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Saturday, March 2, 2024

As snow piles up, New Britain High’s Roberto Mercado set to manage hot prospects the ‘Oriole Way’

Roberto Mercado escaped the winter the way only a baseball person does it. Get to Bradley just before the big snow storm, wheels up, and spring begins even earlier than the obnoxious ground hog predicted.

So on Tuesday, the shovels staying behind in Connecticut, Mercado woke up in Sarasota, Fla., to begin his new assignment in the Baltimore Orioles’ organization.

“Got here a day early due to the weather in Connecticut,” Mercado said. “We get rolling on Thursday. Talking to some players already here, just kind of hanging out.”

As thoughts turn idyllically toward baseball, as they inevitably do for some of us once the Super Bowl is over, who could imagine even America’s Pastime brewing a story quite like this one? Mercado, after a long career as baseball coach and Dean of Students at New Britain High, was hired to manage the Orioles’ Class A farm club in Aberdeen in 2022, and move that had some old-school baseball folks scratching their heads.

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“There was a lot of people talking, ‘what’s this high school guy doing in professional baseball?’” Mercado said. “The mindset of, ‘he didn’t play pro ball.’ You kind of hear that once in a while, it doesn’t bother me. It fuels me, if anything.”

And after two years of unqualified success, Mercado, 44, is on his way up to manage at the Double A level with the Bowie Baysox.

“Honestly, sometimes I do have to pinch myself,” Mercado said. “It’s pretty amazing. There’s a quote from Denzel Washington, ‘luck is when opportunity arises and you’re prepared for it.’ So I feel like all my past experiences, Dean of Students at the high school, dealing with different types of personalities, staff members, coaching high school baseball, having my own program and teaching fundamentals (during summers) on Cape Cod, all those opportunities prepared me for this. And I wasn’t even looking for this. Kind of just in the right place at the right time and being prepared.”

This, right here, is what makes baseball baseball. You don’t have to be any particular shape or size to play it, and you can get there from here, there or anywhere. On the day Mercado was named to manage Bowie, the Yard Goats introduced Bobby Meacham, 63, a former major league player with over 40 years in pro baseball, as Hartford’s Double-A manager. Mercado will bring his Bowie team to Dunkin’ Park on April 9.

It happens because, though baseball as been around since the middle of the 19th century, its organizations are always looking for new approaches to find, evaluate, develop talent. This managerial career path could very well be a first of its kind. Mired at the bottom of the AL East for years, the Orioles hired young Mike Elias, a player and graduate from Yale, to apply out-of-the-box thinking and build an organization from the bottom up. During the summer of  2022, Mercado and UConn’s Ryan Fuller, one of the major league hitting coaches were telling me about “The Orioles Way.”

And I thought, “wait a second, the Orioles, who lost 110 games in 2021, have a way?” But, oh, they did, and do. Drafting the right players and, in Mercado’s words, “creating an elite learning environment,” teaching them with a uniform approach, the results quickly percolated up to Baltimore, to 83-79 in 2022, to 101-61 and first place in 2023. Now the Yankees and Red Sox are chasing the Orioles, and don’t appear to be gaining ground.

“From the staff standpoint, the (Orioles Way) is having that growth mindset of always learning and making sure we’re prepared every single day,” Mercado said. “And being servant-leaders, that’s our job. To prepare guys, give them as much knowledge as possible, as many tools in their tool box, so they can be ready to perform. The organization does a tremendous job of having a consistent message, from the big leagues all the way down to the Dominican Republic. … We tell the players all the time, ‘you’re the golfers, we’re the caddies, we’re here to support you.’”

Mercado’s reward for guiding Aberdeen to the South Atlantic League title in 2022 was the organization’s Cal Ripken Sr. Award for achievement in player development, and a chance to spend the last couple of weeks of the season with the big league club.

“I was able to attend some of the hitter’s meetings,” Mercado said, “and it was exactly the way we did it in high (Class) A, so the message was the same from top to bottom, what we’re going to do, this is going to work.”

Even with only two seasons in Class A, Mercado has already sent players to the big leagues. All-Star catcher Adley Rutschman was with him a short time on a rehab assignment; DL Hall, Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, all top prospects, passed through Aberdeen and broke into the majors in 2023.

“And there’s plenty more on the way,” Mercado said.

After Aberdeen’s season ended last September, Mercado went to Bowie during the Baysox’s Eastern League playoff series. Though he didn’t know it until later, he was getting the lay of the Double-A land for his next assignment, which came during an offseason meeting with Matt Blood, the VP of player development.

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Minor league training camp starts in mid-March, but as Double-A manager, Mercado will be in spring training with the major league players and coaches and manager Brandon Hyde when pitchers and catchers report on Thursday. That will begin the process of picking players to be assigned to Bowie.

Where does the future go? Some of the best players in history were unsuccessful major league managers, while others, like Jim Leyland, a marginal minor league player, rose through the ranks and is now headed to the Hall of Fame. You never know where the next manager will come from. The TV booth? The playing ranks? College ball? Could a high school coach find his way into a big league dugout one day?

Hey, the snow’s piling up here and the pitchers and catchers going to work down there, it’s as good a day as any to dream such dreams, and Roberto Mercado is closer to it than he could have ever imagined.

“People always ask me what’s my end goal,” he said. “But at the end of the day I’m trying to be the best Double A manager I can be. I’m blessed that they took a chance on a kid from New Britain coaching high school baseball. There was a lot of criticism when I got the job and it’s been awesome to have some success and continue to help this organization to hopefully win a World Series.”

‘The joy is just different;’ New Britain’s Roberto Mercado on a winning adventure as minor league manager with Orioles

 



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