it took to get there," Merullo said of his time with the White Sox in 1989, "but I had to learn what it took to stay there."

For Merullo, what actually got him back to the majors, and got him to stay for 80 games in 1991, was his ability to pinch-hit and do it left-handed.

After 1989, Merullo went back to the minors, focusing on his defense and working with a pitching staff. A knee injury also set him back for 1990, playing the year back at Birmingham.

When he got back to the majors in 1991, Merullo became a left-handed pinch-hitter off the bench. He also ended up getting into 80 games, hitting .229. He ended up catching in just 27 of those games.

"It was frustrating because my ability to pinch hit would keep me from starting sometimes," Merullo said, "because they like to have a guy come off at any time to swing the bat."

He returned for 1992, getting into just 24 games with the White Sox, catching in just 16.

Merullo's defense was always something that was suspect, Merullo said. The team also had a good defensive catcher in Karokovice and Fisk was still there in 1991, too.

From there, Merullo's major league time dwindled, until 1995, when Merullo found a new home in Minnesota.

Go to final part: Matt Merullo, Kept Simple

Part 1: What Fun | Part 2: Got There | Part 3: Kept Simple

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