On Monday night, when the IronBirds start their 2013 schedule with a game against the Hudson Valley Renegades, they do so with two tough seasons behind them, a history of futility and an untested manager intent on changing the Aberdeen club's culture of losing.
Matt Merullo, former big league catcher and scout who is taking his first managerial position with the IronBirds, talked with the press for the first time Thursday as part of the IronBirds' media day activities. He said he was excited to take a post in Aberdeen, and that he was looking forward, not back.
"I feel like a rookie all over again," Merullo said. "This is new to me, and I'm really excited to take the position here. With the losing seasons, there's nothing you can do about them now, so it's best to just look ahead, try and figure out how to make a winning ball club. In the minor leagues, you basically have a clean slate every year. There might be some players coming back from last year's roster, but, for the most part, it's a new team, and you get to go from there."
Merullo, who spent six seasons between 1989 and 1995 playing for the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins, explained that spending much of his post-playing career as a scout imbued him with much-needed evaluation skills.
"I was a scout for about 12 years, so I think I have a good eye for talent, ability," Merullo said. "But, the trick here, as a manager, is to figure out how a player can get the most out of their ability. Almost everyone at this level in the minors is totally unproven. What you want to do is get them into the right hands, get them working with the coaches, and doing the little things right. You also have to be able to read personalities, and to figure out how to work individually with players."
What is the first thing players need to learn as they begin a season in the New York-Penn League? Aberdeen's new skipper echoed what past managers have said when asked the same question.
"Professional baseball is a real grind," Merullo said. "These guys come here from college, or high school, where you don't play every day. Even a busy college team only has four games a week. That's a lot of down time. Here, you're playing every single day, and that is very tough to deal with mentally. If you get in a slump, you don't have days off to figure out what's wrong. You have to do it at the plate, in a live game. When you get to the end of August, sometimes you're just worn down. You have to learn to play through all of that."
Prior to Merullo taking over, the IronBirds cycled through two managers in the previous two seasons. Former Baltimore Oriole Leo Gomez managed the team in 2011, when it finished the season 24-51, the worst mark in club history. Another former MLB catcher, Gary Allenson, took over in 2012, which saw Aberdeen go 28-48.
Joining the club for a second season as pitching coach will be former Oriole Alan Mills, while field coach Jon Matthews is a new addition to the club.
Local talent Jeff Kemp was with the club on Thursday. Kemp, a Bowie native, played for Archbishop Spalding in high school, and was picked in the 33rd round of this year's June draft out of Virginia's Radford University.
Monday's season opening game is slated to kick off at 7:35 p.m. Performing the "Star Spangled Banner" prior to the game, and singing "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch, will be local artist Nelly's Echo. Before the opening-night contest, Nelly's Echo, the stage name of singer Nelson Emokpae, will put on a performance at Ripken Stadium's main gate. That concert begins at 5:35 p.m.