WATERVILLE — Stump Merrill started talking baseball at a quarter to 7. An hour later, 15 minutes after being told he had five minutes left, Merrill was still going. It’s easy when you have a passion for your subject, and that was exactly Merrill’s point to begin with.

“It kills me to see what’s happened to the game of baseball,” Merrill said. “I couldn’t coach (children). I couldn’t do it. I’d get in a fight with a parent,” Merrill said.

Now 74, Merrill is still one of Maine’s great baseball ambassadors. After a college playing career at the University of Maine, Merrill spent time in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system before coaching back at his alma mater, In 1978, Merrill began managing in the New York Yankees system, eventually managing the Yankees for a year and a half in the early 1990s. Merrill still works as a special assistant to Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, and recently spent time as an instructor during spring training.

That short biography is just to underscore Merrill’s baseball bona fides. The man knows the game. He knows how to coach the game, and he’s worried about the game.

Nationwide, fewer children are playing baseball. The ones who are playing need better coaching, Merrill said. That’s why he accepted Ken Walsh’s invitation to speak to the coaches in Waterville’s Cal Ripken baseball leagues Tuesday night.

“The thing that bothers me is, we’re losing players. There’s not enough kids playing the game. And the kids who are playing aren’t playing enough. The game’s not easy. Anything you do, you’ve got to do it with a passion. That doesn’t mean practicing once a week and playing a game once a week. You’re not going to get much better that way,” Merill said while sitting in Walsh’s office at the Alfond Youth Center after his meeting with the coaches. “Are all the players going to be professional athletes? No. Are all of them going to be college athletes? No. That’s not the point. The point is the game itself. What the game means, what the game teaches them, because it’s a lesson in life.”

Merrill touched on some throwing and fielding drills coaches can do with their teams, but the theme of Merrill’s talk was instilling a love of baseball in each player. Too often, Merrill said, coaches focus practice around the most talented few players. Or, if the coach is the parent to a player, the focus becomes their own child. That cannot happen, Merrill said. In this regard, his advice is worth listening to by youth coaches of every sport.

“The coaching at lower levels is not good enough. They’re aren’t enough people who work at what they’re doing. If you don’t have a passion for what you’re doing, you shouldn’t be doing it,” Merrill said. “The role you play for these kids, you become, for whatever period of time you have them, their father. I was one of these kids. My father died when I was a young kid… You want every one of these kids to learn from you, respect you, and respect the game of baseball. Otherwise, why are you here?”

Later, Merrill said too many children quit, whether it’s baseball or whatever, because it’s not fun. That’s our fault, he said, for not keeping them engaged. Show you’re committed, and the players will follow.

“There are many more things to do. There are many more choices for kids, and failure is accepted today where it wasn’t back then. By failure, I mean, I’m not having any fun and I’m going to go do something else,” Merrill said. “When you sign up to play, whatever it is… You’re going to play there until that season is over, because you owe that to those other kids on your team. Nobody knows what a commitment is. It’s in everything we do.”

With Waterville’s Fran Purnell Wrigley Field and Harold Alfond Fenway Park in Oakland, youth-sized replicas of the iconic big league ballparks, central Maine has two of the nicest youth baseball fields in the nation, miles apart.

“This is a real showcase,” Merrill said. “This is a chance for these kids to shine when they get older, if they buy into the program. It’s not easy.”

The assembled coaches nodded in agreement with everything Merrill said. Now, if they put it into practice, a group of young baseball players will be better off.

“They’re going to learn it from you, and they’re going to carry it on, hopefully, to somebody else,” Merrill said.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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