A League Of His Own

Former Falcon Jackson Merrill Makes History With Padres


When professional baseball trainer Juan Palacios started working with Jackson Merrill after Jackson’s junior year of high school in 2020, Palacios was stunned.

“I told Jackson’s dad, ‘Jackson has the hands of Francisco Lindor and the power swing of Carlos Correa,’” Palacios said. “I told him, ‘I think we have a first-rounder here.’”

Palacios would know. He coached both Lindor and Correa, who have been selected to a combined six Major League Baseball All-Star games.

Not only was Jackson a first-round pick — selected No. 27 overall by the San Diego Padres in the 2021 MLB draft — but the 20-year-old made history this March as only the third player since 1965 to start in center field on opening day before the age of 21, joining Ken Griffey Jr. and Andruw Jones. Jackson turns 21 on April 19.

Jackson earned the spot out of spring training after moving from shortstop to center field and batting over .300 while showcasing his powerful left-handed swing. The ascension was surprising because of Jackson’s age and because he had not played in a Triple-A league and logged only 187 Double-A at-bats, hitting .273 with five home runs and 31 RBIs last season after being promoted from High-A.

So far, he has demonstrated that the moment is not too big for him. Through the Padres’ first 12 games, Jackson batted .324 with one home run, two RBIs and four walks.

Fans have appreciated Jackon’s energetic style and he has noticed their passion from the stands.

“I feel like you got to come to the field and be the same person every day,” Jackson told 97.3 The Fan. “The fans as well. Come to the stadium and be the same fans every day. Be loud, be energetic and be here for us because we’re here for them.”

In an interview with 97.3 The Fan, Padres manager Mike Shildt called Jackson “a special young man.”

“He continues to have that hunger to continue to improve and he’s clearly got talent, but he also uses every day and other people’s experiences to grow from, and he’s ready for the opportunity,” Shildt said.

To the family and mentors who have been part of Jackson’s journey, there is no doubt that he is ready for the opportunity.

A New Gear

Jackson’s parents are Joshua and Jennie Merrill, elementary school teachers who encouraged but never forced Jackson’s interest in baseball. As a young player, Jackson was coached by Joshua to have productive at-bats.

“First, don’t take a strike looking,” Joshua instructed Jackson. “Anything close, foul it off until you get a good pitch or make him throw it off the plate.”

Jackson also learned important lessons from his brother, Josh, who never let Jackson win a competition and always challenged him when they were growing up.

At the end of his freshman year at Severna Park High School, Jackson was 5-foot-9, 146 pounds. To better prepare for the physical rigors of baseball, Jackson started working with HappyLee Fitness owner Chuck Hall.

“We knew we had to increase his protein intake and lifting,” Hall said.

Hall also worked with Jackson to improve speed and explosion. Jackson did broad jumps, single-leg jumps, acceleration-deceleration drills, and cone and ladder drills.

“Shortstop is a flat-footed position, so they’re on their toes and all of a sudden a ball is hit 105 miles per hour and they have to explode to that ball,” Hall said.

The hardest exercise, though, was finishing workouts by running 20 hills at Bronco Field, the turf field at Kinder Farm Park.

“Running hills creates power and explosion because you have to lift your knees up, drive your legs up and you have to extend,” Hall said.

By senior year, Jackson was 6-foot-2 and about 190 pounds. While he worked with Hall on his power, agility and nutrition, Palacios coached Jackson on his hitting and fielding.

“He wanted to be a pro player and it’s an eight- to 10-hour day,” Palacios said. “He had no problem with that, and the work ethic took him to the next level.”

His work ethic was undeniable. Scouts started attending Falcons baseball games, leaving impressed by his skills and intangibles.

Severna Park High School varsity baseball assistant coach Bob Felts called Jackson a sponge, always soaking up information from head coach Eric Milton, who had an 11-year major league career.

