Although Mark Merila never had any big league success, he is a success story. He is a baseball success story. Merila doesn’t need official major league stats to prove his case. In fact, his two years of minor league numbers don’t mean much here either. His is a story about living, overcoming, and succeeding when he never had a chance. You see, Mark Merila is alive and well in 2012 after being told by doctors with frightening certainty that he was going to die in 2005.
Merila played for the University of Minnesota and Team USA before being drafted by the Padres in 1994. He played two minor league seasons before an enemy that would stick with him the rest of his life first made an appearance. In 1996, Merila was diagnosed with a brain tumor and forced to retire from baseball – as a player at least.
After retiring as a player, Merila took a position as the Padres bullpen catcher. The tumor in Merila’s brain was such that one bad impact, one stray pitch could have cost him his life. The bullpen catcher role would allow Merila the chance to continue to be around his teammates and friends as he lived life with a tumor in his head. He took that opportunity and made the best of it for 10 years. But then things got worse.
In 2005, Merila suffered a Grand Mal seizure (loss of consciousness and uncontrollable spasms). The brain tumor had struck again. This time, it threatened his life. The seizure affected Merila’s ability to walk, talk, write, and do normal every day activities. But beyond that, doctors were convinced the tumor was on its way to killing him.
Merila, with the help of Padres owner John Moores, sought treatment from some of the best doctors in the world. He underwent chemotherapy, tests, and experimental drugs on his way to recovery. Of course, recovery was a relative term. He would never recover to his pre-seizure state, and he would have to relearn many of the daily tasks we all take for granted. His time as a bullpen catcher was done, but his time as a Padre was not.
That’s where the story changes from one about life in general to one about sports and baseball in particular. After going through the emotional cycles one would expect someone in Merila’s position to go through, he rejoined the Padres as a special assistant to third base coach Glenn Hoffman. He retained the title of “bullpen catcher,” but his role with the team was one of inspiration. The role of the team to him, however, was the real story. They didn’t change the way they treated him, they continued to joke around with him, and they treated him like the family he had always been.
Similar stories can happen in any profession. An office employee’s co-workers can offer inspiration, a doctor can find a position within the hospital for a crippled former doctor. It’s not a story unique to baseball. What is unique is the level of acceptance and inclusion the Padres had for Merila. When Merila rejoined the team, he wasn’t just sitting on the bench. He was interacting with star players, future hall of famers, and the entire coaching staff. He had a purpose and wasn’t simply a token symbol of disability.
According to an article Tom Krasovic, now of Inside the Padres but then of San Diego Magazine, written in 2009, Bud Black used Merila to try to crack the opposing team’s signs. He would talk them over with Black and work on game strategy. In Dirk Hayhurst‘s most recent book, Out of My League, he writes of the first time he saw Merila. It was during a spring training game. Merila, crippled from the seizure, was unable to play catch like he used to, but his good friend Trevor Hoffman didn’t care. Trevor Hoffman told Merila to get ready, and he did. Merila, like he had so many time before the brain tumor changed his life, was going to warm up Trevor Hoffman. He forced a glove on a hand that didn’t want to work, and he held that glove up waiting for the delivery. Hoffman, careful to throw the ball perfectly to Merila’s glove, hit the target every time. Merila couldn’t throw the ball back, so he had someone relay it to Hoffman. He was just one of the guys, still a Padre.
Without baseball, could Merila have healed as much as he has? Without baseball, could he have been able to get over the anger and frustration that often prevents those with crippling injuries and diseases from living life? Maybe not. But he did have baseball. He had the Padres. Players, coaches, friends, and family. That’s what the team was and is to Mark Merila. Now, he will be moving back to his native Minnesota, but he will remain a part of the team. Merila will be a scout for the team, working primarily the Minnesota area and scouting teams who come to Target Field to take on the Twins. Of course, he will be able to scout the Twins too.
A man given three months to live back in 2005 ignored that diagnosis, struggled through heartbreakingly painful rehabilitation, and has gone from wheelchair-bound to walking to catching and hitting. He’s an inspiration. He’s the reason people love sports. When talking about a game of catch between Merila and Hoffman, the story goes so far beyond baseball. In that moment, Hoffman was not just a future hall of famer. He was a normal person, and Merila was a normal person, both coping the best way they know how; through baseball.