On Friday, I spoke to former Minnesota Twins pitching prospect, Alex Merricks, who signed a minor league contract with the New York Mets last month, and was invited to participate in Spring Training.
During the 30 minute interview, I spoke with Alex about his return to the game of baseball after being released by the Twins in 2005.
It’s a remarkable story of perseverance and determination from a hard throwing lefthander who did not take the usual and customary path to his first Major League camp. Alex instead followed his heart, worked hard, and let his spirit guide him toward this new opportunity, which he hopes will lead him to his big league dream of some day pitching in a World Series.
MMO: Tell me how you first got into baseball, even before you were drafted by the Minnesota Twins in 2002?
Alex: I was actually playing tennis when I was 7-years old, and one day my uncle came to my dad and said, “why are you letting Alex play tennis, he should be playing ball with all the other boys”. The next thing I know is, he signs me up with Little League and I’m playing tee-ball.
Soon after, I was playing centerfield and someone hits a shot right at me, and I grab the ball and threw it all the way home without a bounce, and some people noticed and said “wow, that kid’s got a pretty good arm”. At that time I began to build some confidence and decided that I really liked this game and I wanted to learn more about it.
Alex goes on to tell me how he progressed and then finally got to pitch in a game for the very first time in a Little League game.
In my first game out there, I hit two batters and walked eleven guys, and learned I wouldn’t be pitching for the team anymore. I remember I cried that day, and my mom tells me “what are you crying for, just get back out there and practice.”
That same day I went outside and I just kept throwing my baseball at the handle of our wooden garage door until I could get control, and I pretty much destroyed that garage door. My parents were cool and didn’t say anything because they knew I was upset, and after that my dad played catch with me all the time.
MMO: Did you get a lot of encouragement from your family to play ball.
Alex: I got so much encouragement from my family that I didn’t realize that there were kids that didn’t get encouragement from their families. I believe that it’s because of my parents support, that I am able to do what I’m doing now.
Alex is married and has a 3-year old son. His wife Janine, has supported Alex and strongly encourages him everyday as he pursues his dream.
My wife and my family have all been very supportive; telling me to go out there and dream. I want to look back someday and know that I gave it everything I got. My family always reminds me that they are going to support me no matter what I do, and it’s been like that ever since I was a kid.
MMO: What was it like to be drafted out of high school, by the Minnesota Twins in 2002 with their 4th round pick and 122nd overall?
Alex: I had two cousins that were also left handed pitchers; one of them was drafted in the 6th round and the other in the 17th round by the Atlanta Braves in 2000. They both threw in the nineties, and I was always behind them. When I was drafted I wasn’t really surprised because I knew I was going to be drafted, but I didn’t know I was going to be drafted in the 4th round… that was a surprise, and I felt honored that a Major League team thought that highly of me.
MMO: So at the ripe old age of 18-years old, you find yourself pitching in the Gulf Coast League for the Twins. How did that go?
Alex: I was very excited and there was a lot of nervousness. I kept asking myself what did I have to do, and do I have to impress guys. I just knew I wanted to move up in the organization. I didn’t do to bad, I had some walks and there were some things I needed to do with my delivery to improve, but I actually got the job done and was looking forward to the Instructional League. (Alex went 2-0 that first year, picked up a save and finished with a 1.80 ERA)
After that first season, Alex did go to the Instructional League where they decided to have him change his delivery and his mechanics, which caused his control to go out the door.
Instead of going out there and competing, all I kept doing was thinking about my mechanics. It’s kind of a funny thing now that I think back… What I needed to do was go out and win and the mechanics would have worked themselves out.
MMO: After 2002, there was a big drop off in your performance for the next two years.
Alex: The Twins had some nice things to say about me at the time. They all thought that once this kid figures it out, he is going to be great. But I was young then, and I felt like what’s there for me to figure out?
Now, I know that what they meant was that I needed to get that competitive edge. Because, when you go out on a mound it’s all about intensity and going up there to win. Attack the zone. I was not mature and didn’t have the mind-set to know that back then.
