Mercado makes long-awaited trip to Cooperstown

Written by: Bill Francis

The memory is as fresh as if it had taken place only yesterday, but for Orlando Mercado, the event is more than three decades old. A recent trip to Cooperstown allowed the veteran catcher and coach revisit the special moment and reunite with an old friend.

On Sept. 19, 1982, Seattle’s Mercado, making his first start in the majors, became the first player in modern big league baseball history to make his first hit a grand slam. The four-run shot off Rangers relief pitcher Steve Comer, part of an eight-run fourth inning, helped the host Mariners to a 9-7 victory in the Kingdome.

The win went to Seattle starting pitcher Edwin Nunez, who at 19 was the majors’ youngest player at the time. With Mercado only 20, he teamed with Nunez to form youngest battery in Mariners history.

Soon after making slugging history, Mercado donated the bat he used that night to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. When he visited the Cooperstown shrine on October 13, along with his girlfriend, mother and brother, it was the first time he had seen the bat in almost 33 years.

“It was a 3-2 count and I hit a line drive so hard the ball went in the tunnel,” the 53-year-old Mercado recalled. “The umpire between first and second stopped me and said, ‘Slow down.’ When I touched home plate and everybody was there it was emotional.”

Wearing white gloves, Mercado swung the bat – a black Louisville Slugger, 34¾ inches long and weighing 32½ ounces, with a cupped barrel end and tape on the handle - a few times like he did during his playing career, with a smile across his face and his guests taking photos.

“Wow. This is amazing. I cannot express myself. I’m feeling a little emotional because this is the Hall of Fame,” Mercado said. “I didn’t hit .300 or hit 500 home runs to become a member of the Hall of Fame, but at least the bat I used for my first major league hit is here. I feel like a little kid in a candy store.

“It has taken me almost 33 years to see my bat again. So many of my friends and family have come to take a picture with my bat over the years, and now I finally came here. I feel blessed.”

Orlando Mercado

Mercado slugged seven home runs during his eight-year big league career (1982-84, 1986-90) spent with the Mariners, Rangers, Tigers, Dodgers, A’s, Twins, Mets and Expos.

In 1978, the Mariners signed a 16-year-old Mercado from Puerto Rico who, after his playing days, spent almost two decades working with the Angels, including eight seasons (2003-10) as the big league bullpen coach and the 2002 World Series-winning season as the Angels’ bullpen catcher – which earned Mercado a World Series ring.

After serving as a Yankees minor league coach in 2014, this past year was his first out of the game in 37 years.

Mercado’s son, also named Orlando, was a sixth-round pick by the Diamondbacks in 2003 who spent 10 seasons as a minor league catcher.

“I signed when I was 16 years old and I had a dream. I wanted to be on the biggest stage but to get on the biggest stage you have to work hard,” said Mercado, who called Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Johnny Bench his idols growing up. “It was a long road. I played for 12 different organizations over 17 years, I coached for 19 years with the Angels, and in 2014 I coached with the Yankees minor league team in Trenton, New Jersey.

“I didn’t have the opportunity to play every day like a lot of the Hall of Famers in here but at least I had the chance. I don’t regret a minute of these 37 years I spent in the baseball business, either as a player or coach. Like I often say, baseball for life.”

Bill Francis is a Library Associate at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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