Jewish Slugger Mervis Debuts for Chicago Cubs

Jewish Slugger Mervis Debuts for Chicago Cubs

The Cubs' brass look to pencil Mervis in at first base for the next decade.

Without even a full season at Triple-A Iowa under his belt, the Cubs viewed Matt Mervis as a player who can have an immediate impact at the big-league level // Photo Courtesy of Chicago Cubs
Without even a full season at Triple-A Iowa under his belt, the Cubs viewed Matt Mervis as a player who can have an immediate impact at the big-league level // Photo Courtesy of Chicago Cubs

May 5, 2023, goes down as a landmark day in the annals of Jewish sports history. On this Shabbat, for the first time since Sept. 25, 1966, when Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, went up against Ken Holtzman of the Chicago Cubs, two Jewish starting pitchers (Max Fried and Baltimore Orioles righty Dean Kremer) squared off. While the evening turned out to be a forgettable one for Atlanta’s ace — in his last start before hitting the IL, Fried surrendered five earned runs in six innings while also uncharacteristically making a pair of errors — it was nevertheless a momentous occasion for Jewish baseball fans worldwide.

It also wasn’t the only one on Cinco de Mayo 2023. Hours before the Fried-Kremer pitching duel unfolded at Truist Park, first baseman Matt Mervis, who represented Team Israel during the 2023 World Baseball Classic, made his highly awaited Major League debut for the Chicago Cubs. Of the considerable number of Jewish minor league prospects anxiously awaiting their call-up, Mervis looms as perhaps the most promising. After clubbing 36 homers and driving in 119 runs in the minors last summer, and then getting off to a scorching start this spring for the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate with whom he finished last season, the 25-year-old slugger knew the big moment was coming any day.

“This [Major League Baseball] is all I’ve wanted to do for pretty much my whole life,” said Mervis during his introductory press conference in the bowels of Wrigley Field hours before seeing his first big-league action. “This is always where I’ve expected myself. I don’t know how to describe it really. Kind of blacked out for a minute. Had to think of who to call.”

It would be his mother, Ellen, who had to quickly make travel arrangements to get to the Windy City on time. Along with Matt’s father, Jeffrey, she was killing time at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, waiting to board a flight to Columbus, Ohio, to attend Matt’s next minor league game when the memorable call came. Minutes later, mom and dad were frantically making last-minute weekend plans for Chicago.

Many around baseball see similarities between Cubs rookie first baseman Matt Mervis and Anthony Rizzo, the franchise’s erstwhile first baseman who helped the team secure a World Series title in 2016 // Photo Courtesy of Chicago Cubs

“I don’t think she believed me for a second,” recalled Mervis during his first press conference as a member of the storied Cubs franchise. “I think she started crying right away. It was hard for me to hold back emotions. There have been some lows. College was not easy for me the first couple years. She’s been my go-to when things aren’t going great, so she definitely deserved the first call. It was hard to hear her get emotional and not get emotional myself.”

Mervis’ undergrad years at Duke University were aggravating in the sense that the coaching staff tried to nudge him toward giving up his first-base mitt and focusing exclusively on pitching—just as his high school coaches had previously done. But even after posting pedestrian offensive numbers early on in college, Mervis remained undeterred in his goal of being a big-league positional player.

So, it’s a legitimate question — how did he get past high school and college coaches trying to coax him to focus on the mound, and not the batter’s box?

“Because I trusted that I knew better than them,” explained Mervis, who finally came into his own as a hitter in the venerable Cape Cod Baseball League during the pre-pandemic summer prior to his senior year. “I could tell when I got on the mound that I had a good arm, but I threw like a third baseman. I didn’t have great off-speed pitches. And every once in a while, I would take a swing in-game and I would say, ‘If I can just do that over and over again.’ Like I know what I can do as a hitter. Just the conviction in myself that I would develop into a better player than I was at that time and all I needed was some reps.”

On the postcard afternoon of May 5th in Chicago’s North Side, one in which his replica jerseys were already stocked on the shelves of Wrigley Field souvenir stores, Mervis, who was called up to supplant struggling veteran Eric Hosmer, cracked an eighth-inning RBI single off Miami Marlins reliever Tanner Scott in his final at-bat of the afternoon to finish 1-for-4 at the plate in his MLB debut, which the Cubs won 4-1.

It wasn’t always the case that the Cubs organization and its rabid fan base were banking on a Mervis call-up. Until last year, he was actually not on many people’s radar screens. In the crazy summer of 2020, when the MLB draft was limited to five rounds, Mervis was not drafted coming out of Duke. While Mervis was atop the Cubs’ wish list of unsigned prospects in 2020, few saw this rapid ascension coming—particularly given his struggles for Class A Myrtle Beach in 2021.

“It’s remarkable to start out in High-A a year ago and just to go level to level,” Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer, a Wesleyan University grad who also happens to represent the Jewish community, said to the press about Mervis’ surprising rise to the big leagues. “He really dominated in every level and just kept producing the same numbers no matter where he went. Each year is different, so sometimes a guy is locked in for a given year and winter comes and he’s not quite the same the next year. For him to go back to Iowa again, obviously against better competition than in September, and do this again is really impressive.”

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