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The New Rookie

On June 13, 2016, Whit Merrifield, the newest rookie of the Kansas City Royals, hit his first major league home run off of the Cleveland Indians’ Carlos Carrasco. Seconds after, on June 13, 2016, I looked at my dad in section 139 of Kauffman Stadium and told him “I’m going to be a baseball reporter one day.”

As a lifelong sports fan, you tend to cling to certain athletes that catch your eye, spark your interest, and remind you why you love the sport you do. When Whit Merrifield clinched the College World Series championship for his USC Gamecock teammates in 2010, I knew he was one to follow. It was even more obvious when the Royals drafted him shortly after in the 2010 MLB Draft.

Let’s backtrack.

I’ve been a Royals fan by blood since the day I was born, and no team has ever made me want to be a fan of theirs more. My grandparents, still living in nostalgia, have my dad’s bedroom set up the exact same way as they did when he moved out to go to the police academy in 1981 — vintage pennants from the Kansas City Chiefs Super Bowl I appearance against the Green Bay Packers, Paton-Churdan Rockets banners, where he played baseball his entire life, and the Kansas City Royals. After he moved home from the academy in 1986, he added to his wall the 1985 World Series Pennant when the Royals earned the win against the St. Louis Cardinals.

Whenever my brother and I would visit my grandparent’s home, we would sit in my dad’s old room and study all of the baseball cards he had collected throughout his youth. This was just one of the ways I learned to love the sport.

My dad has been in law enforcement my whole life, oftentimes working the night shift from 6 PM to 6 AM. On his nights off, it was his job to get my brother and me ready for bed, as my mom deserved a night off from being a mother a few times a week as well. My brother never had any issue falling asleep and would never ask for a bedtime story from either of my parents. Of course, I was the difficult child and needed my mom to sing to me or read me a story from my Little Golden Books collection. With my dad, I asked for him to lay with me and listen to our favorite baseball AM radio station, where they talked about all things happening in the world of the MLB.

I was always envious of the relationship my brother had with my dad. I was never a girly-girl and always wanted to play sports, but I was also sensitive and couldn’t handle them picking on me the majority of the time. But my bonding with my dad came with baseball, him teaching me how to throw a baseball and how to catch one from more than three feet away. When second-grade t-ball began for me in 2002, my dad was over the moon about my interest in joining the town’s team.

As I grew as an athlete, my interest in baseball grew alongside it. My dad and I would take trips down to Kansas City at least once a year to watch a weekend-long series against various teams. After my parents split up in 2002, it was really the only bonding time we were given. He lived in Fort Dodge and still worked as a police officer and my mom, brother, and I lived three hours away in a small town north of Cedar Rapids. My small-town softball games were typically at a time that made it difficult for even my mom to get to and there was never an expectation for my dad to come, either. But if there was a Royals game the same night as my softball games, I’d come back to my phone with a voicemail of him giving me the rundown of that game and asking for a call back for an update on mine.

My time as an athlete diminished when my mom got a new job and moved me to a brand new school with sports programs that required you to be involved in summer club teams if you wanted to be on any of the school’s teams. Not being involved in sports really affected me being a fan. I thought to myself, “Why would I care about sports if I can’t even play them anymore?”

However, Whit Merrifield was a different case for me.

I’d followed the College World Series for a long time and my dad was really the only person who understood my love of baseball — and who I didn’t drive crazy by constantly talking about this new rookie the Royals had drafted.

Having never seen Whit play in person before, it was remarkable that this player had stood out to me so much and it’s mostly because of his unique storyline.

Whit Merrifield was drafted in 2010 and spent six years in minor league baseball before he finally made his major league debut in 2016. He was called up in 2015 and as soon as he was about to pack up and leave for Kansas City, he got a callback and said they’d changed their minds and he’d be in Omaha with the Stormchasers for a bit longer.

And then Kansas City went on to win the World Series in 2015 — without Whit.

An interview was released in later years of Whit saying that he almost hung up his cleats and completely walked away from baseball. His dad, who spent six seasons in the minors as well, told him he could but should really consider his decision, as it would have been a permanent one that he couldn’t take back.

And thank God he didn’t.

My dad asked if I wanted to go to the Indians series in Kansas City and I didn’t even hesitate when I said “Yes!” My stepmom was more convincing and said, “Make him buy you a lot of new Royals gear.” Don’t worry, he did.

Kauffman has been a special place for me for as long as I can remember. It’s been my home away from home and holds so many memories for me — my dad told me this story once of five-year-old me falling up the metal stairs of the K, before its remodel, and completely scraping my shin open. I was bleeding profusely from my leg but I didn’t seem bothered. The stranger next to me who had watched it happen just looked at my dad and said, “That’s one tough little girl you’ve got there.” My dad just grinned and laughed. “She’s a tough one,” he said.

That mentality has stuck with me during my time as an athlete and as I later went on to study journalism in college. It wasn’t an immediate choice — I was cautious to be a woman in such a male-dominated field. I came into the university as an environmental major but later reminded myself of my dad’s words to that stranger in Kauffman. After watching more women in the press box and next to the bullpen in baseball ballparks throughout growing up, I knew that he was right. I was tough enough.

That day in 2016 still feels so vivid to me. We got to Kauffman as soon as they opened the gates. Dad and I like to walk the entire stadium and talk about all the memories we have there — behind the fountains and the enormous crown-shaped Jumbotron, along the concourse when I would pout after every game because I wasn’t ready to leave, and even outside the clubhouse where my dad bought us meet and greets so we — mostly him — could meet his favorite player, Mike Sweeney.

Meet and greet with Mike Sweeney, Spring 2000. I am on the far left.

We got to our seats and had to take a selfie so we could remember such a great view. He’d never gotten us so close to the field before but surprised me with the location of our seats an hour before we walked in. We were in Row A of section 139 and I could hear the conversations between Alex Gordon and Whit while they were warming up. I was in awe.

It was the bottom of the 4th inning, and Kansas City was up 1–0 against the Indians. Whit Merrifield nonchalantly walked up to home plate. The inning before he had just knocked off his first career triple. I was nervous. Carlos Carrasco was a very skilled pitcher and knew how to switch things up for his batters.

Whit was at a 0–2 count. I knew Carrasco was about to throw a changeup and I was hoping Whit was able to catch onto that too. And he did.

You could hear the contact the ball had made with his bat from across I-70. I stood up and felt the world around me move in slow motion. The ball went deep into left field and that’s when I knew.

It was out of here.

My smile was stretched from ear to ear and my dad put his right arm around me and we cheered for Whit together. I looked up at my dad and I think he could see it in my eyes. He always knew my love for baseball, but this was a different kind of excitement. This was a passion, a dedication, an intense spirit felt about this sport.

The new rookie of the Kansas City Royals, Whit Merrifield, had convinced me, inadvertently, that I was about to be baseball reporting’s new rookie.

My father and I at that specific Royals game in 2016.

Looking for more baseball stories like this Whit Merrifield baseball reporter piece? Check out this SE podcast episode featuring the catcher for the Seattle Mariners, Tom Murphy.