We then talked about the physical and psychological aspects of the game and how both work hand in hand in creating a successful baseball pitcher, before moving on to his release from the Twins.
MMO: You must have been devastated when you had learned you were being released.
Alex: I was shocked because it wasn’t the Cinderella story I thought it was going to be. I realized it was over with this organization. I took a step back and thought, I could go team to team and try to make a squad, or I can take some time away from this game and learn the craft… study games… learn what it means to be a pitcher. And, when feel that I’ve been away from the game long enough and learned everything I needed to learn, that one day I was going to come back. I always knew in my heart that I was going to come back.
After his release, Alex worked in the automotive industry and became very successful in sales, but more importantly he learned some valuable communication skills. He also used the competitive edge he got from the game, and used it to become a top salesman. It wasn’t long though, until that competitive edge started to rekindle the desire to play competitive baseball again.
MMO: When did you realize it was time to get back to the game?
Alex: During the last month at my job, I just missed this big performance bonus and it really got me upset, and I decided that I didn’t want to do this anymore and that I really missed the game. I felt like I had been away from baseball long enough.
I asked my wife what she thought, and she said it would be okay and that I should go for it. The next day, I asked manager if it was ok to scale back my hours and work evenings because I was going to begin training during the day. So I did that for about a couple of months until finally walking away from the dealership, and started focusing full time on my training. Coincidentally, during this period my wife started becoming more successful as a make-up artist, and getting so much more work. The timing was so perfect, and we both felt like this was definitely a gift from heaven. She told me, “You just keep doing what you’re doing, and I’ve got your back.”
MMO: Was it very long until you started playing baseball again?
Alex: Not at all. Once I put my job behind me, I actually joined an adult baseball league, and started playing games on Sundays in the Pacific Baseball League in California. I went to a couple of different tournaments and I started to compete and I was like, “Man, I can pitch, I feel good, I can really do this again.” I decided from now on, I was going to attack, I was going to compete, I was going to have fun again. This is what baseball is all about.
MMO: From a conditioning standpoint, was the transition back to competitive baseball a difficult one?
Alex: I was about 230 pounds at one point and my diet was a car salesman’s diet; fast foods, Chinese food, Red Bulls, etc. I remember when I first started conditioning, I decided I was going run a mile and I couldn’t believe it took me 12 minutes, and I could barely do 5 or 10 push-ups without my arms getting tired… I couldn’t even bring myself to do one sit-up. I was like; nobody said this was going to be easy. But I was driven to getting myself back into the best shape my body has ever been in. I went on a diet and joined a gym, and now I’m at 200 lbs, and I probably have the lowest body fat content I’ve ever had in my life. I now run 25-30 sprints a day, hit the gym, ride my bike… I’ve never been this strong, even when I was playing in the GCL.
MMO: So now we fast forward to 2008, and you’re back in the game playing for the San Angelo Colts in the Independent League, what was it like playing for them?
Alex: It was a wonderful experience, and I couldn’t have picked a better place to have ended up and played the season with. My teammates were incredible and everybody there wanted to win. Doc Edwards who had a Major League career as a catcher, was my manager, and he knows what a Major League pitcher needs to do to succeed. Doc, was the fire that sparked me and really got me going.
The very first game he finally pitched me in, was a 1-1 ballgame in the ninth. So I go out there and pitch two innings and my team ends up winning the ball game, and I get my very first win since my return to professional baseball. It was almost like Doc knew that this was the situation he wanted to put me into. He just threw me right into the fire with the game on the line.
He did so much more than I can ever thank him for. He gave me my confidence, and in fact the next time I pitched was against Amarillo and Doc put me into a big spot to face their best hitter, and I got a big out. I ended up going 4-1 on the season pitching mostly in those types of situations. It felt so good to be competing again at this level.
MMO: I know you are a hard throwing lefty and that you have an excellent mid-nineties fastball. What else do you have in your arsenal?
