Drafted right after Ken Griffey Jr. in 1987, Mark Merchant never played a day in the majors


Mark Merchant doesn’t like to talk about his professional baseball career. As he sees it, doing so eventually means defending himself against comparisons with a Hall of Fame player.That Hall of Famer is Ken Griffey Jr. Back in June 1987, 30 years ago last week, the two were linked. Both were star high school outfielders and considered among the top prospects available in the Draft. Seattle and Pittsburgh agreed. The Mariners made Griffey the top overall pick and the Pirates chose Merchant at No. 2. Griffey’s story is well known. He would go on to hit 630 home runs and earn 10 gold gloves in 22 seasons in the majors. He was a near-unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame in 2016. Merchant, however, never spent a day in the majors. He played 12 years of minor league ball for five organizations, including 85 games at the Triple-A level. MORE: Every team's biggest draft regretSo about those comparisons? Merchant has heard them. “Comparing Mark Merchant to Ken Griffey Jr. is like comparing the newspaper guy at your local high school to a Pulitzer Prize winner,” he said.But as Merchant sees it, it’s not that simple. That’s why he defends himself.“It’s bulls—,” he said. “There were things I could do on a baseball field that I didn’t see anyone else do. I wouldn’t trade my ability with anyone I saw.“I can’t compare to someone with over 600 home runs. When I had my ability at 18, we were comparable. I only played a half season where I was injury free. It’s something I really don’t talk to anybody about.”Merchant, 48, lives in Lake Mary, Fla., outside of Orlando and owns a real estate appraisal company. For the past two seasons, he’s also been the head coach for the junior varsity baseball team at nearby Oviedo High School.It was at Oviedo, his alma mater, that Merchant attracted the attention of major league scouts. As a senior, the switch-hitting outfielder hit over .400 and stole more than 40 bases. Though he took college visits to Miami and Florida State, Merchant said his heart was set on professional baseball.“I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to college,” he said. “I went just to explore that option. Ever since I was a little kid, all I wanted to be was a professional baseball player.”When Seattle committed to drafting Griffey, Pittsburgh moved fast. Merchant signed his contract June 1, 1987, the night before the draft. He graduated high school three days later and, within a week, was playing for the Pirates’ Gulf Coast League team in Bradenton, Fla.“I was ready to get my career started,” Merchant said.MORE: Mock Draft 2017: Who will go where?By all accounts, the Pirates were thrilled with their pick.“Tool-wise, he’s got everything you’re looking for as a complete ballplayer,” Buzzy Keller, the Pirates’ director of player development, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in August 1987. “You might find some players who run faster and throw harder, but his combination (of tools) and makeup make him a complete player.”One anonymous scout told the Post-Gazette back then that Merchant was the best prospect to come out of Florida in nearly 30 years. Still another compared him to then Cincinnati Reds outfielder Eric Davis.So, what happened? Injuries happened.Merchant hit .265 and stole 33 bases in 50 games that first season. The next year, while playing for the Pirates’ Class A affiliate in Augusta, Ga., he separated his throwing shoulder while diving for a ball. His season ended after 60 games.The Pirates traded Merchant the next season, including him in a five-player deal that ironically landed him in the Mariners organization. While playing for Class AA Jacksonville in 1991, Merchant broke his right ankle.“I knew that night I was in trouble,” he said. “I never got my speed back again.”Merchant went on to also play in the Reds, White Sox and Royals organizations. His career also included two stints with independent league teams and time in the Mexican League. His best year came in 1993 while playing for the Reds’ AA affiliate in Chattanooga, Tenn. There, he hit .301 with 17 home runs in 109 games, earning him his first promotion to Triple-A.Five years later, at age 29, he was done with baseball. “To be able to still have good success in Double-A, when I couldn’t run or throw like I used to, says a lot,” Merchant said. “I gave it everything I had. I played those last seven years with one arm and one leg.” (SN) https://images.daznservices.com/di/library/sporting_news/5a/49/1987mlbdraftjpg_13qyux5dl33x81xmajxl5j4ulz.jpg?t=2029672292&w=500&quality=80 After his career ended, Merchant moved with his wife Kelly and infant daughter Sydney to Colorado. There, he earned a real estate appraisers license and eventually started his own business in suburban Denver. This time, baseball gave Merchant a break. MORE: The 13 greatest No. 1 Draft picks of all timeThe manager of the Rockies at the time was Jim Leyland, who was the skipper of the Pirates during Merchant’s time with the organization. This wasn’t lost on one particular hiring agent.“She said to me, 'If Jim Leyland gives you a recommendation when I talk to him tonight, I’ll hire you,'" Merchant said. “I guess I have Jim Leyland to thank.”Merchant said his move back to Florida was inspired by his children’s athletic prowess. Sydney just completed her freshman year at the University of North Florida, where she is a member of the golf team. Merchant’s son Andrew, 11, is a budding baseball and football player. Merchant said he doesn’t pressure his kids when it comes to sports. Nor does he bring up his career to the players he currently coaches.“I would, if the kids ask me,” he said. “I’m just so much older than them. I think it’s been so long, not many people remember me.” (Courtesy of Mark Merchant) https://images.daznservices.com/di/library/sporting_news/6e/10/markmerchant2-ftr-mm-060517jpg_dq9wkesq0rvk1pos19e8bqdu5.jpg?t=2020607308&w=500&quality=80 Photo courtesy of Mark MerchantWhen it comes to how his playing career is remembered, Merchant said there is only one person whose opinion matters.“My first-year manager Woody Huyke, whatever he said about me, I would take to the grave,” Merchant said. “No other manager saw me at the best of my abilities.”Huyke gave his take in an interview with the Post-Gazette in August 1987.“If Ken Griffey (Jr.) has more ability, he must be one hell of a player,” he said. “(Merchant is) a front-line prospect, one of the better ones I’ve ever seen. I didn’t see Mickey Mantle when he was 18 years old, but Mark has all the tools to play in the big leagues.”Follow SN contributor Jim Rodenbush on Twitter @JimRodenbush.