Baseball runs deep in Merullo family

Aberdeen skipper Matt one of four generations who went to pro ball

Matt Merullo led the IronBirds to a 40-32 record and a McNamara Division title in 2013. (Bob Rinker/Aberdeen IronBirds)

By Ashley Marshall / | July 4, 2014 10:00 AM ET

BROOKLYN -- Leaning with his back to the wall outside the visiting team's clubhouse at MCU Park, Matt Merullo, with his arms folded across his chest and his gaze locked on the floor, lifted his chin and turned his slight smile into a beaming grin.

Merullo, now in his second year managing the short-season Aberdeen IronBirds, the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, speaks passionately on a range on topics from the psychology of being mentally ready to play every day to the Battle of Gettysburg. But it's the mention of his family -- his heritage and the legacy of the Merullo name -- that makes him smile from ear to ear. It's the signature smile of a proud father, husband, son and grandchild.

The catcher likes to say he was "born into baseball," and there's more than a grain of truth to that. His grandfather Lennie is the lone living member of the 1945 Chicago Cubs National League champs, and his father Len was a highly touted prospect of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the early 60s before a freak injury cost him his chance at the Majors.

Matt spent six years in the Majors himself, mostly with the Chicago White Sox, before following in his grandfather's footsteps as a scout. Now Nick, the oldest of three children and Matt's only son, will be a fourth-generation professional baseball player after signing with the Orioles earlier this week.

Oh, the stories that family can tell.

Matt remembers spending hours at a time kneeling in the basement of his grandfather's Victorian-style house in Reading, Pennsylvania, flicking through the yellowed pages of oversized photo albums and staring at grainy black-and-white images and newspaper clippings.

He remembers the story of how his father got his nickname -- Boots -- and the time he wrote a message to his dad on the inside of his cap with a Sharpie at Comiskey Park in 1989, just his second game in the Majors. Later that day, Matt hit his first big leaguer homer, a ninth-inning shot off the A's Rick Honeycutt.

And he remembers, just last month, Nick answering a call on his cell phone when the Orioles said they wanted to sign the collegiate backstop.

His memories from the late 1960s are just as fresh as those from June.

"He would talk about getting spiked in 1945," Matt said of his now 97-year-old grandfather Lennie, recalling one of the stories he would listen to on winter days over Christmas vacation. "He tells a story of when he had a play at second base and got spiked and he got cut on the inside of the forearm and he continuously picked at the scab so he would always have a scar to remember the experience of playing in the World Series.

"Mr. Wrigley wanted the team, for whatever reason, to stay on a steam ship on Lake Michigan for the World Series. I remember him telling me how none of the wives were happy about it because they wanted to stay in a fancy hotel downtown. They put up enough stink that they moved them off this luxury boat, this nice ocean liner."

It was perhaps inevitable that Matt would become a third-generation professional. He accompanied his grandfather on scouting trips throughout the Northeast during his summer vacations when he was 8 or 9. There he learned how to be a student of the game.

He enjoyed spending time with his grandfather, packing his pipe for him in the car as they drove across New England. The sense memory of pipes and cigars is a familiar association with Double-A ballparks of the early '70s, and he still calls his grandfather Puppa Pipe to this day.

Matt remembers eating Howard Johnson breakfasts in Bristol, Connecticut, where the Red Sox's Double-A affiliate played, and he remembers falling asleep in the Red Bull Inn in Waterbury while his grandfather sat at a small desk hand-writing notes on observations from that day's Dodgers Eastern League game where youngsters like Terry Collins and Jim Riggleman were trying to make it as players.

"I was able to learn so much watching guys play catch, warm up, just copying them," said Matt, who has a black-and-white, baseball card-sized photograph of his father, then age 5, and his grandfather pinned to a corkboard in his office inside Ripken Stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland. "The little parts of the game were pointed out to me at a young age. I wouldn't watch the ball, I would watch the hitters' hands wiggling on the bat, holding it very loosely. Or I'd watch the shortstop's feet as he was waiting for the pitch."

* * *

Lennie Merullo, born in East Boston in 1917, had a 53-year scouting career, including 22 years as chief scout for the Cubs and three decades with MLB's scouting bureau. He retired 12 years ago at age 85.

