By Pat Borzi
MINNEAPOLIS -- He could be dead. That's how Mark Merila looks at it. With an inoperable tumor in the left side of his brain that affects his vision and motor function, Merila, a 41-year-old scout for the San Diego Padres, is grateful every day for the smallest things. Shaking hands. Telling stories. Going to the ballpark and watching the game that gave him everything
Merila can walk, stiffly. He can drive a car. His smile and upbeat personality remain. Merila survived two grand mal seizures, multiple rounds of radiation and chemotherapy, and a last-resort experimental drug treatment that extended his life. Then, after all that, his marriage broke up.
Yet as Merila sat in the back of the press box at Target Field in Minneapolis recently, he stressed how lucky and blessed he felt. Merila can find a positive in anything, even misery. The words did not come smoothly -- they never do for Merila anymore -- but they came.
"I've had radiation, chemo, a bunch of times. I never lost my hair," Merila said, cackling. He reached behind his left ear, touching the one spot that went thin. "Right over here, looks like I had a bad haircut," he said. "That's the other thing. When somebody has cancer, and you lose you hair, you know you're really sick."
Ex-Padres players and officials speak of Merila, their bullpen catcher for more than a decade, with a reverence rare in baseball for someone who never played above Class A.
Trevor Hoffman, the major-league leader in saves until Mariano Rivera passed him last year, insisted on Merila as his personal warmup catcher, even after the second seizure in 2005 affected his throwing. In 2006, the club tabbed Hoffman, Merila and reliever Scott Linebrink to raise their National League West championship flag. A year later, Hoffman and Merila did it.
After Linebrink was traded to Milwaukee in 2007, he asked for No. 71, Merila's number with the Padres. Linebrink later wore No. 71 with the White Sox from 2008-10.
"He's a tough S.O.B." Hoffman said of Merila in a telephone interview from San Diego. "To go through everything he's gone through, to look cancer right in the face and say, 'Bring it on,' says so much about him."
Nicknamed "Stump" for his stubby body, Merila stands a stocky 5-foot-9, with dirty-blond hair and the ruddy complexion of someone who spent too many years outdoors without sunblock.
Growing up in Minnesota, Merila's first love was ice hockey. A two-sport standout at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth, Minn., Merila chose baseball when University of Minnesota Coach John Anderson offered him a partial scholarship. Merila played second base with distinction as a two-time All-American and the first Gopher to play for Team USA.
Drafted by his hometown Minnesota Twins as a junior in 1993, Merila returned to school. It was there, early his senior season, when Merila suffered his first grand mal seizure, triggered by the tumor.
Though Merila finished the season and won the Big Ten's Player of the Year Award, most major-league teams shied away. The Padres chose him in the 33rd round because general manager Kevin Towers admired Merila's spunk and tenacity.
Two years later, after the tumor grew and Merila endured his first round of radiation, Towers feared a collision or a beanball might endanger Merila's life. But Towers couldn't coldly release Merila, either. So the following spring, two weeks before camp broke, Towers approached Merila about becoming San Diego's bullpen catcher.
"He was a great athlete, a great kid," said Towers, now Arizona's general manager, in a telephone interview. "At the time, we didn't know if he was going to live for a year or two years. We wanted to give him the opportunity to experience what big league life was like. If something happened down the road, he could say he experienced the life of a big-league ballplayer."
Even though Merila never caught before, how he could he say no? After a two-week crash course, he found himself at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Opening Day. Merila trembled at the thought of missing a warm-up pitch and chasing a ball onto the field.
"You've got to block balls and everything," he said. "I'm like, how am I going to do this? Am I going to be one of these guys going, Time! Time!"
Hoffman said that was never an issue. "Stump's an athlete," he said. "He'll probably tell you he struggled, but one bullpen and he had it down pat."
Merila rattled off the names of veteran Padres like a kid flipping a stack of baseball cards. Tony Gwynn. Fernando Valenzuela. Rickey Henderson. Greg Maddux. Wally Joyner. They all made him feel like a peer. Well, almost all: Henderson never learned Merila's name. But Merila soon discovered Henderson didn't know anyone else's, either.
"He was, Hey baby, hey baby, hey B. Some kind of a B or baby," Merila said. "You knew you had to be an All-Star guy for Rickey to know your actual first name."
Medication kept Merila's condition stable for years, long enough to see San Diego's 1998 World Series run and the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, when manager Bruce Bochy brought Merila as part of his staff. But the tumor remained, which was worrisome. And in July 2005, while riding the No. 7 subway to Shea Stadium with Padres staffers, Merila suffered another seizure.
This recovery proved arduous. Merila spent part of it in a wheelchair. He lost peripherial vision in his right eye, and some movement in his right hand and foot. Padres staffers were told Merila had three months to live. He survived because then-Padres owner John Moores paid for him to undergo an experimental drug trial, which his insurance would not cover.
In 2006, Merila gamely returned, though he struggled to throw balls back. Some pitchers quietly asked for a different warmup catcher, but not Hoffman. Going for his 425th career save, which would have put him second all-time behind Lee Smith, Hoffman insisted on Merila.
Hoffman needed Merila again in National League Division Series Game 3, but Merila wanted no part of it, fearing he would mess Hoffman up. "Did he tell you I barked at him?" Hoffman said. Hoffman felt Merila could get through if he focused; he banked on Merila's competitiveness and stubbornness. It worked. Hoffman closed the game for his final career postseason save.
Eventually, the Padres made Merila an assistant to third base coach Glenn Hoffman, Trevor's older brother. Last year, new assistant general manager AJ Hinch -- Merila's roommate with Team USA in 1993, and the Padres executive in charge of scouting -- asked Merila to become major-league scout. It allowed Merila to return home to Minnesota, where his ex-wife and their three children lived, and tap into his accumulated baseball smarts.
"A lot of people in the Padres organization have an affinity for Mark," Hinch said. "We wanted to do something a little bit different because we were not sure he was physically able to catch anymore. Having someone in Minnesota is an advantage for us, because all the American League teams come through Minnesota."
The Padres organization has endured much cancer-related trauma in recent years. First base coach Dave Roberts survived a bout with Hodgkins lymphoma in 2010. Gwynn, a Padres broadcaster, required treatment for a mouth tumor in 2010-11. And well-regarded bullpen coach Darrel Akerfelds, Merila's best friend in baseball, died of pancreatic cancer in June 2012.
That's why, for Merila, even a bad day is a good day. He outlived expectations. Cancer hasn't gotten him yet.
"I know that's why I'm here, to tell people, anything in your life, up and down, go through it. You don't quit," he said. "The doctor told me I could never drive ever again. Now I can drive."
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Pat Borzi, a former Yankees and Mets beat writer for the (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger, has covered major league baseball since 1988. His work appears frequently in The New York Times.