Aberdeen IronBirds manager Matt Merullo sat down before his news conference at the team's media day Tuesday, cellphone in hand and eyes locked on the screen.
Merullo, who is entering his second season as the manager of the Orioles' short-season Single-A affiliate, joked about what he did wrong at the beginning of last year's news conference: He forgot to put his phone on silent, and it went off as he as was talking.
But what he did get right last year is something no Aberdeen manager had been able to do in the club's first 11 years.
In 2013, Merullo led the IronBirds to a 40-32 record, a New York-Penn League McNamara Division championship and Aberdeen's first playoff berth in team history.
And now, just days away from the start of the 2014 season on the road this Friday, Merullo is approaching this year's squad with the same philosophy that led to success in 2013 — playing to individually improve, but also playing together to win.
"We were not playing to win at the cost of player development, but when each player became focused on contributing to a win, he looked back at the end of the night, or the end of the week, or the end of the month, and goes, 'Wow, I've accomplished my own personal goals. …,' " Merullo said. "We just played the game to beat the other team, and it was neat how they bought into that approach. You're own personal stuff will be there if you look at the group effort."
Out of the 25 players listed on the initial IronBirds roster, which is subject to change before this weekend's season-opening series at Hudson Valley, only 10 (six pitchers, one catcher, two infielders, one outfielder) are expected to return from last year's team.
One of those players is catcher Tanner Murphy, the Orioles' 22nd-round draft pick in 2010. He batted .273 in six games for the IronBirds last year before a hyper-extended elbow ended his season.
Murphy said he hasn't experienced anything like Aberdeen's playoff run in his four years of professional baseball, and he said he thinks the group of returning players can combine with new talent to embody Merullo's philosophy and match last year's success.
"Matt Merullo is a great manager and always lets us know we have the team to do it and, if we want to do it, we're capable of doing it," Murphy said. "The knowledge of being here last year and knowing what it takes to get to a playoff run … I think we could do it again. All it takes is the work day in and day out, taking it one day at a time."
Among the group of new IronBirds who graced the club level of Ripken Stadium on Tuesday was Baltimore native and former Calvert Hall catcher Alex Murphy. After the Orioles drafted Murphy in the sixth round last year, he played 31 games for the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Orioles, batting .231 with one home run and nine RBIs.
Murphy played in extended spring training this year and made four appearances for Low-A Delmarva while getting set to join Aberdeen. Last Saturday, the catcher drove straight from the Orioles' facility in Florida to spend time at home before arriving at Ripken Stadium — a place to which he's no stranger.
"One of the last times I played on this field, we dogpiled on the pitcher's mound, winning the [Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference] championship with Calvert Hall," Murphy said. "I definitely have some good memories here, so it's nice to play with Aberdeen."
Left-handed pitcher Stephen Tarpley, the Orioles' third-round pick last year, had only seen pictures of Ripken Stadium before his 11-hour drive with teammates from extended spring training to Aberdeen. He got a glimpse the night they arrived, but he said it didn't do it justice.
"We got up to the hotel room, and I looked out the next morning and said, 'Are you serious?'," Tarpley said. "I mean guys showed me pictures of it, and it's beautiful. I'm loving it. It's a great deal. I'm excited to be here, for sure."
Including Murphy and Tarpley, 12 of the players on Aberdeen's current roster played for the GCL Orioles last season, and have spent much of the last year together. Tarpley is hoping the players' familiarity with each other can help ease their jump to short-season Single-A as they attempt to mesh with returning Aberdeen players.
"It's kind of like the same dudes, just a couple new guys here and there," he said. "The team really bonded, so I think we have something really good going. We just gotta play it out, play hard and play for each other."
That's exactly what Merullo hopes will happen.
"You have to be selfish. You have to care about what you're doing in this game. But you have to be a good teammate, you have to care what your teammates think about you," Merullo said. "That's what I want them to do — go out there and pick each other up, play for each other, pull for each other.
"And believe in the fact that if they take that approach, they'll look up at the end of the year and know that they'll have accomplished their own personal goals."
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