Oilers pitcher Merrill battles adversity with blind eye

Austin Merrill seems like a natural on the mound.

 

As a high school senior, Merrill led the pitching staff on the La Costa Canyon varsity baseball team with a sparkling campaign — a minuscule sub-1.00 ERA over 40 innings of work that netted him six wins in seven decisions along the way of a 23-7 season for the Mavericks.

Doing so at a nationally ranked school should have paved the way for some big college offers.

But Merrill’s story isn’t the kind that sees players like him finding success, because Merrill lives with an obstacle that has caused some talent scouts to label him as damaged goods.

Merrill is blind in one eye.

The Peninsula Oilers right-handed pitcher can fool batters with a 90-mph fastball and can keep pace with the best the Alaska Baseball League throws at him, and he does it all with no vision in his right eye.

It makes for an eye-opening story of determination and persistence.

“Anything the kid wants to conquer in life, he can,” said Oilers head coach Kyle Brown. “He’s an infectious personality. It’s a life lesson for people.”

The right-hander out of Carlsbad, California, wasn’t born blind in one eye. He was only a few months old when a routine infant checkup singled out symptoms of Coats’ disease, a rare nonhereditary affliction that often affects children of an early age.

The disease, also known as exudative retinitis, is characterized by abnormal development of blood vessels behind the retina of the eye, and can cause the retinal capillaries to break open and leak into the back of the eye, causing total blindness if the retina completely detaches. Merrill uses an eye lens, similar to a contact, that covers his real eye.

Because it affected him as such an early age, Merrill doesn’t know life any different from having just one working eye.

But, as a pitcher, depth perception is a crucial ability. So how does he make it work so well?

Merrill said since it’s all he has known, it doesn’t really affect him, but one adjustment he had to make after arriving at Division III Chapman (California) University two years ago was turning his head before the ball leaves his hand.

Previously, Merrill would stay facing third base when he unleashed a pitch, and allowed solid mechanics to do the rest. Merrill’s college coach called it “controlled wildness.”

“I just keep one eye on the glove, and the rest is on mechanics,” Merrill explained.

Chapman pitching coach Dave Edwards eventually sat Merrill down to change his approach, helping him to turn his head to face the batter before letting a pitch go.

Merrill’s first start of the summer for the Oilers wasn’t a gem by any means — Merrill lasted four innings and gave up three runs on six hits against the Anchorage Bucs — but he did show remarkable control with 38 thrown strikes on 53 total pitches.

Plus, with one bad eye, he did not issue a single walk against the Bucs.

Staying with billet parents Duke and Henia Minium this summer, Merrill hopes to parlay a promising start into something bigger.

But, the Chapman junior said it’s not his one-eyed vision that has caused him adversity through his career. It’s his height.

At 5-foot-9, Merrill is relatively small for pitchers, especially starters. Merrill said even though his eye condition would seem like a barrier that’s held him back, his height has truly been the toughest roadblock that he has had to fight through.

“I think most people look at his stature and think he’s not going to scare you,” said Oilers pitching coach Ryan Doran. “But when the ball comes out of his hand, you see he’s for real.”

Merrill said he was clocked in high school at throwing 88 mph, and spun a perfect game for the Mavericks.

Which is why Merrill’s journey to college ball at Chapman and summer ball with the Oilers is hard to understand. Merrill said his small stature has led to coaches passing him up on scholarship offers and summer opportunities.

Twice he was cut from the high school team. He kept working at it, and eventually got a chance to showcase his talent. It was during a tournament game that La Costa Canyon was getting routed in that Merrill’s coach decided to put him out on the mound.

“Coach puts me in and I immediately throw 80 (mph),” Merrill recalled.

Merrill said he even threw a perfect game in high school, but even that wasn’t enough to promote him to the starting rotation. Instead, he was used out of the bullpen.

His eventual path to Chapman was sparked by another college turning him down. At a tournament in Oregon his senior year in high school, Merrill said a college coach told him he liked what he saw, but the program was on the lookout for taller players, pitchers that could “bring size and projectability” to the mound.

“I understand that,” Merrill said. “But as far as my disabilities I’ve faced, coaches not wanting me … some days I feel I can throw great.”

Before committing to Chapman, Merrill said he had an offer from the University of California San Diego, a Division II school, to play baseball, but the Tritons program later pulled their offer, leaving Merrill to figure out his next step.

An assistant coach at U.C. San Diego said he felt for Merrill after the offer was gone, and tried to reach out to other teams, including Westmont College in Santa Barbara, which could offer him a full-ride scholarship.

Merrill said he applied to Chapman, but mostly because his sister attended the school. Once Chapman head baseball coach Scott Laverty saw his stuff and realized Merrill hadn’t fully committed anywhere, it became a race to lure him in before Westmont could.

“Looking back, I’m glad it happened,” Merrill said.

In dealing with the tough times when others have overlooked him, Merrill has had to find motivation and inspiration.

The son of Lucrecia and John Merrill said in addition to his perceived disadvantages with his eye and height, he has also dealt with a swelling and numbness issue that has cropped up occasionally in his throwing arm, leaving his pitching inhibited.

“When it’s not working, I go to the weight room and kill it,” Merrill said.

He’s not the only athlete over the years to be overlooked, only to find success. Baseball has its shining example in Yogi Berra, the 18-time New York Yankees All-Star catcher who stood a meager 5-foot-7. He only won three MVP titles and 10 World Series rings with the Yanks.

Five-foot-11 Pedro Martinez, a Red Sox legend, is another example, and Merrill can also look to 5-foot-9 Isaiah Thomas in the NBA, or 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.

Each name has proven to be a star in their sport, despite their diminutive stature.

A rabid San Diego Padres fan, Merrill was introduced to the game at age 5 at Petco Park, where the Padres play — “I knew baseball was it,” he said — and since then, he said ball has taken up countless hours of his life. From ages eight to 12, Merrill would meet up with coaches after school to work on anything to improve for up to five hours a day.

But whenever he has endured a bad day, Merrill said he looks to his idol of a different sport — Kobe Bryant.

“It’s just that mind-set,” Merrill explained about why he looks up to the five-time NBA champion. “He has that ability to reach that zone and that discipline. He dictates that drive.”

Brown said when he received a good word from Edwards about Merrill’s abilities at Chapman, it didn’t take much pondering to try to bring the righty up to Alaska.

“To see a coach believe in a kid so much is inspiring,” Brown said. “Baseball is a tool, it’s a tool for boys to develop into men, and he realizes the game’s bigger than him.”

Merrill’s future could be in baseball, where he hopes to play a successful career in the majors, or it could be a career in sports psychology and physiology. He currently is majoring in business and psychology.

Given that his eye blindness might be a major concern to baseball scouts, but otherwise goes unnoticed while his height comes up in conversation, Merrill is moving along pretty smoothly in his pursuit of his passion, and, as he notes, all the times he’s been held back have given him a bigger appreciation for hard work and a willingness to prove the naysayers wrong.

“I’ve learned a million lessons through the years,” he said. “But I feel like it’s out there for me.”

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