R.I.P. to Luis Mercedes, a former Orioles prospect who had a three-year career as an outfielder in the majors. He died on June 30 in his native Dominican Republic after battling kidney problems. He was 51 years old. Mercedes played with the Baltimore Orioles (1991-93) and San Francisco Giants (1993).
Luis Mercedes was born in San Pedro de Macoris on February 15, 1968. He originally signed with the Orioles as a second baseman, but after struggling with the position for a couple of seasons, he moved to the outfield. If his defense was a question mark, his hitting was an exclamation point. In his first season with Rookie-League Bluefield, Mercedes hit .274 with 16 stolen bases. He also scored the winning run in the bottom of the 27th inning against Burlington — one of the longest games in minor-league history.
Mercedes hit .309 for A-Ball Frederick in 1989 and .334 for AA Hagerstown in 1990. He won the league’s batting title in both of those seasons and became the first Orioles minor-leaguer since Mark Corey in 1977-78 to win consecutive batting titles. The only questions for 1991 were “Could he win another batting title in AAA?” and “How long before he makes the majors?”
“Everytime I come to play baseball, I try to do my job to help the team win,” he said in 1991, deflecting questions about a third straight title.
Greg Biagini, Mercedes’ manager in both seasons and his manager in AAA Rochester in 1991, credited Mercedes’ hand-eye coordination for his success. “He’s able to put the bat on the ball, use the whole field. He’s got a short, compact stroke. Put that with his speed and he’ll beat out some hits.”
Mercedes also had the ability to beat out bunts for base hits. The Orioles’ Frank Robinson told him he could boost his batting average if he learned to bunt. Mercedes said he had 20 bunt base hits after working at it.
During this time, Mercedes also played Winter Ball in the Dominican Republic for Las Estrellas and won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1989-90 with a .302 average. He won another batting title in 1991-2 with a .333 average and 18 stolen bases.
The Orioles organization was struggling to acclimate Latin players in the minors, and it affected the development of players like Mercedes and Juan Bell. Mercedes had several suspensions in the minors. One, when he threw his helmet at Syracuse third baseman Tom Quinlan, cost him the rest of his AAA season in late August 1991. He was hitting .334 at the time. That could be chalked up to immaturity, and Mercedes was a competitive player with an occasional short fuse. However, Mercedes was suspended earlier in the season after receiving a paycheck and not understanding that there had been a deduction due to a previous loan. His angry reaction could have been avoided, but there was nobody in Rochester who could communicate with him in Spanish.
Edward Bennett Williams, former Orioles owner, had warned about the “deadly illness” of racism creeping into the organization in November 1987. Today, in 2019, it’s almost unthinkable that an organization wouldn’t have a way to communicate with their Latin players, but it was a different world 30 years ago. Baltimore did start to bring in more multi-lingual personnel to act as tutors — after Mercedes had reached the majors.
“If we would have had this in place when Luis Mercedes came into the organization… I think there’s a good chance their problems could have been avoided,” said Robinson.
Mercedes’ incident with Quinlan didn’t stop the Orioles from giving him a call-up to the majors in September 1991. He hit .204 in 19 games. In his MLB debut, he reached base four times and scored twice as their leadoff hitter. The fans were delighted at his baserunning mantra — run until you score or are thrown out.
“That’s the kind of game I’ve got. In every league, the fans really like how I play,” Mercedes told The Baltimore Sun. “They pay to see you, so you’ve got to play it right.”
Mercedes appeared in 23 games for the Orioles in 1992, with a .140 average, after hitting .313 in Rochester. He lost the International League batting title to JT Snow by .00004. In 1993, Mercedes played in 10 games with the Orioles before being traded to the Giants for pitcher Kevin McGehee. He hit .292 with the Orioles and .160 with the Giants before being sent to AAA Phoenix. Overall, Mercedes appeared in 70 MLB games and had 29 hits for a .190/.296/.242 slash line. He had 6 doubles and a triple, and he also stole one base in the majors.
Mercedes hit .291 for the Phoenix Firebirds in 1993. After spending a year out of baseball in 1994, he played briefly with the Pirates AAA team in Calgary in 1995 before finishing his career in the Mexican League and Dominican League. In seven seasons in the minors, Mercedes hit .312 with 156 stolen bases. He won two batting titles and was a runner-up twice. He served as a hitting coach for the Stars in the Dominican League after his playing career.