Cubs Insider

Mercedes plays waiting game: 'I deserve to be in big leagues'

Cubs Insider

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Eloy Jiménez was on base with one out when hit-machine catcher Yermín Mercedes, the next man up for the Charlotte Knights, was tapped for a pinch hitter.

Just like that the toast of Chicago baseball in April watched from a bench in Triple-A, on a muggy July night in Durham, North Carolina, as the pinch hitter struck out.

He left the park that night and decided not to come back — posting the “El Retiro” Instagram story that took the White Sox and the rest of baseball by surprise and forced manager Tony La Russa to answer questions about it later that night.

“I was a little frustrated with the situation I was going through,” Mercedes said in Spanish, “because I believe, and I believed, that I deserve to be in the big leagues, and I felt very frustrated.”

It was barely three weeks after Mercedes was demoted back to the minors — two weeks after Seby Zavala was called up to replace injured catcher Yasmani Grandal. And Jiménez, one of Mercedes’ good friends with the White Sox, was close to finishing a minor-league rehab assignment and scheduled to be back with the big club in a few days.

Mercedes, who spoke with NBC Sports Chicago on Thursday from the Knights’ home dugout in Charlotte in his first media interview since his July 2 demotion, said family, close friends and a few friends in the big-leagues advised him against quitting and “to stay calm and keep a calm mind.”

 

He returned two days later — and went 3-for-5 in his second game back.

“Everything turned out well and we’re working hard right now,” Mercedes said in Spanish, adding in English:

“I love baseball. But I was just a little bit frustrated. That’s the reason.”

That’s the thing about Mercedes. He often wears his heart on his sleeve, and sometimes even his name in his haircut.

“I need to do it again,” he said, with a laugh, when asked about the “Yerminator” shaved into his hair during his early-season glory days in Chicago — when the cherubic, 28-year-old rookie burst onto the national stage with hit after hit after hit and won a fan following that still clamors for him to get back to the South Side.

“They direct-message me on my Instagram or my Twitter, and every time they tell me they want me back in Chicago, they want to see me again,” he said. “I see all of those messages and I feel a little bad because I know they love me there. But I can’t do anything. Just keep working hard, waiting for my time. That’s the only thing I can do. Just waiting.”

That clearly has been the hardest part for Mercedes these last few months — one of the biggest challenges of his career — after a life-altering taste of the big leagues that started when he opened the season as the Sox DH and became the first player in history to record hits in his first eight plate appearances of a season.

“It was awesome,” Mercedes said. “It was good for my life, for my career, because I never did that, never did what I did in those days. Everybody knows me more because of that. It was like, ‘Oh, who is Mercedes, who’s Yerminator, or who’s that guy?’

“So everybody knows me from those days and what I was doing. I feel great [about that].”

And when you wait that long for that moment to come, and it becomes so much bigger than even your own bigger-than-life personality, how do you find the beat to keep dancing when the music stops?

“I learned from those experiences,” Mercedes said of the wild ups and downs he has experienced in what might be the greatest and most frustrating season of his career. “Every player has struggles. You just have to keep working hard to get back. For me, the best you can do is to keep working.”

For a hitter who worked for a decade, in three organizations, to reach that moment of big-league success, Mercedes said a lot of that work now is about keeping the same mindset and focus wherever he is playing — even as the larger focus is on earning a chance to stick in one place.

“Because if you’re thinking maybe I’m going to go down, maybe I’m going to stay here, your mentality is not the same,” he said. “When you have just one mentality for one goal, everything is good.”

 

That seems to be a daily challenge at times.

Case in point: Mercedes went 5-for-6 with two homers on Aug. 15. Before he played his next game he posted a picture of a Japanese flag on what’s quickly becoming a must-follow Instagram account.

Now he’s saying he’s going to play in Japan?

No, he hasn’t looked into that or have any offers from teams overseas, he said.

But, yeah, that was the implication, he said.

“I can play anywhere,” he said. “I was just maybe frustrated at that point. If I can’t play in the big leagues, I can play in Japan or Mexico, the Dominican, whatever.”

Mercedes, who keeps in regular touch with Luis Robert, Yoan Moncada and Jiménez, doesn’t know exactly what’s next. He rejoined the Sox briefly in Toronto in August as a member of their taxi squad -- the first time since his demotion he talked with Sox manager Tony La Russa, who called out Mercedes in May for "missing" a take sign on a 3-0 pitch. Mercedes disputed that he missed a sign, but regardless said he and La Russa have a good relationship.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Mercedes, whose focus now is on a strong finish for the Knights, whether it means a chance to be considered taxi-squad depth again in the postseason or an uncertain place in next year’s plans. “Just keep working hard here. If they need me I’m here. I’ll be prepared every time for every moment, just doing the things that I can do on the field.”

That’s the challenge. That’s the goal.

“I just want to keep working hard, keep getting better,” he said.

And know he’s the same player, the same hitter, the same person wherever he gets the chance to play baseball.

Because if there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he has hit everywhere he has played — and raked again since going back to the minors after that weeks-long slide from the April mountaintop that led to the demotion. 

And that his breakout month for the playoff-bound White Sox was no fluke. That he belongs.

“Because I know I’m a good baseball player,” he said. “I’m a good baseball player.”

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