Kent Mercker's activity list during his sabbatical from baseball last summer reads as if it were drawn up by an overcaffeinated camp counselor: racquetball, pickup basketball, golf (enough rounds to lower his handicap from 7 to 4) and softball (outfielder in two leagues). He did everything while home in Dublin, Ohio, except what he had done the previous 15 summers—pitch professionally. "I had a lot of fun being home on a daily basis," he says, "but I came to the realization that I love to compete, and no matter what I do after baseball, I'll never compete at the highest level in anything else."
It can be argued that the Rockies' bullpen isn't quite the highest level of competition, but the lefthanded Mercker is happy to be there. After he was cut by the Red Sox in spring training last year and sat out the season, Mercker has returned to the big leagues as a sidearming setup man. ( Colorado, looking for veteran relievers, invited him to camp and signed him to a one-year, $500,000 contract.) Through Sunday he had given up just three hits and hadn't allowed an earned run in seven appearances.
Mercker was a fifth starter in the Braves' rotation in the mid-1990s—he threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers in April '94—but when Atlanta wanted to trim payroll, he was traded to the Orioles in December '95. He played for six teams over the next five seasons. During a start for the Angels in May 2000 he felt a discomfort in his head. "It seemed like I had liquid in my head," he says. "I got this pain that started in the back of my neck and went through [to] the front [of my head] and right between my eyes."
Mercker had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. He spent 12 days in the hospital, the first four in intensive care. At first doctors advised him not to play baseball again, but after several weeks of tests they determined that the episode had been a freak occurrence and not the result of an aneurysm or any other serious condition. He was back on the mound for Anaheim in August of that year, but his return was more heartwarming than effective. He had a 7.71 ERA in nine games, including a five-run, three-homer shelling in one third of an inning against the Mariners on the next-to-last day of the season.
Last spring, after failing to catch on with Boston—he'd had a brief stint with the Red Sox in 1999—Kent chose to spend the summer at home with his family, wife Julie and their daughters Madison and Sophia, rather than hang around in Triple A hoping for a callup. "I didn't watch baseball all summer until the playoffs came around," he says. "Then I realized the itch was still there. I felt I could still do it, and I said, I've got to try."
When Mercker arrived at Colorado's camp this year he set about reinventing himself as a situational reliever. After throwing over the top throughout his career, he experimented with a sidearm delivery to make his offerings more effective against lefthanded hitters. He quickly found command of his fastball, slider and changeup with the new throwing motion.
Mercker now varies his arm angle from pitch to pitch, though he gets more movement on his 91-mph fastball from the sidearm slot than he did throwing over the top. Through Sunday he'd retired all 11 lefthanded hitters he'd faced, striking out six of them. "I didn't want to go to the pen [before the hemorrhage]," Mercker says, "but it's where I belong. My mentality is more suited to the pen. I'm not a guy who likes sitting around."
The Cost of Cost Cutting
Pennies Saved, Grumbles Earned
In an effort to trim their expenses, the A's had been traveling without a bullpen catcher since starting a nine-game roadtrip on April 5. That meant they had to use a backup receiver to warm up relievers. When regular catcher Ramon Hernandez missed an April 9 game at Texas to be with his wife for the expected birth of their first child, backup Greg Myers started and third-stringer Scott Hatteberg went to the pen. When the game dragged into the 11th inning, Hatteberg was needed to pinch-hit. A scramble through the bowels of the stadium got him to the on-deck circle just in time to be announced. (He singled.) "I think we need a bullpen catcher," ventured Hatteberg after the game. "When you want to give Ramon a day off, you don't want to make him go down there and warm up pitchers."
Oakland acted the next day, hiring former Astros farmhand Brandon Buckley to catch in the pen. "You don't know it," manager Art Howe told Buckley, "but you're the MVP of this team."