Tuesday, January 24, 2012

#318 - Jim Merritt

Jim Merritt looks a bit devious at his spring training home. Perhaps he is hiding something behind his mitt. Jim made headlines in '73 when he was fined for throwing what he described as a "Gaylord Perry fastball", commonly known as a spitball. It would herald pretty much the bottom of another gloomy Ranger season back then and shortly thereafter Billy Martin would take over as manager, a guy Jim just missed pitching for in Minnesota. Billy was an ironic choice given Jim's new notoriety since earlier in the season he had been accused of having his Detroit pitchers throw spitters. All that controversy. And all this guy wanted to do was pitch and become a big winner again. But that wasn't in the cards as he went through one of the quickest reversals ever.

Jim Merritt was Cali all the way, growing up in West Covina where he was a local high school pitching star and sometime batboy for the Dodgers. Just to keep everything centered geographically, LA signed him out of school in '61 and that summer he threw in the rookie instructional league (those stats never made Topps or baseball-reference) and then by his own telling "the commissioner of baseball turned me loose" (???) and he was selected by the Twins in the first year draft. For them Jim didn't get turned loose - or did, depending on how you translate that - as he went 19-8 with 249 K's in 223 innings in D ball. After compressed numbers the next year in Double A he had two good seasons in Triple A in '64 and '65: 13-17 with a 2.74 ERA and 13-8 with a 3.13 ERA. In the latter season he got promoted to Minnesota right into a pennant drive.

In '65 Merritt came up in August and moved between the pen and the rotation, getting nine starts, and showing excellent control. That work got him some Series relief work where he again did quite well. In '66 he got pushed mostly to the pen since the Twins back then had a loaded rotation and his control got even better. Jim had a wide array of out pitches: a fastball, screwball, and change-up - and was very good at working the corners of the plate. In '67 he was able to bull his way into the rotation and he had his best control year ever, giving up only 30 walks in 228 innings and leading both leagues with a 5.37 strikeout to walk ratio. The next year the Twins slipped a bit as Harmon Killebrew missed about half the season and nobody else stepped up offensively. Jim's record suffered as well, although his ERA was near league average. After the season the Twins, needing to fill a big hole at shortstop, sent him to the Reds for Leo Cardenas.

In the NL things got weird for Merritt. The mound was lowered prior to the season to help get back some offense and it was harder for him to utilize his vaunted control. His K to BB ratio fell to 2-something and he led the NL in both earned runs and homers as his ERA moved up by over a run. But the young Big Red Machine pounded the ball behind him and he finished with his best record up till then in the majors. In the winter of '70 the Reds got a scare when Jim broke his elbow falling off his roof. By spring training on the surface he was fine and he posted a big start to the season, winning the opener and going 14-6 with a 3.12 ERA by the All-Star break and pitching in that year's game. But the rest of the season he went 6-6 with an ERA above 5.00 and a horrible start in his only Series appearance. It later turned out that he had re-injured his elbow around mid-year. For the Reds '71 would be a bummer, the biggest hiccup in the Machine's run. Bobby Tolan was lost for the season, Bernie Carbo crashed, and nobody else on offense could match the hoary numbers put up in '70. But no fall topped that of Jim's. The elbow injury aggravated his shoulder and combined the two injuries destroyed his control. Although he had picked up a knuckleball by then as well, he would lose his first 11 decisions, fall out of the rotation, and herald the end of his career. In '72 he was sent back to Triple A for most of the season and that December he was sent to the Rangers for Hal King and Jim Driscoll.

Back in the AL, Merritt moved between the rotation and the pen, but wasn't too effective in either spot. In '74 he lost a bunch of time to his injuries and in '75 after a few games he retired. On his '75 card his mustache makes him look a bit like the guy from the Six Million Dollar Man who was the title guy's boss. Jim finished with an 81-86 record, a 3.65 ERA, 56 complete games, nine shutouts, and seven saves up top. In the post-season he went 1-1 with a 5.23 ERA. Since playing he has been added to West Covina's Walk of Fame and showed up at some Twins festivities but most of his goings-on have been a mystery. He definitely resettled in California where he may or may not be into old cars, run his own insurance agency, or gotten into real estate (those last two are usually pretty safe bets for old ball players).

Between the star bullets and the cartoon Jim sports a pretty good resume until you check out his most recent stats. His control was pretty amazing before he got hurt. He only averaged about a walk a game. The book "Seasons in Hell" has a front row seat at the Texas game in which Jim doctored his pitches. The first ball in play was hit to Jim Fregosi at third base and his throw to first sailed way high. Fregosi was already laughing before the ball landed because his error was caused by all the grease on the ball.

On January 23, 1973 in music news Neil Young was performing in NYC at Madison Square Garden when he announced that a peace agreement was reached in Viet Nam. The announcement got him a ten-minute standing ovation.

These two guys just missed each other in the playoffs:

1. Merritt and Jim Bibby '73 to '75 Rangers;
2. Bibby and Jim Sundberg '74 to '75 Rangers (Merritt barely pitched for these guys);
3. Sundberg and Richie Zisk '78 to '80 Rangers.

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