Merrill Kelly: "Do Not Disturb" Ascent Toward Tampa Bay

  • Name: Merrill Kelly
  • Age: 24
  • Organization: Durham Bulls, Tampa Bay Rays, Arizona State University

Author: Patrick Kinas, creator.

Hotel life and minor league baseball go hand-in-hand. Fortunately, for Durham Bulls pitcher Merrill Kelly, the former Arizona State Sun Devil's adjustment to life on the road is simply an extension of a life he’s lived for years.

Merrill Kelly has called five cities home over his 25 years. Houston. Austin. Philadelphia. Chicago. And now Scottsdale. The son of a hotel executive means can mean uprooting at any time, and Merrill has already moved enough for a lifetime. His father, Tom, had been the GM of the esteemed Chicago Ritz-Carlton and others within the Four Seasons Hotel corporation over 35 years before recently taking early retirement.

The Merrill family also understands the baseball life, with Tom and Reid, Merrill’s brother, also drafted into the game – Tom to the Houston Colt .45s and Reid to the Astros.

“At the time, as a young kid, the first couple of moves, I didn't really comprehend,” Kelly said. “The move upset me the most was from Chicago to Phoenix. My parents told us, Chicago would be the be-all, end-all move. I was there from 3rd to 8th grade, made some good friends and had a quality routine. I was upset about the last move, but it worked out for the best. There is better baseball better in southwest.”

Merrill’s journey has not only been marked by nearly a half-dozen cities, but ample opportunities to enter the professional game. A decision Kelly turned down several times until he knew the timing was right.

“I was drafted by Baltimore out of high school,” Kelly recalled. After spending his teenage years in Chicago, Kelly’s first passion was basketball, and so too, he thought his future. The Orioles scout tried to coax Kelly back to reality.

“The scout came to the house in negotiations and said ‘I hear you like to play basketball. How tall are you?’” Kelly responded saying 6’1”. The scout resumed, “Let me put it to you this way. You’re an almost 6’1” white kid who can’t dunk.”

Kelly realized the scout was right, but Kelly also realized that the Orioles weren’t right for him either. He didn’t sign.

“I wasn’t ready mentally or physically out of high school. I needed to mature a little bit personally and in baseball.”

From there, Kelly went to Yavapai JC in Arizona, and was drafted again – this time by Cleveland. But again, Kelly declined citing his desire to play Division I baseball.

Arizona State was the destination of choice.

“It was the right spot at the right time. Close to home, with my parents and brother able to see me play. I met a lot of people who were influential in my career there.”

Not only did Kelly realize his dream of playing Division I baseball, in 2010, his only year with the Sun Devils, for the first time in school history, Arizona State was the #1 overall seed entering the NCAA Regionals, and surprised no one by reaching the College World Series.

The CWS was in its last year at fabled Rosenblatt Stadium, and the targeted Sun Devils were beaten in the opener by Clemson. In the Sun Devils’ elimination game, Coach Tim Esmay, who gave Kelly his ASU Division I opportunity, handed the ball to Kelly to face South Carolina.

“The first inning went well. The second didn’t,” said Kelly. Eight runs later, the second inning was over, as was Kelly’s and the Sun Devils’ CWS experience.

The draft came heeding Kelly’s name once again, and this time, he listened. The Tampa Bay Rays selected Kelly in the 8th round in 2010, and within two seasons, Kelly was an 8-game winner at Double-A Montgomery.

Kelly’s career has accelerated quickly in 2013, making 12 starts with Montgomery before he was called into manager Billy Gardner Jr.’s office. Kelly thought he might be in trouble for something. Quite the contrary.

“You're going to Durham, I hope you don't come back."

For the first time, Kelly would be a step away from the major leagues, pitching for the famed Durham Bulls franchise.

In making his Triple-A debut, friends and family were watching nationwide, while some of Kelly’s former organization teammates with were watching as current Bulls. However, despite Kelly’s success that night, no one quite recognized Kelly. Why?

“I had 10 strikeouts. I’ve never had 10 strikeouts in my life. All the buddies I had played with who were watching, asked what happened? Even Juan Sandoval, a teammate of mine at Double-A and now with the Bulls, asked how did I strikeout 10 guys. I said ‘I don’t know. I blacked out.’”

“My philosophy, though, is to establisht everything for strikes,” Kelly said. “If you throw them early or late in the game for strikes, hitters will have to honor them.”

“Here at Triple-A, I’m trying to be as calm as possible. It’s a new level. A new experience. I have to keep my nerves in check.”

Now Merrill, first name Kenneth, is carrying the baseball torch for the entire Kelly family. Merrill’s dad opted not to play ball for the Colt .45s, instead remaining with his band at the time. Merrill’s brother Reid, now 26, signed with the Astros, then fell on difficult times with his health. Reid needed Tommy John surgery, then after rehabbing, Reid came down with a bout of viral meningitis. After playing last season in Independent ball in Michigan, Reid moved on to his next chapter.

So now, while his father spends his time owning a couple of restaurants in Scottsdale (TK’s Urban Tavern & Tavern Americana), when Merrill takes to the mound with Durham, time stands still for the often-transient Kelly family. They stop moving – at least for three hours while Merrill is on the mound.

(Kelly is 2-0 with a 2.50 ERA through his first three AAA starts and scheduled to start Tuesday, July 2nd v Columbus.)

(Photo Courtesy: Sun Devil Athletics.)

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