WHEN THE PADRES DECIDED in 1996 that infielder Mark Merila’s career in the minor leagues was over, they were deferring to an unwelcome visitor—a brain tumor.
“If Mark happened to get beaned in the wrong spot, it could have cost him his life,” says the club’s general manager, Kevin Towers.
Merila still had a future with the Padres as their bullpen catcher, but 10 years into the job, the brain tumor again knocked him off course. Riding the subway to New York’s Shea Stadium in 2005, he was incapicated by a grand mal seizure. His days as a bullpen catcher soon would end.
Merila and baseball are still together, though. The Padres have retained him as a part-time aide to third-base coach Glenn Hoffman. The 5-foot-9, green-eyed man who wears jersey No. 71, known as “Stump” to Padres personnel, inspires those Padres who know his story.
“He’s a Padre,” says manager Bud Black, who sits next to Merila during some games at Petco Park. “He’s great with the guys. He’s a positive influence. He’s always pumping me up and pumping the guys up.”
Says Hoffman: “It’s very special to have him around.”
Merila says the brain tumor is still a threat to his health. Already, though, the Mira Mesa resident and father of three youngsters has outpaced the grim diagnosis that followed his seizure in 2005.
“Is it a medical miracle?” asks Padres trainer Todd Hutcheson, considering the history of a tumor that also induced a grand mal seizure in 1994. “Probably.”
Merila says radiation and chemotherapy at the UCLA Medical Center and subsequent treatment at Scripps Clinic eventually checked the tumor’s growth. He singles out Padres chairman John Moores for facilitating his treatment in Los Angeles that included an experimental drug, Avastin.
“I thank John every time I see him,” Merila says. “In 2005, the doctors thought I probably wasn’t going to make it.”
The tumor, lodged in his left posterior temporal region, still impairs function in his right eye, hand and a foot. When talking, he sometimes struggles to retrieve a word, then spells the word in the air with an index finger.
His life was much tougher in 2007 and 2008, though. He endured bouts of depression and anger. For long stretches, he was unable to walk. Or speak coherently. But the treatment eventually brought stability—and then a new baseball job this year.
“He’s my little spy,” Hoffman says, smiling. During Padres games, Merila studies the hand signals of opposing coaches and middle infielders, then reports his findings to Hoffman.
“I just wanted to keep him involved,” says the third-base coach. “His mind’s there. You’ve got to tap into it. He’s been around a long time in baseball, seen a lot of things.”
Before a game at Petco on June 6, Arizona Diamondbacks manager A.J. Hinch grinned after learning Merila would be trying to crack Arizona’s codes from San Diego’s dugout. The two were teammates with Team USA in 1993, when Merila was in the midst of becoming the first University of Minnesota baseball player to earn All-America status in two seasons.
“He could really hit,” Hinch says. “I’m not surprised to hear the Padres have him in their dugout——they should. He has a good baseball mind. It’s great to see him with a smile on his face. It’s an amazing story.”
Merila says it is his wife, Wendy, who leaves him in awe, because “we have three kids, and I’m her fourth.”
He’s also grateful for the support of star pitcher Trevor Hoffman, a close friend since their days together in the Padres’ bullpen. “Trevor tells his three boys every night, ‘Give Stump a prayer,’” Merila says. “You think it’s a pretty cheesy thing, but when it happens, it goes through to your heart. And you want to give that back to other people who are going through this stuff.”
In March, Merila became the ambassador for the San Diego Brain Tumor Foundation. He says he likes to talk about his medical ordeals because so many people can benefit from knowing they aren’t alone in the fight against brain tumors. And that the fight can be survived.
“I was really worried about Mark two years ago,” Towers says. “Now he’s up and out of the wheelchair. He’s remarkable. He’s a battler, a fierce competitor. Who knows, maybe he beats this thing and keep going and going and going.”