In the spring of 1987, baseball scouts were giddy over the potential of an 18-year-old centerfielder from Oviedo (Fla.) High. Mark Merchant made grown men swoon. That May the 6'1", 180-pounder was named Florida's high school player of the year, and in SI's June 1 issue Peter Gammons wrote that Merchant was the second-most-talented player in that summer's draft.
Baseball agreed. The Pirates drafted Merchant with the second overall pick, after the Mariners took Ken Griffey Jr.
The Kid, of course, was in the majors 22 months later, became a 13-time All-Star, belted 630 home runs over 22 years and will be inducted into Cooperstown with the class of 2016. Merchant? Not so much. Over 12 minor league seasons with 14 teams, he hit .263 with 103 homers, but he never spent a day in a major league uniform. "Things went how they were supposed to for [Griffey]," Merchant says today. "They didn't for me."
Injuries plagued his career: He hurt his shoulder at the end of a promising first year with the Gulf Coast Pirates (his 33 steals led the rookie league), and he broke his right ankle in '91 playing Double A ball. "I knew I was in trouble that night," Merchant says of the second injury. "I never played centerfield again."
By 1998, Merchant was out of baseball. He and his wife, Kelly, who had an infant daughter, packed their bags and moved to Colorado. Mark's $165,000 signing bonus from the Pirates was long gone, and the 30-year-old former ballplayer had no college degree. Desperate for a job, Merchant earned his real estate license. Then baseball finally afforded him an opportunity: His résumé was read by a hiring agent who happened to be a Rockies season-ticket holder.
"Jim Leyland [the Pirates' manager in '87] was the Rockies' manager at the time," says Merchant. "[This woman] told me, 'If he gives you a letter of recommendation, I'll hire you.' "
Leyland did, and she did. Merchant parlayed that work experience into his own business: Today, at 44, he owns a land-appraisal company in southwest Denver. His daughter, Sydney, 15, is one of Colorado's top amateur golfers and has attracted interest from D-I schools. And his son, Andrew, 8, is a budding baseball and football player.
Still, what could have been gnaws at Merchant, even if the memories have faded. "It was a tough pill to swallow," he says of his career. Speaking of pills, Merchant insists he never tried steroids. "I didn't even know how to get the stuff," he says. But if he'd had the chance? "Looking back, knowing the life I have ahead of me and how hard it's going to be to raise a family.... If I could have done that, set my family up? Yeah, I would have done it."
Baseball may have let go of him 15 years ago, but Merchant still has his sense of humor. "I drive a 2001 Tundra that I've had for 12 years," he says. "It's got 290,000 miles on it. I bet Griffey's driving the same thing, huh?"