Alex: I have a very sharp curveball which can be 12 to 6 at times, and it’s probably one of my top pitches. I’ve actually picked up a slider that I’m starting to command very well, and I’m pretty excited about that pitch. I also throw a two seam fastball, which is very effective in inducing groundballs and making hitters chase pitches on the outside part of the plate. I’m also working on a changeup. As you can see with pitchers like Johan Santana, if you’re a lefty and can throw a changeup, you can be very successful in this game. I’m committed to investing the time and effort to make that a good pitch for me.
MMO: Tell me how you came to be signed by the New York Mets?
Alex: I feel like somebody’s looking out for me. I was in Houston training with my agent to work on my mechanics and get ready for the upcoming year. One of the kids at the high school I was working out at said something to me about some Mets workout he had coming up. I was like; really that sounds cool, I’d like to be there too. So I looked at my agent and he said he’d contact the Mets and see if it would be okay. They were totally fine with it and told him to go ahead and bring me out to Huntsville for a look.
When I got there, they told me that they wanted me to pitch first. So after I warmed up, I went up on the mound and just started throwing pitchers to their catcher. The Mets scouting director, Rudy Tarrasas was there, as well as some other scouts. They setup video cameras and had their guns out there and I thought; there’s no better time to start showing off my pitches then right now.
I gave it my best and I showed them some good life on my fastball, and I showed them my some good stuff with my curve and my slider. After I finished, they took me to the side and said they wanted to talk among themselves and see if it was worthwhile to ad me to the organization and that they would give me a call and get back to me.
I was so excited because the Mets are one of the best organizations out there, and there is no better place to play than in New York. The Mets are phenomenal because you can see that each year they do whatever they can do to win. Anyway, they called me back two days later and said that they wanted me to join their minor league camp, and also invite me to Spring Training and earn a job. They said give it your best shot and we’ll see where it goes from there. I told them that it was always a childhood dream of mine to some day pitch in a World Series, and that I considered it an honor and a blessing if I could ever be put into a position where I might be able to help the Mets win. They said they were excited too and that they hoped that everything would work out well.
I remember thinking; wow, what are the chances? I live in California, and then go to Houston to work out, and all of a sudden this comes from it. It was just a blessing and my family was very happy for me, and they told me to keep working and that I can control my work ethic and my craft, and not to worry and just enjoy it.
I’m happy for the opportunity the Mets have given me, and I know nothing is going to be given to me, except that chance to compete and prove I belong.
MMO: That’s quite an amazing story.
Alex: It’s exciting… I know that in the beginning I’ll be going to minor league camp at what level they decide, and starting working with these guys. I know that all I can do is go out there and compete. My main focus is to get to that point where I’m on the mound and throwing my glove up in the air after having won a World Series, and feeling that excitement. That’s my main goal and that’s where I get my motivation. I know most players are just happy to just get to the Major League, but how great would it be to just make it all the way, and be a part of the best team in baseball… It would be an honor and a dream come true.
The Mets have so many great players on their team and they have such an incredible staff. I’m looking forward to meeting and learning from them.
MMO: Do you have a preference between starting and being a reliever?
Alex: I believe that every young guy likes to be out there on the mound when the game starts. That said, when it comes down to it, if the team needs me to be a relief pitcher and that is the best way for me to help my team, then that’s what I’m gonna do. If they say we want you to work on all four pitches because we want you to be a starter, then I’m gonna do that. I’m just gonna wear the hat that they ask me to wear. They are the experts, and they are the ones who really know what is best for the team. Whatever they ask me to do, I’m gonna just go out there and do it.
MMO: The Mets certainly have a need for a left handed reliever after their recent moves, and you’re a young guy, it looks like you’ll be 25 next week, happy birthday.
Alex: Thank you, I feel more mature now, and I have a single mindedness about me now that says I’m not gonna stop until I get there. Whatever the pressure may be, I embrace it… I take it on, and make it my own, and do whatever I can to overcome any obstacles. I believe that that’s what life is all about… playing the game and enjoying it. That’s how I look at things now-a-days.
MMO: Thank you for your time. I look forward to seeing you in the spring and I hope to see you getting some big outs for the New York Mets in the near future.
Alex: Thank you for having me and I appreciate all the kind words you had to say. Happy Holidays to you.
Read more about Alex Merricks at his blog on Yard Barker.