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YANKEES' MANAGER A DOWN-HOME GUY

YANKEES' MANAGER A DOWN-HOME GUY

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The way New York Yankees' Manager Stump Merrill celebrated the opportunity of his life - the reward of his life - was as Carl Merrill of Topsham, Maine.

``My wife calls me Carl,' he said. ``She calls me Stump only when she's mad at me.' He is a Down East guy; a down-home guy.A number of times in their 20 years together she's shed tears for him the way wives try to absorb the pain of their men.

Two weeks ago he was in the manager's office when Steinbrenner's phone call came. The organization was in it's last throes of Steinbrenner's reign, and he offered Merrill a two-year extension. Merrill's never had a two-year contract to do anything before. In this organization, it was 14 years of one-year contracts, essentially all in the minors.

``This has always been a goal,' Merrill, 46, reflected. ``The thing is, for a long time I wondered if it was a reachable goal. Was I chasing a shooting star? Was it something that might never exist for me?'

The job really wasn't offered to Merrill, it was bestowed on him the way a dying king might dub a knight.

Carole Merrill was sitting in the stands behind the plate when the message went up on the scoreboard. She prefers sitting there unidentified to sitting in the manager's box seats.

In the era of million-dollar marginal players, Merrill cleared the snow at his home on the coast of Maine. In a fit of extravagance, he bought a snowblower. In the offseasons, he drove a schoolbus in the snow, did substitute teaching, was an assistant football coach at the University of Maine and refereed college basketball for as much as $300 a game. One spring in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he tutored Catfish Hunter's son in math.

He has a master's degree in physical education. In the baseball business, there were some steps backward. In 1986 and '87 he was a big-league coach. In 1988 he managed Double A and in '89 was back in Class-A ball. ``I went backwards in the organization,' he said. ``I thought about a few things.'

Through those years he's managed to see that his two daughters, Leslie and Carin, stayed in the same school system. Stability in an un-stable occupation was important. Most of the time he spent summers alone. He's been living at Howard Johnson's in Englewood, N.J., wife and daughters visiting on home-stands.

``At times my wife thought I was crazy,' Merrill said. ``At times we thought it was time to put our college educations to use in other ways; something that might create some stability. Maybe as a college baseball coach.'

But she carried on. She or the girls mowed the lawn in his absences. ``She asked for something for our 20th anniversary, and I said I still had 10 years to go.

``When she cried for me, mostly it was over separation,' he said. ``Really, I'd have to say she was a stronger person than I am. She's carried the brunt of life. She pays the bills. She maintains the property. She handles all the problems. She disciplined the kids, and I wasn't going to change things in three or four months.'

This homestand, Carole and 14-year-old Carin were here. Leslie, 16, was home alone because high-school soccer practice had begun in Topsham. ``Don't you think it didn't make my wife crazy to think her daughter was home alone and driving the car?' The way it was said, it had given him some worries other than his lineup card.

He was a scuffler after six seasons as a catcher, which included all of 11 at-bats with San Diego - one single and one run batted in. It's a general rule of sports psychology that the stars are the most selfish, most goal-directed people, perhaps of necessity. The Stump Merrills see and understand the needs and insecurities of others.

So Stump Merrill raised ballplayers. ``You're everything to those kids,' he said. ``Father, mother, priest, pastor, psychologist. The younger they are, the more they need.'

This organization has always treated young players as if they might contaminate the big club. Jim Leyritz, who played for Merrill at two stops along the way, recalls that when a young prospect got traded out of the system, ``we congratulated him, because he might be going somewhere he'd get a chance.'

And Merrill recalled that he had to take what satisfaction he might from the number of young players he nurtured to play in somebody else's uniforms, just as he was pleased that Hunter's son went to college.

Leyritz was 26 years old, had spent four years in the minors, which made him as much suspect as prospect. Merrill patiently played him. ``I saw him yell at people,' Leyritz said. ``I never saw him go over the edge.'

``You pick and choose your spots,' Merrill said. ``Do it too often and it falls on deaf ears.'

This was his audition. No other way to see it. Merrill arrived June 6. Some players were hurt, and the decision was made to bring up Ley-ritz. Then came Kevin Maas and then Oscar Azocar.

``We reached a point where we had to find out what we had and what we didn't have,' he said. The seasons of patching the illusion of a contender were ended, because there was so little framework to patch. And suddenly, Merrill was managing kids he was familiar with.

``One of the things I notice,' said Andy Hawkins, in his ninth season, ``is he talks to everybody; he makes an effort to be friendly. A lot of guys don't do that.'

In the audition, he had to win some games to get Steinbrenner's attention. He has a 32-40 record, but 22-21 since the All-Star Game. Understandably, he denies managing any differently, but there are bits and pieces of evidence. Now it's his job, and it's his job to develop players.

``If I didn't get the job,' he said, ``I'd have found a way to handle it.'

By the time he and Carole got back to their lodgings for dinner, there was a bottle of champagne - a Steinbrenner trademark - waiting. Something to celebrate the contract and more money than he's ever dealt with.

``We went out for pizza,' Merrill said. ``The champagne is still sitting there. I'm in the bigtime; I still have to be myself.' Yesterday, Carole flew home. ``She can pay the paperboy,' he said.

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