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Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview Part 3: Matt Merullo, Kept Simple

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

Oakland's Rick Honeycutt threw a curve ball, then another.

The second curve wasn't a pitch White Sox rookie catcher Matt Merullo was looking for, Merullo recalled recently, but it was a pitch he sent over the Comiskey Park wall for a home run.

"I really was just trying to keep it simple," Merullo, manager for 2013 at short-season Aberdeen, recalled recently to The Greatest 21 Days. "Like I was talking to our hitters today, I just saw the pitch and reacted and put a good swing on it and it went into the right field stands."

"I ran around the bases and went into the dugout, just thrilled. But, at the same time there was the sense that I'd been working hard to get to this point."

Merullo is working in 2013 to help other players keep it simple like that, serving as manager of the Aberdeen Ironbirds in the Orioles system.

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 Matt Merullo coaching third at Joe Bruno stadium in Troy, NY. (G21D Photo)
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 went on to hit six other home runs in that major league career. That first home run came with fireworks, causing Merullo to jump as he was running out to the field the next day due to a power outage the day before.

Merullo hit five of those other home runs in 1991, his second season with time in the majors, but a season where he saw more time pinch-hitting than catching.

As the years went on, injuries took their toll. Merullo also never could get comfortable with his defense behind the plate, he recalled.
Aberdeen Ironbirds manager Matt Merullo heads to the third base coaching box at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY, in July 2013. (G21D Photo)
From 1992 to 1994, Merullo made the majors each year, but for only a total of 36 games.

"The more I worked on my defense, the more I found I was starting to have trouble with my arm," Merullo said. "So it became a journeyman's career. It became an up and down career. But I think it's led to exactly what I'm doing right now. I really feel at home right now."

But, before Merullo could start his post-playing career, he made a comeback of sorts with the Twins. 

For 1995, Merullo signed with Minnesota, getting into 76 games, 46 of those at catcher.

"It was a great experience," Merullo said of his time with the Twins. "In a lot of ways I felt like I finally learned to play the game mentally, but the physical skills weren't there."

By then, Merullo had had three elbow surgeries, but he knew how to prepare and keep himself in shape for a part-time role. He ended up hitting .282 and knocking in 27 on the year.

That year Merullo also got the chance to watch two-time World Series-winning manager Tom Kelly work.

"I learned a whole lot from Tom Kelly, as a manager," Merullo said. "We were not a good baseball team in terms of wins and losses, but I learned the importance of playing the game the right way, no matter what."
Aberdeen Ironbirds manager Matt Merullo, right, after an Aberdeen win in July 2013 at Joe Bruno Stadium in Troy, NY. (G21D Photo)
Kelly, Merullo recalled, stress the importance of playing professionally and playing the whole game, no matter the situation.

"Play all nine innings, win or lose," Merullo said. "We're going to play all nine innings. That's why I have the number I have now, 27, which represents 27 outs. I want my guys to play all 27 outs."

His playing days over, Merullo went on to be a scout for the Diamondbacks. For 2013, Merullo moved to the manager's office in Aberdeen.

Also working with the team is Merullo's son, Nick. Nick Merullo plays at James Madison University and is working an internship with the Ironbirds' front office. Matt Merullo and his wife Chris have a total of three children, Nick, Allie and Carly.

Overseeing Merullo is the Orioles director of player development Brian Graham, who managed Merullo in 1994 as Merullo played at AAA Charlotte.

Talking to Graham before the season, Merullo remembered a line Graham gave him. Players, Graham told him, they don't care how much a manager knows, they want to know how much the manager cares about them.

"I want these guys to know how much I care about their careers, how much I care about their development, how much I care about them as people and what they're going through," Merullo said. "I try to relate to them as human beings."

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

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