The Gophers baseball team opened the 1994 season with a trip to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech, the nation's No. 1-rated team in preseason polls. They went south again the next week, to play at No. 2 Florida State and No. 11 Miami.
Senior Mark Merila, the Gophers' All-America second baseman then, said: "We went 1-8, and then had our Metrodome tournament, and went 3-0 against Arizona, Arizona State and Ohio State, more power programs. It was tremendous, playing that competition.''
Tough way to start a season for a hitter, though?
Merila smiled and said: "I went 9-for-10 in the tournament and was batting .588 after those 12 games.''
The Gophers had 14 more games before they would host a first Big Ten series vs. Iowa at the old Siebert Field. A doubleheader was scheduled for April 9, and Merila now was struggling along at .488.
And when the season ended, the Gophers were 42-21, had made a stout effort in a six-team regional at Miami, and Merila's batting was resting at .452. That stands as a Gophers' single-season record, but it was a 36-point drop in the final weeks of the schedule.
The second baseman called "Stump,'' by Gophers then and now, did have a solid excuse for that modest slip in average:
He was playing with a brain tumor.
Prior to the Iowa doubleheader, Merila was standing near teammate Mike Oster in the infield and started feeling disoriented. Oster was walking with Merila to the dugout, and then Mark fell to the ground and went into a 45-second seizure.
Ryan Lefebvre, a Gophers teammate for three previous seasons, was there to broadcast the game. Now the TV voice of the Royals, Lefebvre said: "I still remember Oster hollering, 'Help, help. Get help. There's something wrong with Stump.'"
Merila and I were at a game this week at the new Siebert Field, to watch his son Boston and the Gophers vs. South Dakota State. Mark had what was wrong then — and, unfortunately, again — written down:
Astrocytoma brain tumor.
Merila missed nine games after his 1994 seizure, then resumed playing, and hitting from both sides of the plate. "The doctors knew the tumor was in there, at the top of my brain, but they didn't know how it was going to be treated," he said. "So, I took some seizure medication and kept playing.'
He was drafted in the 33rd round by San Diego in June. "I would've been the fifth or sixth — Mark Loretta was at Northwestern, also a senior and we were very similar players — and he was taken there. But the word was out on my health issue," Merila said.
As it turned out, Mark couldn't have wound up with a better organization than San Diego. He played two seasons in the low minors, and planned to keep at it, when the Padres came to him late in the 1995 season.
"They didn't think I should keep playing, but they had a job for me in the major leagues: bullpen catcher," Merila said. "Most teams didn't travel bullpen catchers then, but they did that for me.
"They saved my life, basically."
Merila and Wendy Smith, his college girlfriend, were married and had three kids in San Diego: daughter Brooke and sons Boston and Brody.
The tumor came back in 2005 — in even more dramatic fashion than it did when making its first entrance at Siebert Field.
"I was riding the subway to Shea Stadium with about 10 Padres and collapsed in the aisle," Merila said. "They stopped the train for a long time. Basically, I shut down half of the New York subway system."
Treatments resumed. "Brooke is the take-charge person," he said. "She was a reliable babysitter at about age 7 for her two active brothers when Wendy was taking me to treatments."
The Merilas were divorced in 2012. Mark was given a job as a Padres scout working out of the Twin Cities.
Boston is a junior, switch hitter and is batting .313, which is second on this Gophers team of limited offense. He can play second base or the outfield, although he's getting most of his duty as the designated hitter batting second.
Watched much film or video of Dad as a hitter? "Believe or not, I've never seen any," Boston said. "Those batting averages, though … they're amazing. I'm really proud of him, all he's been through, and he just keeps going forward."
Mark's right hand became mostly dysfunctional a number of years ago. "My dad, Joe, always told me when I was a kid to practice doing things with my left hand, just in case,'' Merila said. "Thanks to him, and God, I'd say, I can write with my left hand and do other things."
Five years ago, a tumor showed up in his left thigh. Much of his thigh was removed, and there's a rod in there that makes it his strongest leg when walking.
And early last month, when Merila went in for his every-six-month medical test, the brain tumor was back for a third time. He's being treated by Mayo Clinic in trying for another win over the astrocytoma brain tumor.
"When it happened in 2005, I was told I probably had three months to live," Merila said. "Here I am 17 or 18 years later, so we'll try to beat it again."
Meantime, the Gophers were batting around for eight runs in the first inning vs. the Jackrabbits. Boston had a single earlier and was back at the plate.
"He's never seen video of you hitting, Boston told me," I said.
The man called Stump said, "Really? There should be some somewhere, shouldn't there?"
Big Ten Player of Year, 1994. Single season Gophers record: .452. Career Gophers record: .393 (and also walks — 187). Average of .460 for Team USA when it played its seven-game series vs. Cuban All-Stars in 1993.
There has to be some video evidence of the 5-8 Stump, slashing baseballs here and there, breaking Paul Molitor's college records, doesn't there?