ITHACA, NY -- Gil Merod loves baseball, and it's a good thing...
The 2019 Ithaca High graduate and starting catcher for the Ithaca College Bombers is now playing for the Elmira Pioneers (of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League), and when asked how busy he will be over the next few weeks, Gil answered, “We will play 50 games over the next two months, and we have five exhibition games scheduled on our 'off days.'” In other words, there are no “off days.”
I wrote about Merod a few weeks ago, as I love it when local kids make collegiate rosters, and I love it even more when I can go to games and see fans and parents I have seen at the same kids' games for years. Like most baseball-obsessed kids that are given the opportunity, Merod started in T-Ball (he played one game), moved up through Kiwanis, Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, local, regional and national travel ball, and he has seen some excellent coaching along the way.
At 14, he played for the Cayuga Lakers, and was mentored by Ryan Stevens, who was at one point the youngest coach in professional baseball (in an Independent League in Texas), and has since taken over the collegiate programs at TC3 and Wells College.
At 16, Merod was coached by his dad, Jim (playing for the RBI Raptors) and while a collegiate coaching change might be stressful for an incoming freshman, the change at I.C. did not cause Merod any stress whatsoever.
“I was recruited by George Valesente, but when I started, David Valesente had taken over,” Merod explained, adding he was fine with that because “I had taken a lot of catching lessons from Dave” (who was a Division I and Minor League catcher). Merod added that he loves the “Old School/New School balance the Valesentes bring to the program (George is still around as an assistant, but is happy to let Dave run the show).
Merod and I spoke at 10 p.m. on Sunday, after he had just returned from a road game in Geneva. I asked him if Ithaca College was always his preferred landing spot, and he said, “From the start, I wanted to play at I.C., because my mom works there. I knew they had a great baseball program, and I thought it would be a struggle to be able to play at that level.”
That uncertainty lifted to an extent when Merod played for the Scranton-based East Coast Sandhogs, a national travel team. Many pro scouts and high-level college recruiters showed up at those games, and I asked Merod if he felt any added pressure as a result. He said, “It definitely could be nerve-wracking, but to be honest, I mostly didn't know they were there. There were guys from UConn, Memphis, University of Tennessee looking at some of my teammates, and I just played hard every day, and I got looks, some offers and a lot of exposure.”
The Pioneers are 10 games into that demanding schedule, and Merod knows what he wants to get out of the experience. “The biggest thing for me personally,” he offered, “is getting comfortable playing with guys from so many different schools, people I don't know, catching guys I have never caught. (One pitcher, Gil pointed out, is a D-I guy bringing it at around 94 mph.) While Merod is learning a lot from playing with new teammates, he is also pleased that Bomber teammate Nate Scott is also on the roster.
He continued, “Skill-wise, my goal is to work on framing and blocking, and to increase my confidence and understanding of the game.” He added, “It's also different in that we used wood bats, and the priorities can seem flip/flopped.” Asked to clarify, he said, “In college, the focus is on the team, and winning, and here it can seem like the focus is on stats.”
Ten games in, Merod is happy with the Pioneers current two-catcher rotation. He will gladly adjust should they bring in a third, and he said, “Having a third catcher would make it easier on my body, but I do prefer catching every other game.”
I brought up what a thrill it has been to watch former Bomber Tim Locastro make it to the Majors and play like he belongs there, and Merod said, “Yeah... it's amazing. It's a once-in-a-lifetime story...” He paused and added, “I'd like to be that next story.”
For scheduling and other info, visit www.theelmirapioneers.com