Former USC outfielder reflects on championship, previews professional baseball

[image] Whit Merrifield, a ninth round pick of Kansas City, slides into third during a game with Burlington, the Royals’ Low-A affiliate in Iowa.

By Chris Cox
Edited by Christina Elmore

The count against Whit Merrifield was 2-0. Scott Wingo, Merrifield's teammate at the University of South Carolina, stood on third base. And with the score knotted at a run apiece in the bottom of the 11th inning, Merrifield lined a single to right field off UCLA closer Dan Klein to deliver the Gamecocks' first national championship in a men's sport.

"A lot of Gamecock fans tell me that they never thought they'd see a national championship in their lifetime," Merrifield says eight months later. "That we could bring that was pretty cool."

Life has changed drastically for the Advance, N.C., native. After returning from Omaha, Merrifield was selected in the ninth round of the Major League Draft by the Kansas City Royals and assigned to play for the Low-A Burlington Bees in Iowa. The outfielder opted to forgo his final season at USC for professional baseball.

"I was glad I decided to sign pretty early and not wait because I have that experience under my belt, which is something a lot of new guys don't have," Merrifield says.

Before reporting to spring camp, Merrifield was back in Columbia completing an internship with Gamecock Sports Properties and working toward finishing his degree in sport and entertainment management while teaching hitting lessons on the side. He discussed his experiences with The Carolina Reporter. Parts of the interview have been edited for brevity.

How much did life change after you won the national championship?

The next morning after we won, I went on my Facebook and I had 1,500 friend requests. As of right now, I still have 5,000 friends and 1,000 friend requests I can't get to because I've maxed out my friend limit. It's a different world now. It's fun, though. I enjoy it. … It's nice to go out to a bar and get a drink paid for. That's probably the biggest difference. Just going around and having people recognize you and congratulate you. And them tell you how much that meant to them.

I think one of the more unique things about you personally is you seem to take a lot of pride in, and you run your life and your game, based a lot on your faith and religion. What can you tell me about that?

My religion is my No. 1 priority in my life. … I try to act and play with as much energy and passion as I can because I'm passionate about my religion. I do things to glorify God and I feel like I need to. Just like you try to make your parents proud, I'm trying to make Him proud, and do things the right way and hopefully rub off on some kids and show them that you can do things the right way and not be a bad person.

I don't know if this is a religious thing, and if it's not let me know, but I know prior to at-bats you make a "G" in the dirt. What's the story behind that?

It stands for God. I started it in … my junior year of high school. Before that I had some big-time anger issues. It's a long story, but it comes down to that was when I guess I got saved. It was when my dad told me that was what he used to do to calm himself down. He would draw a "K" in the dirt for my mom's name [Kissy]. I thought about it and said, "You know, it would be kind of cool if I did that." I do it, and it reminds me that there are bigger things out there than this at-bat that I'm about to go through.

I think you played 49 games, .253 average, five home runs, 26 RBIs. Is that right? Talk about, if you had to grade yourself, how you did and maybe what your expectations are for next year.

I started off on fire. And I was thinking, "This is easy." And as soon as I thought that, I went through a huge slump just like everyone told me would happen. It was tough. … But I finished up really strong, and then I went to an instructional league and played really, really well. … Hopefully, the big guys in the organization see that and will continue to move me up. We'll see what happens next year.

I imagine you probably had nicer amenities in college, with your stadium and your travel, than you probably do in Low-A.

I would have had nicer amenities if I had been a homeless kid on the side of the road. It was unbelievable. I get there and live in a two-bedroom apartment in the middle of nowhere with two Spanish-speaking kids and another kid. It's as big as the kitchen we're sitting in right now. It was brutal. They give us flat screens that I think were like 8-inch TVs. It was a culture shock, it really was. To have the ceiling leaking all the time, you don't have hot water hardly ever, you're with guys that don't speak a lot of English and you have to communicate other ways; it was a culture shock. But that's part of it and a lot of motivation to move up and get out of that lifestyle. It's just part of the minor league system. My first check was like $280 or something for a month. That's just part of it.

So now you're back for the offseason. What are you doing here?

I have 27 hours of classes and one more internship before I graduate. … It's tough because when you're a minor leaguer, there are always those fall leagues that they want you to play in. The thing is, you don't know where they want you to go until late August. And you sign up for classes in what, March for the fall semester? So I'm going to have to be signing up for classes, then probably dropping them when I find out what I have to do. I mean, I want to graduate as soon as I can, but at the same time I don't think it's worth it to take a step back in my baseball career right now, as opposed to taking a step ahead and getting a couple of classes done. I'll graduate. It'll happen. I might be 32 when it happens, but it will happen.

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