August 15, 2022

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The big leaguer turned pickleball star

5 min read
Kent Mercker is going for pickle gold
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Kent Mercker had a long, successful 18-year MLB career.

He was the fifth overall pick in the 1986 MLB Draft — ahead of guys like Gary Sheffield and Bo Jackson.

He pitched for nine different teams, appearing in three different World Series with the Braves. He won a ring with Atlanta in 1995.

He was a part of two no-hitters: a combined no-no with four other Braves pitchers in 1991, and then one of the solo variety in ’94.

It’s a career to be proud of, nearly two decades of fond memories to look back upon.

But, speaking with him over the phone recently, the now 54-year-old has a second career he’s maybe even more proud of: Pickleball. Kent Mercker is an elite pickleball player.

“If we somehow win this thing, [or] even if we medal, for a personal accomplishment, it’ll be the biggest accomplishment in my life,” Mercker told me. “Even above the no-hitter. When I threw my no-hitter, I was 26 years old. Twenty-one of those 26 years, all I did was play baseball. So, I should’ve thrown a no-hitter before I finished. I don’t have any background in any pickle or paddle or racquet sports. It’d be so cool to do it while playing the game for under three years.”

Pickleball is a new-ish sport — invented one afternoon in 1965 when a family was bored and couldn’t find a shuttlecock to play badminton. It’s sort of like tennis, but on a smaller court, with smaller racquets and a Wiffle-type ball. Scoring is similar to how volleyball works, with only the serving team able to gain points. Some players whack the ball back-and-forth at each other at the net, while the great ones know how to place a perfect drop shot when the time calls for it.

The sport has grown in the last 10-15 years among the elderly populations but has recently become a competitive, popular sport for all ages. Mercker sees an even brighter future for those who pickle.

“There’s a stereotype, a misnomer, that it’s a retirement village sport,” Mercker said. “You know, send you out to pasture and start playing this pickleball game. That may have been the origin of it. But now, there’s younger people playing, there’s quicker people playing, there’s really skilled people playing. I mean, I see it as being an elementary school, middle school, high school, varsity, college sport at some point. I could see it in the Olympics in five or six years.”

If you watch some of the highlight reels from last year’s U.S. Open, it’d be hard to argue against Mercker’s thinking.

Mercker started playing a few years ago when a friend asked him if he wanted to come out and join him for a game. His response was how many of us might react to someone asking us to play pickleball.

“I was like, ‘Pickleball? What is pickleball?'” Mercker recalled. “I had literally never heard of it.”

But Mercker went out and played, and played again, and kept playing every chance he could get. It was, as he said, “better than running.” His friend, a world-class racquetball player, taught him how to hold the paddle, hit forehands and backhands. He eventually became addicted to the sport and, like any pro athlete, became obsessed with getting better. And he has gotten better.

He’s been playing in leagues and various games in his hometown of Dublin, Ohio. He’s challenged himself against better players in the city and used his athletic instincts to outsmart opponents. His career in baseball has also helped him excel in the new sport in more ways than one.

“I think what every baseball player has, to get to the highest level, is extremely good hand-eye coordination,” Mercker told me. “I think the other thing I have is competitiveness. I hate losing. That helped me get better quicker and dedicate some time to it.”

Mercker has also said in the past that his pitching motion helped him develop a fantastic overhead shot.

And now, Mercker and his longtime pickle partner Dan Eddingfield are playing in the U.S. Open. How did that happen? The two signed up for a lottery to play and were chosen. There are other ways to get in, but Mercker was fine doing it this way.

“Obviously, guys can qualify by playing in tournaments and doing well,” Mercker said. “I haven’t really been playing in any tournaments because, again, I’m still new at this. I don’t wanna embarrass myself. I did that a lot in baseball.”

Because it’s the preeminent event for pickleball in the country, the competition should be stiff. There are divisions for singles and doubles and also varying levels based on skill sets or age: 3.0 (the lowest) to 5.0 (the highest). Mercker and Eddingfield are in the 4.0 and up, 50 years and older division. The tourney runs from April 23-30, but they’ll play their matches on Monday. Mercker also isn’t the only notable athlete coming to Naples, Fla., from a different sport: NBA great Rick Barry, Tennis Hall of Famer Gigi Fernandez and tennis grand slam winner Joanne Russell are all in the main draw.

“You know what, I think we got a chance to compete,” Mercker said. “I’m not gonna say we can’t medal, which is finishing in the top three. But you know what, until you go down there and just see it, what we think is a 4.0-4.5 up here, down in Florida it might be a 3.5-4.0.”

And although players down at the Open are trying to win, it’s just as important to have a good time and take in the experience.

“I’m excited to just sit and watch pickleball all day and drink a beer,” Mercker said. “And I may drink a beer while I’m playing.”

That should help to quell some, if any, nerves the left-hander has during his foray onto the grandest stage of his new sport. But, as you might’ve guessed, he feels pretty confident about his game.

“Listen, I’ve played in three World Series. I’ve pitched in games with 55,000 people,” Mercker said. “I’m not gonna get nervous at the U.S. Open to play pickleball.”

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