Longtime Padres bullpen catcher Mark Merila is now in his 15th season with the big league club. But it’s his staying power as a cancer survivor that best illustrates his toughness and tenacity.
Merila will join America’s 11 million cancer survivors in celebrating National Cancer Survivor’s Day June 13, a time to emphasize that life after a cancer diagnosis can be highly productive.
Merila’s story is a case in point. In 1994 he was an All-America second baseman hitting .488 for the University of Minnesota. Early in his senior season while taking pregame grounders, Merila suddenly saw a flash of light, collapsed to the infield and was rushed to a nearby hospital.
Tests revealed a brain tumor had caused Merila’s debilitating grand mal seizure.
“After I got over the initial shock, I realized that it was my time to fight,” Merila says.
And fight he did. Merila completed his college career and was drafted by the Padres. But after his two minor league seasons were hindered by radiation treatments, Merila became the Padres’ big league bullpen catcher.
He thrived in this role for 10 years, warming up all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman for most of his appearances with San Diego.
Then without warning, Merila suffered another severe seizure while riding the subway to New York’s Shea Stadium in 2005.
The brain tumor had recurred and progressed and Merila eventually lost control of his right throwing arm and hand. His days as an active bullpen catcher soon ended — but his fight against cancer continued.
Dr. Kosty says a combination of cancer drugs Avastin and Carboplatin proved particularly effective in controlling the tumor’s growth. Merila, 38, no longer requires treatment, though Dr. Kosty continues to monitor him with regular MRI exams.
Today, fans can spot Merila in his familiar jersey No. 71 as a member of the Padres coaching support staff. His job is part baseball tactician, part mentor and part inspiration.
“He always has a smile on his face, always getting us pumped up,” says Padres third baseman Chase Headley. “To see someone who’s been through what he has, it puts things in perspective. We’re real lucky to have him.”