Baseball runs extremely deep in the blood of Nick Merullo. So deep, in fact, that he is a fourth-generation player with a father and great grandfather who made it all the way to the Major Leagues and a grandfather who played three years of minor-league baseball.
Through his first eight games at Hand (Madison, Conn.) this spring, the senior catcher is hitting .392 with four doubles, eight runs scored and he has driven in eight. He has struck out just three times in 25 at-bats. His best game was against Shelton during which he doubled twice and drove in four runs.
“(Nick) is fundamentally sound, has a great throwing arm and a good feel for calling a game," first-year coach Chris Borelli said. "He’s done more than anybody could ask for behind the plate. He’s got intangibles. He never gets cheated (as a hitter) and leads us in RBIs. He’s very strong and hits the ball hard. He rarely strikes out.
“He has evolved into a great leader. We put a lot of pressure on him and he has lived up to expectations.”
Lennie Merullo, a shortstop, played seven years for the Chicago Cubs (1941-47). He appeared in 639 games, scored 191 runs, drove in 152, had 497 hits and batted .240. He was a starter the last time the Cubs played in a World Series (1945) and had a career fielding average of .945.
Following his playing days, Lennie launched a legendary scouting career which spanned an additional 53 years. He was chief scout for the Cubs from 1950-72, then went with the fledgling Major League Scouting Bureau in 1973, a position he held until his retirement in 2003 at age 85. He was named Scout of the Year in 1990 and in 2006 won the prestigious Judge Emil Fuchs Award for long and meritorious service to baseball.
Lennie, who will turn 93 on May 5, is from a family of 12, which included nine boys. Though he lives in Reading, Mass., he has seen Nick play a few times and is planning another trip this spring.
“I could see he has a lot of natural ability,” Lennie says of his great grandson. “Off the field, I’ve helped him with his hands, to strengthen them. He definitely is on his way to get a chance to prove himself (at the next level).”
The day that Len “Boots” Merullo was born, he instantly became part of a baseball legend, because his father made four errors in one inning – still a Major League record for shortstops.
“Some great shortstops have made three but never four,” Lennie acknowledged. “I was excited, no doubt about it. I was nervous about getting home (before the birth of his first son). We were out of town. I had to take a plane, train and bus to get home. The headline the next day in the Boston Globe said ‘Boots Is Born; Merullo Boots 4.’ His own wife still calls him Boots. He was a better ball player than I was.”
Len emphasized, “I never felt pushed into it (playing baseball). I grew up as a kid with Wrigley Field as our lawn. My father would take me to the ball park. We had the time of our lives. We sawed the barrels off the bats so we could swing them. The clubhouse guy gave us sandwiches and then we sat in the stands and watched the games.
“It was huge, but it was always positive. It was like having 30-some uncles. The manager, the trainers - they were all nice to us. By the time I was five or six my father was done playing.”
Len played shortstop, third base and the outfield from 1962-64 in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. He batted .265 in 326 games.
His shot at the Major Leagues may have been doomed during his first year when he suffered a broken leg while playing shortstop for Batavia, N.Y., in Class D. Shortly after he belted a grand-slam home run, he was chasing a popup and collided with the left fielder. He was never the same after that.
“I don’t want to hang it on that,” he insisted. “I probably rushed it (his rehab). I had a hard time playing three days in a row. It wasn’t as much the leg as I didn’t learn the mental part of the game. I got released (at age 22). I was married and had a baby coming that summer.
“We only have three grandkids. Nick is the only boy, so, obviously, he’s the apple of our eye. When he was about two years old, I remember his father telling me ‘No coaching.’ I support him. I worry for him. I try to help him with a few things. I’m there watching.
“I can see him playing pro ball. He’s got a huge upside. If baseball (only) helps him get an education, that would be fine. My son and I didn’t get college degrees. My father did (Boston College). That’s amazing.”
Matt Merullo was a catcher for the Chicago White Sox (four years), Cleveland Indians (one year) and Minnesota Twins (one year) from 1989-1995. He appeared in 223 games and had a .234 batting average. He made only11 errors and had a .982 fielding percentage.
Matt had the misfortune of needing elbow surgery and playing most of his career behind future Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk. Today he continues to follow the heritage of his grandfather as a scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks.
“My mother said that the first word out of my mouth was ‘ball,’’’ Matt pointed out. “It (baseball) was huge in a positive way. I was a batboy when I was five or six years old. We wore old uniforms that my grandfather got from the Cubs. I spent my winters pouring over scrapbooks of my father and grandfather. It was a big drive – but all an inner drive.
“I wanted to be like them, but I didn’t realize until I got older that I was so blessed to have the ability to play. My grandfather took me around to games in the summer while he was scouting. (I can still) smell the cigars and stale beer. I used to soak up so much being with him.”
