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Ball in the Family

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A laughing matter it wasn’t. Oxnard High was locked in a tight ballgame against Camarillo with first place in the Pacific View League on the line.

Yet two fellows stood behind a row of major league scouts, yucking it up so much they doubled over and spilled their sunflower seeds.

Didn’t they realize the scouts were intently evaluating Oxnard left-hander Matthew Merricks and his 92-mph fastball?

The bases were loaded. Every pitch counted. This was an important step in Oxnard’s season and Merricks’ future.

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Who did these guys think they were, staying so loose when everyone else was gravely serious?

Please excuse Charles “Chubby” Merricks and his brother, Ronnie. They’ve watched a lot of baseball and, judging by their sons’ talent, will see plenty more. Another day, another ballgame.

Chubby is Matthew’s father. Ronnie’s son, Alex, is an Oxnard sophomore who pitches, plays center field and eventually might be a better prospect than his cousin.

Matthew polished off Camarillo, 2-0, but Alex, also a left-hander, needed a postgame bullpen workout. His dad, mom, sister, uncle, aunt, and cousins all waited, hanging around until darkness made it difficult to walk to the parking lot from the field wedged in a far corner of campus against celery fields and eucalyptus trees.

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That’s the way it is with the close-knit Merricks family. Nobody leaves until they all leave. No one was bored or impatient. Jokes and laughter filled the time.

Matthew is a lot like his father, playfully needling teammates and trying his best to elicit a chuckle from no-nonsense Oxnard Coach Phil White.

“If somebody isn’t smiling, there’s something wrong,” Matthew said.

Alex is more serious, maybe because as a sophomore he has more proving to do. His biggest influence is Matthew’s brother Charles, UCLA’s junior center fielder and a former three-sport star at Channel Islands High.

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Don’t let him fool you, says Alex’s sister, Alexis, a freshman water polo player at Oxnard. Alex can be goofy. Especially when he and Matthew are singing those old-school Michael Jackson and Smokey Robinson jams.

No doubt, the Merricks are a merry bunch. And there is a method to their mirth.

“The game gets serious enough after high school,” Chubby said. “If somebody gives you a scholarship or a professional contract, they want production. High school is the last time you can play strictly for fun.”

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Matthew Merricks can get serious. He doesn’t exactly shed the tears of a clown, but sky-high expectations sometimes wipe the smile off his face.

He knows he is regarded as the top left-hander in the region, a standing earned from a strong showing at the Area Code Games following a junior season in which he went 6-1 with 88 strikeouts in 46 innings.

But Matthew wants to be the best, period.

“I don’t think anyone should hit the ball against me,” he said. “I’ve always thought I could throw 99 mph. I still think I can get there.

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“I know Matt Harrington [Palmdale] and Jamie Shields [Hart] are the best, and in my eyes, I belong with them. I haven’t proved it to other people yet.”

Matthew’s fastball is big-time. He threw 113 pitches against Camarillo and was hitting 90 mph in the late innings. He needs to improve the command of his change-up and curveball, but that won’t deter scouts, who figure he has plenty of time to learn.

“I used to throw no more than three or four change-ups a game because nobody could catch up with my fastball,” he said. “I need to show scouts I can throw other pitches.”

Hard work and determination can fix everything but his height. At 5-foot-11, Matthew is shorter than most professional pitchers. His 165-pound frame should fill out.

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Scholarship offers are coming in, although he needs to pass an advanced algebra class this spring to become eligible for the UC system and perhaps follow Charles to UCLA.

“Matt is extremely mature in his understanding of the game,” White said. “The thing that impresses me most is his ability to step back from a situation, analyze it and ask keen questions.”

Matthew is an excellent athlete who led the region with 146 steals during basketball season. He plays outfield when not pitching, bats third in the lineup and is hitting .333. Charles entered UCLA as a pitcher and converted to center field last season. Matthew is destined to stick to the mound.

“I’ve always thought I could pitch in the big leagues,” he said. “I still consider that my goal.”

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Every comic needs a straight man. Alex Merricks is the object of many of Matthew’s pranks and one-liners. He’s used to it.

“We are opposite but we share the same goal, to make it all the way,” Alex said. “Matt’s personality is good for me. He keeps me loose. I’ve always tried to compete with him. My dad told me a long time ago I’d stay one step ahead if I measured myself against Charles and Matt.”

So far, so good. Alex, the center fielder when not pitching, is batting .411 and has a 0.78 ERA with 12 strikeouts in nine innings.

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“It’s nice to know Alex is going to be here for two more years,” White said. “It’s especially nice because I get to be around Alex. The wheels are always turning and he’s very conscientious. I wouldn’t mind him baby-sitting my daughters.”

Alex, 16, is quickly becoming a national-caliber player for his age. He played on the Junior Olympic team in the Pan American Games in Ecuador in October and more opportunities are on the horizon.

His 3.7 grade-point average in honors classes is another plus. Matthew played basketball throughout high school and football until his senior year; Alex is focused strictly on baseball.

“Hitting, especially, is something I have to do all year long to keep improving,” he said. “I have a long-term plan. I want to be able to go to any university and I want to go high in the 2002 draft.”

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The Merricks’ prodigious talents and lofty goals make Oxnard High a red-letter destination for scouts, about 20 of whom watched Matthew shut out Camarillo on Tuesday.

None seem to mind his jesting. They recognize his serious approach to pitching.

“Matt Merricks is very smart,” one scout said. “That’s the first thing you notice. Alex is the same way. Those kids are blessed with ability, with great arms. They definitely have a future.”

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They are playing together, and that’s important to the family. Although less intense than many dads, Chubby and Ronnie love to watch their sons play. Sometimes their older brother Haywood, who also lives in Oxnard, joins them.

The Merricks’ primary family value is that they value their family. It’s been passed on to the next generation, along with athletic ability and a sense of humor.

“It’s a special time with Matt and Alex on the same team,” Ronnie said. “They are as close as brothers. And the way our family is, it will always be that way.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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By The Numbers

Matthew Merricks

G: 6

Rec.: 2-0

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Inn.: 12.2

SO: 21

BB: 10

ERA: 1.10

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S: 4

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Alex Merricks

G: 2

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Rec.: 1-0

Inn.: 9.0

SO: 12

BB: 1

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ERA: 0.78

S: 0


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