A signed bat from that 1945 Cubs team remains a prized heirloom from his playing days; an old framed team photo with the players' names printed on it holds a special spot in his office. Among the players pictured alongside Lennie are lifelong friend and teammate Andy Pafko. When Pafko died in October, Lennie became the oldest living player to have played in the Fall classic.

A career .240 hitter, Lennie made his Major League debut in 1941, the summer before his son Len was born. On Sept. 13, 1942, the day his wife went into labor, Lennie was playing in the nightcap of a doubleheader with the Boston Braves. When Cubs owner Philip Wrigley got word to the shortstop that his wife had been taken to hospital, the infielder committed four errors on four consecutive plays.

The misplays, still a Major League record, prompted Chicago-area newspapers to suggest the nickname "Boots" for the newest Merullo. Today, Len's wife -- Matt's grandmother -- still uses the moniker.

Boots, an outfielder, third baseman and catcher, signed with the Pittsburgh Piates in 1961 and made his professional debut the following year as a 20-year-old with the Batavia Pirates. Pittsburgh had just won the 1960 World Series and Len was one of the youngsters whom the Bucs hoped would help continue the club's success.

"He went from high school to college to play football at Holy Cross, and at 19 years old, after his freshman year, he went from the Northeast to the Minor Leagues," Matt said of his father. "I remember seeing a picture of him and his teammates from that 1962 season. He was a bonus baby, he got a lot of money, signed for about $60,000. You weren't drafted back then, you went to the highest bidder."

But Len broke his leg in a collision with a teammate trying to track down a fly ball in the outfield and never really recovered. He played for the Reno Silver Sox the following year and saw time across two levels with Reno and the Gastonia Pirates in 1964, but with a son of his own on the way the following summer, he never made it out of the Western Carolinas League.

"He told me he could never play [in the Majors] because he had a hard time relaxing and playing every day, dealing with the ups and downs and the dead time. He was always full of nervous energy, I remember my mother talking about that," Matt said.

"Ever since I was a kid and he was coaching me, he'd always say, 'Hey, have some fun, have some fun.' He'd be coaching third base clapping. I knew I wanted to play baseball, to be just like them and I'm thankful they made it fun for me, and they made it a great time whether it was swinging a bat in the basement or playing catch in the driveway that was shoveled with snow.

"I was a bat boy for a team that my dad played on. I guess you could call it a 'twilight league,'" said Matt, who played with 1985 first overall Draft pick B.J. Surhoff and 1988 American League Rookie of the Year Walt Weiss during his time at the University of North Carolina. "There were retired Minor Leaguers, but most were guys in their late 20s and a couple really good players that were still teenagers at the time. They were still using wood bats and my father had got his hands on some leftover Minor League uniforms for the Chicago Cubs' Double-A team, the San Antonio Missions. My dad was the player-coach, and I thought that was just so much fun."

"I didn't care that nobody came to watch us in Peninsula. It was old and stinky and it was the real thing. The clubhouse was nothing fancy -- it was tiny, but I was a pro. The bats were wood and the pine tar was sticky."
-- Matt Merullo

Matt parlayed his talents into a six-year Major League career with the White Sox, Twins and Indians, and he later became a scout for the D-backs after his playing days came to an end in the mid-'90s.

Even from the start of his pro career in the Minors, Matt, a history major in college, wasn't deterred by the low attendances in A-ball or the long bus rides from city to city. He relished the journeys from Hampton, Virginia, where he started his career with the Peninsula White Sox, to Salem, Kinston and Durham.

Similarly, he enjoyed his time in Daytona Beach, Birmingham and Vancouver and, later, Nashville, Charlotte, Lake Elsinore and Iowa. One year he'd be on a bus travelling 400 miles east from Knoxville to Memphis. The next summer it would be 1,000 miles southwest from Calgary to Portland. Then Nashville to Buffalo. Then Charlotte to Ottawa. The trips made the game, the experience, special.

"I loved it. I remember a high school teacher telling me that the one thing I have to do before I die is crisscross the country on land. I said baseball was my ticket to experience and see things and meet people. I was tied in to the history of the game," said Matt.

