The right field fence at Gaither High School’s Frank Permuy Park displays four prominent jerseys, that of the field’s namesake and former manager, and those of the three former Cowboys to be called up to the Majors.
On the edge of the quartet is the only pair of players in the Tampa-area high school’s history to make an appearance in a big league game, each with the number 12. Chad Zerbe, the winning pitcher in Game 5 of the 2002 World Series with the San Francisco Giants, hangs to the left side. On the right side is eight-year MLB catcher, current Tampa Bay Rays manager and Terry Francona prank-war adversary Kevin Cash.
Reliever Chris Jones is the fourth Gaither Cowboy on the wall. A 15th round pick by the Indians in 2007, Jones was recalled by the Los Angeles Angels on May 30, 2016, but never made an appearance.
Down the left field line, nestled between the home dugout and a freshly mulched stretch of grass outside the park sits a pair of netted batting cages. On a warm Tampa day in March, the current mob of Cowboys prepare for a simulated game in the middle of their regular season.
In the four months prior, a former Gaither standout populated that cage, preparing to become the fifth name to be added to that wall.
Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round of the 2013 draft out of Gaither, Oscar Mercado was the first player ever selected from the school at the high school level, according to Baseball-Reference.
Now on the precipice of reaching the highest level with the Indians following a trade midway through the 2018 season, Mercado is known by the majority of the current Cowboys roster as more than a famous alumnus. The future big leaguer still frequents the grounds that will soon bear his name and number, en route to putting them there officially, even if he will assuredly not be wearing No. 12 when he makes his major league debut.
The Colombian-born Mercado impressed Indians brass with his volume of work to overhaul his swing this offseason, appearing in Cleveland twice at the team’s swing clinics. When those clinics ended, he headed back to Tampa, and back to Gaither, to implement them.
Such is the story of the budding outfielder.
Tribe general manager Mike Chernoff, in regard to Mercado’s second appearance at the team’s swing clinic, told T.J. Zuppe, “Nobody does that.”
Mercado’s former teammate, and current Gaither assistant/director of baseball operations, Hunter Henderson, sang the same tune.
“Even the offseasons when he’s in pro-ball, he is here about five or six days a week,” Henderson said. “In high school, he was the first one here, one of the last people to leave. He got out of school early, and he was here about 12:30 every day.
“Just unheard of in high school.”
Current Gaither head coach Nelson North, an assistant under Permuy during Mercado’s tenure, called the 24-year-old one of the best people he has ever been around. The pair put in shifts seven days a week at the field during his high school days, taking hundreds of groundballs at shortstop.
Each knew short was Mercado’s ticket to the draft, but North developed a contingency plan.
“We used to joke, I used to have him, during BP, just go to the outfield and take some flyballs. ‘You never know. You’re fast enough, you could always be a center fielder,’” he told Mercado. “We used to kind of laugh about it.”
It was that speed, regardless of position, that brought scouts and executives to Gaither to watch the toolsy youngster during games and practices alike.
“His senior year was absolutely a circus,” North said. “He was under a lot of scrutiny, and I thought that he handled that very well. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid his age.
“I guess he withstood it, but I don’t think he enjoyed it.”
The numbers were not fantastic either. Statistically speaking, Mercado appeared average at the plate. Among the likes of New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso and Houston Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker at nearby Plant High School, and against the likes of Tampa-area aces Jose Fernandez of Braulio Alonso and Lance McCullers Jr. of Tampa Jesuit, something about Mercado may have looked lacking to the untrained eye.
But high school numbers have never been the driving force behind a top pick’s spot in line, and the process is what showed through, even back in 2012. Paired with his effortless athleticism, Mercado was not missing anyone’s eye.
“There he went, and there he was,” North said. “I think that was the big thing. He was a big league base-runner as a high school player. The rest had to translate.”
Similar to a current Indians standout, North noted the smile that was always present on his star pupil’s face. 0-for-3 or 3-for-3, Mercado was present the next day, taking those ground balls, and occasionally heading to the outfield.
With the eyes constantly on him, the flashes of brilliance in other areas began to show more.
“He showed signs in BP, a few home runs, some line drives the other way where he started to look like he knew what he was doing,” North said.
That was enough for now-Cardinals President of Baseball Ops John Mozeliak to use his second pick, 57th overall, on Mercado.
Now what looked like a sure thing in high school will be what ultimately helps the Indians most when Mercado likely arrives later this year. As Francona stresses the importance of taking the extra base in the majors, North pinpointed Mercado’s ability to glide from first to third as the greatest thing from his prep days.
What was going on behind the scenes will be the why, when that day finally comes.
Make no doubt, that even when he becomes a big leaguer, Mercado will still re-appear at Permuy Park, and he will be welcomed each time.
“He’ll always be a part of the Gaither family,” North said. “Not because of me, because that’s just who he is.”
It just so happens that the next time Mercado is at his alma mater, those opposite field line drives might be aimed at a banner that reads “Mercado, 13."