"It's a good problem to have, but sitting around doing nothing is the worst," Mercker said. "I had no true responsibilities. The most responsibility I had was not being late for my tee time. I packed lunches for the kids and drove them to school. It's great stuff. But after 9 a.m., it was, 'Now what?' I had until 3 p.m. when they came home."During this past offseason, Mercker was one of 89 current and former Major League players named in the Mitchell Report on performance-enhancing drugs. The report stated that in October 2002, Mercker purchased one kit of human growth hormone from Mets clubhouse assistant Kirk Radomski for $1,600. Mercker said the allegations were accurate but would not elaborate. How did he feel about the Report? "I don't care," he said succinctly. Does he have any regrets or worry about how he'll be perceived? "No. I can't worry about that," he said. "I'm sure there are a lot of people that didn't like me whether that came out or not." That's not likely inside the Reds clubhouse. Mercker's veteran presence was missed last season by many. Since he's been back, little has changed. He still buries himself in a New York Times crossword daily. He's still a quick-on-his-feet joker who can fire off a one-liner response to somebody in a second. It takes him even less time to zing a young rookie with a light-hearted crack. In a recent game in Dunedin, Fla., vs. the Blue Jays, Mercker saw Canadian first baseman Joey Votto surrounded by Toronto reporters in the Reds clubhouse. "Joey, are you from Dunedin?" Mercker dryly called out, receiving laughs. "Are you talking about your high school stats?" "He's like me where he tries to make it as relaxing as you can," veteran reliever David Weathers said. "It's such a high-pressured job. You have to have guys that can loosen it up. It can't be pins and needles all the time. He's really good on that." Mercker started throwing again in December. Other than playing catch with his daughter, he didn't throw at all last summer. He signed a Minor League deal with the Reds on Feb. 8, just before camp opened. "I was glad he signed here," Weathers said. "Once I knew he was coming back, I was excited. He's one of my better friends in the game. If he's healthy, he can really help us." A non-roster player this spring, Mercker never considered signing with any other team. His home and family are less than two hours from Cincinnati and he's already comfortable with the coaches and trainers. And the club knew what it was getting, too. "Merck was somebody we stayed in touch with since he had the surgery," Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky said. "We welcomed him back with open arms." Mercker is 1-0 with a 6.00 ERA in three innings of Spring Training action. On Tuesday vs. the Astros, he pitched one scoreless inning of relief with one bunt single allowed. Reds manager Dusty Baker, who had Mercker with the Cubs in 2004, believed the year off has helped him. "For strength and refreshing, yeah," Baker said. "His arm looks stronger. He's throwing the ball harder, [but] also with less command than before. Right now, I'm looking more at arm strength. Command will come." Mercker is a serious contender to make the Reds bullpen out of camp. He is one of several pitchers vying for a spot and among a posse of lefties that include Bill Bray, Mike Stanton and Jon Coutlangus. Passing the halfway point of camp, Mercker can't tell the difference about how his body feels this year compared to past years when he wasn't returning from a long layoff. "You know what? It's been basically the same," Mercker said. "It's not much different than any other spring for me. I think rest is good. People don't realize what you put your arm through when you pitch. Even if you throw five pitches, it's a pretty violent motion on your arm. With the Tommy John, I would have rushed it. That's just my make-up. I probably would have had more setbacks if I tried to come back right away." If Mercker never pitched again after his elbow gave out, he certainly could have lived with it. But being away, twice, keeps him from taking the game for granted. If he felt he could still get people out, he had no choice but to give it another shot. "I missed it. If I had no family, I'd have gone nuts," Mercker said. "I'd turn a game on and watch. You wonder to yourself, 'Can I still do that? Can I physically do it?' The competition, you miss that. You compete by playing golf or basketball but it's not the big leagues. There's no way to replace that. You don't realize how cool of a job it is until you step away for a year. You appreciate it a lot more. You don't think you can appreciate it more, but you do once you step away and watch from the outside." If all goes according to plan and he makes the team, that won't be a problem this year. Mercker will be watching the Reds from the bullpen, not from home. And retirement will be another year away, if it ever comes.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.