Mercker not thinking about retirement
Left-hander trying to make his way back as non-roster invitee
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Retirement? Reds reliever and comeback candidate Kent Mercker doesn't believe in it."I haven't considered myself retired and I don't think I ever will, even when I'm 60," said Mercker, who is 40. Extended hiatuses from baseball are a whole other story. Mercker knows plenty about that. Mercker missed the entire 2007 season after he had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in August 2006. While with the Angels in 2000, the lefty suffered a life-threatening brain hemorrhage and missed most of that season and all of 2001 after being released by the Red Sox during Spring Training. "About every time I take a year's sabbatical, I go down three strokes," said Mercker, an avid golfer with a one handicap. Mercker has pitched for nine clubs over 17 seasons, including Cincinnati (1997, 2003, 2005-06) and has a 4.16 ERA in 677 games. Until his left elbow blew out on Aug. 11, 2006, vs. the Phillies, Mercker was getting better with age. In 253 appearances over his past four seasons, he has a 2.95 ERA. It was conceivable that Mercker could have rehabilitated his arm to be ready to pitch at some point during last season. A free agent after the 2006 season, he and the Reds negotiated but never came together on an incentive-laden deal that would have allowed Mercker to rehab with the big league team until he was ready -- something that fellow reliever Eddie Guardado did last year as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. "I knew I wouldn't be ready by April 1 when camp broke," Mercker said. "It would be around June until the All-Star break. What was I going to do for three months? Camp breaks, everybody leaves and I'm stuck down here for another four weeks. [I decided that] if I miss it enough, I'll try and get in good enough shape to come into camp with somebody and do it like normal. If I don't make it, I go home." While the Reds played the 2007 season without him, Mercker was at home in the Columbus suburb of Dublin, Ohio with his wife, Julie, and their three daughters -- Madison, Sophia and Ava. It wasn't a bad life at all away from the game. Mercker could spend time with his kids and watch them compete in softball, basketball or horse shows. But the girls also have their own lives, school and friends, too. So Dad's time often consisted of the following: Make the kids their lunch, take them to school, play golf, pick kids up from school, golf, watch Reds games on television, golf.
"It's a good problem to have, but sitting around doing nothing is the worst," Mercker said. "I had no true responsibilities. The most responsibility I had was not being late for my tee time. I packed lunches for the kids and drove them to school. It's great stuff. But after 9 a.m., it was, 'Now what?' I had until 3 p.m. when they came home."During this past offseason, Mercker was one of 89 current and former Major League players named in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs. The report stated that in October 2002, Mercker purchased one kit of human growth hormone from Mets clubhouse assistant Kirk Radomski for $1,600. Mercker said the allegations were accurate but would not elaborate. How did he feel about the Report? "I don't care," he said succinctly. Does he have any regrets or worry about how he'll be perceived? "No. I can't worry about that," he said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people that didn't like me whether that came out or not." That's not likely inside the Reds clubhouse. Mercker's veteran presence was missed last season by many. Since he's been back, little has changed. He still buries himself in a New York Times crossword daily. He's still a quick-on-his-feet joker who can fire off a one-liner response to somebody in a second. It takes him even less time to zing a young rookie with a light-hearted crack. In a recent game in Dunedin, Fla., vs. the Blue Jays, Mercker saw Canadian first baseman Joey Votto surrounded by Toronto reporters in the Reds clubhouse. "Joey, are you from Dunedin?" Mercker dryly called out, receiving laughs. "Are you talking about your high school stats?" "He's like me where he tries to make it as relaxing as you can," veteran reliever David Weathers said. "It's such a high-pressured job. You have to have guys that can loosen it up. It can't be pins and needles all the time. He's really good on that." Mercker started throwing again in December. Other than playing catch with his daughter, he didn't throw at all last summer. He signed a Minor League deal with the Reds on Feb. 8, just before camp opened. "I was glad he signed here," Weathers said. "Once I knew he was coming back, I was excited. He's one of my better friends in the game. If he's healthy, he can really help us." A non-roster player this spring, Mercker never considered signing with any other team. His home and family are less than two hours from Cincinnati and he's already comfortable with the coaches and trainers. And the club knew what it was getting, too. "Merck was somebody we stayed in touch with since he had the surgery," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "We welcomed him back with open arms." Mercker is 1-0 with a 6.00 ERA in three innings of Spring Training action. On Tuesday vs. the Astros, he pitched one scoreless inning of relief with one bunt single allowed. Reds manager Dusty Baker, who had Mercker with the Cubs in 2004, believed the year off has helped him. "For strength and refreshing, yeah," Baker said. "His arm looks stronger. He's throwing the ball harder, [but] also with less command than before. Right now, I'm looking more at arm strength. Command will come." Mercker is a serious contender to make the Reds bullpen out of camp. He is one of several pitchers vying for a spot and among a posse of lefties that include Bill Bray, Mike Stanton and Jon Coutlangus. Passing the halfway point of camp, Mercker can't tell the difference about how his body feels this year compared to past years when he wasn't returning from a long layoff. "You know what? It's been basically the same," Mercker said. "It's not much different than any other spring for me. I think rest is good. People don't realize what you put your arm through when you pitch. Even if you throw five pitches, it's a pretty violent motion on your arm. With the Tommy John, I would have rushed it. That's just my make-up. I probably would have had more setbacks if I tried to come back right away." If Mercker never pitched again after his elbow gave out, he certainly could have lived with it. But being away, twice, keeps him from taking the game for granted. If he felt he could still get people out, he had no choice but to give it another shot. "I missed it. If I had no family, I'd have gone nuts," Mercker said. "I'd turn a game on and watch. You wonder to yourself, 'Can I still do that? Can I physically do it?' The competition, you miss that. You compete by playing golf or basketball but it's not the big leagues. There's no way to replace that. You don't realize how cool of a job it is until you step away for a year. You appreciate it a lot more. You don't think you can appreciate it more, but you do once you step away and watch from the outside." If all goes according to plan and he makes the team, that won't be a problem this year. Mercker will be watching the Reds from the bullpen, not from home. And retirement will be another year away, if it ever comes.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.