Now that we are on the verge of pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training in Florida and Arizona (the Mariners open their camp Feb. 19 in Peoria), it seems like a good time to visit the long baseball journey of Bremertonian Doug Merrifield, who has survived a battle with bladder cancer and lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.
In August, Merrifield, who received the Tennessee Athletic Trainers Society award as the state’s high school trainer of the year last month, will continue the journey when he returns to Bremerton for his West Bremerton High School 50th reunion.
Merrifield is a certified athletic trainer — he received his certification in 1980 after collecting his masters from the University of Washington — who taped professional baseball players for over 20 years and has two World Series rings from the years (1992-93) the Toronto Blue Jays were world baseball champs.
Those two rings are usually safely tucked away in a safe deposit box in a bank in Knoxville since they are worth an estimated $20,000 each, but on this trip back to his hometown in December he wore the 1993 ring maybe to just show off a little bit.
He was a minor-league trainer with the Blue Jays, who gifted every full-time employee a ring.
His exciting life associated with professional baseball got an innocent start for Merrifield, who admits he was not a good athlete. He did love baseball and as a freshman at West he had an algebra class taught by Wilber Wade, who was the freshman baseball coach.
“He knew I liked baseball and in those days the World Series were held at 1 p.m. and with him being the baseball coach he would let us listen on radio to the games if we got our assignments done,” Merrifield said.
Wade needed a manager for his freshman team and Merrifield was the logical choice. He remembers going with Wade for the first time in the spring of 1963 to one of the musty back rooms at the old West High School to unpack the baseball equipment that was stored with moth balls.
Merrifield was the manager for all four of his years at West. Wade, who became head coach in 1964, died of a heart attack in July of 1971 and Merrifield said it was the last time he cried. He liked Wade, who was old school as a coach and a good teacher, and most important, gave Merrifield his start in baseball.
Merrifield’s path as a sports manager/trainer continued on at Olympic College, which already had a student manager in baseball in Larry Schmel. But Merrifield volunteered to help and he was eventually added as a second team manager, “chasing foul balls across Warren Avenue (from Roosevelt Field),” Merrifield said.
Inspired by Wade and OC assistant Hank Muyskens, both were math teachers, Merrifield moved on to Western Washington State College to become a math teacher. He became a team manager/trainer at Western by default.
He began taking physical education and athletic training classes and worked his way in as equipment manager for the football team.
Tired of college, Merrifield came home to Bremerton in the fall of 1970 and wrote to all the major league teams to see if he could get a job as a trainer. He got two bites and took a job with the Chicago Cubs with their A club at Quincy, Illinois, for the 1971 season.
“I left in March for Scottsdale (Arizona) and spring training and when I got there it was 85 degrees, and it was snowing when I left,” Merrifield said.
He wasn’t hired back by the Cubs, so in the fall of 1971 he went back to Western to finish up his degree in math with a minor in PE. Rejoining the Cubs in 1975 would be the start of Merrifield’s long journey in the minor leagues. He was with the Cubs until 1978 when the Mariners hired him for their AAA team in San Jose where players such as Gary Wheelock, Dick Pole, Frank McCormick and Rick Jones were waiting their turn to the major leagues.
When close friend Gary Nicholson left the Mariners in 1982 for Pacific Lutheran, he applied for his job as head trainer with the Mariners but was beaten out by Rick Griffin, who continues to be the head trainer.
After bouncing around for a few years, Merrifield, from 1985-88, was with the Mariners AAA club in Calgary, then shifted to the Toronto Blue Jays where he would be when the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992-93 and he received his rings.
When the Blue Jays released Merrifield in 1997 he got eight months of severance pay and the organization flew him to Knoxville where he has lived since 1990. He started out substitute teaching and found full-time work at a clinic that employed him to also be a part-time athletic trainer for various high schools in the region.
For eight years, he was with Lenoir City High School, but also worked with other schools (there are 13 public high schools in the area, plus private schools).
The recent award for being Tennessee’s top high school trainer is an honor that certainly is well deserved for a guy, now 67, who got the most from being a baseball nut and from being in the right place at the right time to start a career.
In the process of traveling down that long road, mostly in baseball, he has seen some of the best players in the early stages of their careers and has wonderful memories that will long sustain him as he plays out the rest of his life.
He is living proof that you don’t have to be the best athlete, or even an average athlete, to have a great career in athletics.
Terry Mosher is a former sports writer at the Kitsap Sun who publishes The Sports Paper at sportspaper.org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.