Concerning his only son, Nick, Matt said, “Right away we could see he loved it. He was a big, strong boy. He didn’t mind getting dirty, a bad hop hitting his chest, the bat stinging in his hands. He doesn’t mind the humbling parts of the game.”
Matt pointed out that he has helped his son with “a combination of techniques - simple fundamentals – how to swing the bat and the ins and outs of the cat and mouse game between the catcher and hitter. (I show him) how to relax. If you try too hard, it’s going to eat you up. The goal with Nick is does he want this for himself? If you don’t like the work, you’ve got no chance.
“As a father I’m old fashioned. I’m not whipping out money for him to be on a special (travel) team. I’m really proud of him. He’s been through a lot. He hasn’t had anything handed to him.”
Similar to his father, Nick’s first word was “ball.” He is quick to admit, “Baseball has given us a lot of opportunities.”
Even as early as age two, Nick was passionate about “ball.” His mother, Chris, recalled, “Nick would hit the ball (in their apartment) and our dog would chase it. That would go on for hours.”
At age three, Nick participated in a father-son game while Matt was closing out his career with the Minnesota Twins.
“We got to dress up and play on the field,” he vividly recalled. “I had a big, old helmet that fell over my eyes. ESPN had clips of me. They put it on SportsCenter the next day. Kevin Tapani had been traded for a player to be named later and they called me the player to be named later.”
Nick still has fond memories of Twins superstar Kirby Puckett, who “always managed to take time to throw me a couple balls. He was a fun, nice guy.”
Over the years, father and son have been very close. “Even now he still points out things – things he didn’t learn until he was 23 or 24 years old,” Nick said of the wisdom he gains from Matt. “More importantly, he teaches me the mental parts of the game. You have to play hard and respect the game.”
Nick was good enough to make the senior-junior dominated American Legion team the summer before his freshman year. His freshman year on the Madison Hand varsity started out with a bang when he slammed a home run in his first at-bat.
“It was a pre-season scrimmage, but it certainly opened some eyes,” he said.
Playing outfield and serving as a designated hitter, Nick batted cleanup and drove in a team-leading 16 runs in 22 games. He batted .333.
As a sophomore third baseman, he batted .386 and drove in 17 runs in 24 games. His biggest thrill that year was winning a game against Hamden on the Norwich Navigators’ minor league field.
“I hit a (two-run) triple off the top of the fence and dove head-first into third on real professional dirt,” he described. “It was a lot better than the sand we play on in high school.”
As a junior full-time catcher, Nick batted .382, but drove in just 11 runs in 22 games, because he “was pitched around a lot” and drew 14 walks. His favorite game was against Derby during which he belted a home run and triple, two intentional walks and threw out three runners attempting to steal.
He also admitted, “I tried to do too much. I put a lot of pressure on myself (to earn a college scholarship). I am my toughest critic. There are always little things I think I could have done better. I put the most pressure on myself. I want to be the best player I can be. My whole family tries to extract the best out of me without being too critical. My goal is to be a Major Leaguer and live up to expectations.”
The 6-foot, 210-pounder also had an outstanding football career as a two-time All-State quarterback. He started 28 games and the Tigers won 19 of them. During his career he completed 52 percent of his passes for over 6,000 yards and 24 touchdowns. He also rushed for 2,580 yards (a 4.3 average). In 2009 he set a single-game school record with 420 passing yards.
Coach Steve Filippone calls him “a terrific leader who set an extraordinary high standard for his teammates to follow.”
It’s no wonder that Nick’s idols are former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Maurer.
He likes Tebow’s “leadership and he’s such a good person. I was a physical runner and pretty good passer. Maurer also was a good football player. I like his consistency and humility.”
Nick loves catching “for the same reason of being a quarterback in football. You control the action and make a lot of quick decisions – one of the things I’m good at. I always enjoyed being that guy (the leader), being in the middle of the action.”
He has a 3.39 GPA and plans to attend James Madison University to play baseball. He did have several football scholarship offers from Ivy League and Division I-AA colleges. His “Plan B” is to coach football or be a professional baseball scout.
Paradoxically, though football has been a positive thing in Nick’s life, it has hindered his baseball progress to the point that his father says, “If he had not played football, I think he’d be a solid draft choice now. (Right now) he’s more suited for college. He’s got a shot. I hope he gets as much enjoyment out of the game as we did.”
Nick readily admits, “I would love to get drafted. I definitely want to be a professional baseball player. If not (this year), I’ve got another three or four years of college to get better for the next level.
“Only 17 percent in baseball make the big leagues. If I don’t make it, I’ll certainly be able to handle it. I’m not going to be someone who’s going to be kicking himself the rest of his life.”