Whit Merrifield looked around the media room Friday afternoon at Carolina Stadium, where 13 former USC baseball standouts now playing professionally had gathered for a reunion luncheon organized by the South Carolina athletics department.
Like all of the players, Merrifield was enjoying himself.
“It’s fun to stand around and talk crap about coach (Ray) Tanner,” Merrfield said with a smile. “It’s always cool catching up with guys and sharing old stories.”
Merrifield’s best story ends with him driving in the winning run in the 11th inning against UCLA in 2010 to give the Gamecocks their first national championship.
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“It’s a good one. I’ve got a good one in my bank,” said Merrifield, who finished this past season in Double-A with the Kansas City Royals organization.
He was joined at the event by Jackie Bradley, Mike Cisco, Reese Havens , Evan Marzilli, Matt Price, Michael Roth, Justin Smoak, Steven Tolleson, Christian Walker, Tyler Webb, Adam Westmoreland and Scott Wingo.
Wingo, who spent this past season in Single-A with the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, scored the winning run in the 2010 championship game and went on to win the College World Series MVP in the 2011 title season. He agreed with his former teammate.
“It’s great to see the guys you played with and even the guys before you that built this program. It’s awesome to get to see Reese Havens and Steven Tolleson. It’s just special,” Wingo said. “This shows the school is loyal to its former players and its current players. It’s like family here. It truly is.”
Three of the former players were in the major leagues last season — Smoak, a first baseman with the Seattle Mariners; Bradley, an outfielder with the Boston Red Sox; and Roth, a pitcher with the Los Angeles Angels.
“It was a good time to come up and see everybody and hang out,” Smoak said. “It brings you back. It feels like it was yesterday, but it was five or six years ago that I actually played here.”
Tolleson, who played at Triple-A with the Chicago White Sox organization in 2013 and has signed to play with the Toronto Blue Jays this season, has also experienced the majors in stints with Oakland (2010) and Baltimore (2012).
“It’s a really neat thing that coach (Chad) Holbrook and coach Tanner are doing. It’s very important to keep the guys who are former players that are still playing (professionally) in touch with each other. It is a brotherhood and a bond that not many people get to have,” he said.
He talked to Walker and Price, who are playing in the Orioles organization, because they shared that in common. And he enjoyed watching Bradley and Roth reach the majors last season.
“Being one of the older guys here is a little different, but it’s also a big honor knowing that I’m still able to play this game at a high level,” Tolleson said. “It’s fun knowing that all of us came from the same place and knowing there’s a community here in Columbia that’s still pulling for us.”
Merrifield said he enjoyed making the connection with his former teammates such as Walker, who finished last season at Double-A.
“I didn’t even recognize Christian. Look how skinny he is,” Merrifield said. “He used to be a butterball. Now he’s all lean and going to the (MLB) Futures Game (last summer). It’s unbelievable.”
At the end of the luncheon, Tanner, who’s now the athletics director, and Holbrook spoke to the players and thanked them for what they had done for the university. Holbrook couldn’t resist telling the story from 2010, when a disgusted Tanner told him in the dugout during an early-season game against Valparaiso, with the Gamecocks sporting a 6-4 record, that the team was due for a down year.
But it didn’t work out that way. Just ask Merrifield what happened.