“His questions were mainly about strategic at-bats — what a batter is thinking at 0-2 (in the count) and how is that different from 1-1? Should the batter be guessing what pitch is coming?” Felts said. “All the kids on the bench are talking about their girlfriends and Jackson is asking, ‘Do you want the infield in? Why are you doing this?’ If you watched spring training this year, he was always standing next to Mike Shildt.”

Jackson belted a grand slam in a state semifinal playoff game against Laurel to help Severna Park reach the state championship during his senior season. It was not a storybook ending, as the Falcons lost 5-4 in extra innings to Sherwood.

After being drafted by the Padres, Jackson carried over that knowledge and ability as he began his professional career in the Arizona Fall League.

“I couldn’t believe how much spin he had, so when he was hitting the ball to the opposite field, how much it carried,” Felts said. “Against Laurel, he’s hitting pitches that are 58 to 65 miles per hour, and months later, he’s hitting 95 just like he was hitting that 65. It’s hard to explain.”

Wendell Wright saw that same ability when he coached Jackson during summer baseball for the 5 Star Carolina and 5 Star National teams. The best thing Wright did for Jackson was give him praise and reassurance.

Wright recalled one trip when Jackson traveled out of state for a tournament and his team did not make the bracket.

“Another player said, ‘Why aren’t you heading home?’ because he had a long drive,” Wright said. “Jackson said, ‘No, I love to play.’ He just loves baseball. He never had a good excuse to not play.”

Jackson is also an all-star person, according to his coaches and family. Last Christmas, he visited Jennie’s third-grade class at Severna Park Elementary and read to students.

He flew from Arizona to Maryland last fall to attend the Severna Park Athletic Boosters Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Felts. But long before that, Felts saw Jackson’s generosity when Jackson signed baseballs for kids and when he volunteered with his team at Chrysalis House, a Crownsville facility that provides substance use and mental health treatment services for women.

“We used to do community service at Chrysalis House, cutting bushes and mulching,” Felts said. “Jackson was doing all the mulching and getting the weeds while other kids were goofing off.”

There’s nothing goofy about Jackson’s rise to the major leagues.

Becoming A Star

Jackson’s hot start might catch many people off guard but not his coaches.

“The maturation process he has made in three years has been astounding but not surprising,” Wright said. “Athletics breeds competitiveness. Everyone loves to see the results, but you have to love the process to get to the level Jackson is at.”

Jackson enjoys the grind. One testament to that is his offseason training. From November to January, he was in Maryland working with Hall and with Palacios. Leading up to this season, he was about 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, Hall said.

In a story written by Dennis Lin for The Athletic in March, Padres hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said he likes everything about Jackson’s ability to hit the ball to all fields and to stay up the middle of the field.

“We would like him to, at times, get the head (of the bat barrel) out to the pull side,” Lin said. “But hey, one thing you cannot teach is staying in the big part of the field. I think eventually he will learn who’s pitching and he will take his chances middle-in and get the head out. But right now, it works.”

Not only has Jackson been one of his team’s most consistent hitters so far, he also has played with confidence that he belongs in the major leagues.

“He has a fine line he walks,” Jennie said. “He’s not cocky; he’s confident.”

He knows his promotion to the major leagues is only the beginning.

“At his level, every major league team has five minor league teams,” Hall said. “Every day, you have to train like there’s a whole army of people coming to take your job. You never want to be content. I call it destination disease. If you think you’ve arrived, you’re done.”

Joshua and Jennie traveled to San Diego to witness Jackson’s first home series with the Padres in March. Jackson will return to the East Coast from July 23-28 for three games against the Nationals followed by three games against the Orioles. Joshua and Jennie have heard from many family members and friends who are getting their tickets early. People all over Severna Park have reached out to commend Merrill.

“You can’t ask for much more than that support,” Joshua said. “People say congratulations and want to support him. It’s a good small-hometown feeling.”

Seeing the magnitude of the support and size of the crowd is new to the Merrills, making the experience surreal, but one aspect is not new: Jackson is on a field, where he is meant to be.

“He never blinked an eye,” Jennie said. “He goes right out and wants to win. He’s doing what he loves every day.


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