"I was able to travel around. I played in Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, and in Chattanooga, all these places that have so much history. I remember stopping in Gettysburg on the way home one year after I read a really cool book called The Killer Angels about the Battle of Gettysburg. I found the best thing for me was just to get out and explore.

"Just today, I told everybody that if they wanted to stick around I would take them to the ballpark on the subway -- it's kinda cool -- and Dylan Bundy was the one player that chose to do it, a player from Oklahoma getting an experience riding a New York City subway. You have to just wake up in the morning and go out and see what's there."

History was everywhere Matt went. He played in Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium in 1989 and Camden Yards in 1992. He made a start in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium in 1991 and Jacobs Field in 1995. And, as a member of the White Sox, he also got to play in both the old and new Comiskey Parks, the latter of which opened in 1991.

"My [second] day in the Major Leagues, my father and mother showed up, and I took my hat off and I got a Sharpie as I was warming up. It was opening day in Chicago and I didn't expect to play. I found out I was going be the starting catcher. I had just got called up and I found myself catching the home opener. My dad wasn't too far from the dugout, so I wrote, 'What fun, huh?' and I flipped it to him. He still has it to this day."

Matt, a seventh-round Draft pick himself, played in his final Major League game with the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 29, 1995, about six-and-a-half years after he made his debut. But it was the following spring that Merullo, then 30 years old, got to do something he had been waiting more than two decades for.

"My last year in professional baseball, my last Spring Training, I went to the Cubs in Mesa, Arizona. I remember when I signed the contract with the Cubs, their clubhouse man, Yosh Kawano still working for them," said Matt. "He was working for them as a clubhouse boy when my grandfather was there. And my grandfather, ever since I was 7 years old, he would say, 'When you're 9 years old, you and I, we're gonna go out to Arizona and go to Spring Training together.' Then it was, 'When you're 12 years old, you and I, we're gonna go out to Arizona and go to Spring Training together.'

"Well, then I started playing baseball a lot and it never happened, so I was 30 years old, 31 years old and he said, 'Hey we're finally going.' I went out to Spring Training and he flew out to meet me in Arizona. I sat and had dinner with him and Yosh Kawano and I never got a word in edge-wise. It was so much fun to be a fly on that wall."

Now there's a fourth rung in the Merullo baseball ladder. Undrafted out of James Madison University where he co-captained the Dukes, 22-year-old Nick Merullo was signed by the Orioles this week and is working out with the organization's Gulf Coast League affiliate in Sarasota, Florida.

Nick grew up in Madison, Connecticut, on a quiet street where each house is set back from the road and surrounded by trees on three sides and where the beach of the Long Island Sound shoreline is less than a 10-minute drive south.

He hit .382 or better in three of his four years at Hand High School and earned a string of accolades at JMUwhere he was voted as a top preseason newcomer in the CAA in his freshman year.

"I got a strong sense from my mother's side of the family that there's more to life than baseball. My wife felt the same way," said Matt, an alternate on the 1985 Team USA squad. "Nick would be organizing whiffle-ball games in the back yard, organizing football games in the front yard. I just wanted him to grow up doing whatever he wanted to do.

"Nick felt some pressure and I hope I didn't add to it. One summer I asked him if he was having fun. He didn't look like he was and I said, 'You don't have to play this game.' He said, 'Well, yes I do, I can't not be the fourth generation.' I grabbed him by the shirt collar and said, 'Yes, you absolutely can be.' In some ways I wanted to tell him not to play this game, because I don't want to have to worry about him or stress about him."

And father's scouting report on son?

"Raw and strong," Matt said. "He doesn't have a lot of experience, but he's got the tools and I think he just needs to refine his skills. He's got a much stronger arm than I have and he's got some power and some quick hands. He just needs to play baseball in a fun and relaxed environment.

"When the call came from the Orioles, I couldn't be happier. I'm thrilled he's with this organization and I know he'll be taken care of by some great coaches down there in Sarasota. I'm sure somewhere my grandmother rolled her eyes."

Ashley Marshall is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @AshMarshallMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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