Former RiverHawk facing big leaguers, old timer
« Back
January 16, 2007 - Since leaving the Rockford RiverHawks, pitcher Jesen Merle has faced everybody from major-league stars to an 83-year-old batter.

Merle is still spending his summers in independent baseball, but has spent each of the last three winters pitching in the Puerto Rican League, which is frequented by many current and former major-leaguers and top prospects, including Americans.

“It’s always good competition,” said Merle, born in Yauco, P.R. but raised in New Orleans and Texas. It can’t get any better than living in tropical islands, playing baseball.”

Merle pitches winters for the Ponce Lions, whose roster includes catcher Benito Santiago, the 1987 National League Rookie of the Year, and outfielder Jose Cruz, Jr., who also plays for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Among the batters Merle faced in his brief stay in Puerto Rico this winter was Carlos Baerga, a former all-star with the Cleveland Indians.

“Carlos Baerga obviously isn’t an easy out,” Merle said. “There’s Triple-A talent, guys who are up and coming. Each team has about half of their lineup is guys who are Double-A, Triple-A guys who have the potential to be in the big leagues and other guys who are in the big leagues.”

Merle had no record and a 21.00 ERA in four relief appearances. Last winter, Merle had no record, no saves and a 3.46 ERA in seven relief appearances with the Lions. Merle said he was disappointed in his infrequent use this winter.

“My first two years, I got a little more action that I did this year,” he said. “This year, we stacked up on big-league pitching talent. That’s a big reason why I got sent home.”

The four primary Caribbean winter leagues – the others are in Mexico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic – are currently in their playoffs, which culminates in the upcoming Caribbean Series.

Merle, meanwhile, is back in Texas and was able recently to travel to former RiverHawk Shaff Elkouri’s wedding. Merle said he keeps in touch with a number of his former Rockford teammates.

Merle won two championship rings in the span of three seasons earlier this decade. With Merle on the roster, the University of Texas won the 2002 College World Series and the RiverHawks won the 2004 Frontier League pennant. Merle was an oft-used setup man for the ‘Hawks – he appeared 42 times that season, a team record until Adam Kroft made 43 appearances last year.

The RiverHawks traded Merle, now 25, to Richmond in June 2005. After finishing the year in the Frontier League, he went to the independent American Association and took the mound last season for the St. Joseph Blacksnakes. Merle was 4-7 with no saves and a 6.38 ERA in 30 appearances with the Blacksnakes and spent the second half of the year in the starting rotation. Merle had been a reliever since his days with the Longhorns.

“Working out between starts, I think my arm strength got better, my velocity got higher,” Merle said. His big slurve has now split up into a hard traditional slider and a big curveball. “I’ve learned to differentiate the two pitches.”

Many other independent leagues don’t have the focus on younger players the FL does, which led to Merle’s most unusual opposing batter.

That’s how Merle found himself staring down, more or less, 83-year-old Jim Eriotes, who suited up for the Sioux Falls Canaries as part of a mildly controversial promotion.

“One of the hardest things I ever had to do,” said Merle, who was not afraid of being hit, but rather fearful of hitting the batter. “My ball sinks in toward righties and the first thing I’m thinking is I don’t want to hit this guy.

“It was kind of a funny deal.”

Merle struck out Eriotes, who swung on every pitch and managed to foul off an 0-2 delivery. That was Eriotes’ only at-bat, but it was enough to give him a claim to fame as the oldest man ever to bat in a professional baseball game – the record was subsequently broken in the same league’s all-star game by famed former Negro Leaguer Buck O’Neill, who died last fall at age 94.

More significantly to Merle, it was enough for Eriotes to talk a little smack. Eriotes got his 15 minutes of fame, including a visit to the “Today” show, and told ESPN’s website, “(Merle) wasn't throwing that hard. I fouled one off. You can be the best hitter in the world and you might not get a hit if you only get one chance.”

Merle was not amused. “He insulted me on ESPN.com. I was just throwing the ball in there nice and easy and they had me throwing on the radar gun at 83-84.

“He was like ‘I faced guys that throw way harder than him.’ He apparently does it every year. I hope I don’t face him next year.”

Visit ESPN.com for more.


 Search Archives
Search for:

Browse archives

©2006, Rockford RiverHawks. All rights reserved.