Last Sunday evening, the Merson grandkids filed into their grandparents' house in Elkridge after playing sports most of the day. Though they were still lively and spirited, their dad who accompanied them, Johnny Merson, was not quite so energetic. As president of the Elkridge Youth Organization (EYO), the 39-year-old had just spent 23 hours of his weekend working with the sports teams of EYO.
Johnny's been involved with EYO since he was a child, first as a player and then as a coach and board member of the nonprofit organization which began in 1957. His love of sports comes naturally, an outcropping of his father and grandfather's passion.
His grandfather, Jack Merson, was a major leaguer in the early 1950s, playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Boston Red Sox, plus throughout the country for minor league teams.
Jack's son, John Merson, now in his sixties, said the family moved quite a bit following his dad's career. "I was in three elementary schools [one] year—Elkridge and then two in California when my dad played for teams out there," he said, sitting in his Bonnie View Lane home with his son and granchildren.
Sometimes, John got to go out on the field when the team practiced. He recalled the first time he went into the clubhouse with his dad: "I can still remember that smell after all these years. It was the smell of leather, ointment and sweat," he said. "It was the smell of sports."
John tried to get into the game whenever he could. "When we were little, my mother could never find us; we played ball by Race Road, in Dorsey, and I'd ride my bike to Savage to play," said John, who had a long career as a Baltimore County fireman and volunteer for the Elkridge fire department, all the while coaching and umpiring for EYO teams.
He began playing ball with his own children, Johnnie and Julie, when they were very young. The kids joined EYO, a non-government, all-volunteer organization created and maintained by the community. "I think we and Savage have the last community-run youth sports organization around," said Johnny.
Julie said her grandfather came to all of her and her brother Johnny's EYO games. "I remember him yelling to me out in the field: "Get in front of the ball Julie, in front of the ball!'" she recalled.
Now she cheers on her 5-year-old son Ryan Merson, who just finished up his T-ball season with EYO.
Johnny's children also have a particular affinity for bats, balls and a baseball diamond. Daughter Courtney, 14, plays for the Maryland Chill, a fast-pitch travel team; son Johnny, 12, plays Elkridge Hurricane ball; and Becky, 9, plays for an EYO softball travel team.
Johnny said he sees sports as character-building. "There are a lot of life lessons in sports. You have to play with team members like you do with co-workers," said Johnny. "You may have a boss you don't agree with just like the coach. And even if you try hard, you sometimes fail, but as long as you give your best, that's all you can do."
Relatively few kids get sports scholarships and even fewer become professional ball players, he said. "It's not all about that," said Johnny. "It's about the memories too. I want my kids to make friends and have some good memories from playing sports."
One of the most poignant memories John Merson has of EYO sports is of a boy who didn't want anything to do with playing ball. His father was a policeman who had just been killed. The boy, who had played lots of ball with his dad, had little interest in ball playing that year. But the coaches worked with him for weeks, until by the end of the season he was discovering the thrill of connecting bat to ball, and the camaraderie of being a member of a team.
"That was a miracle," said John Merson. "When I saw him finally out there playing, I cried. I actually cried."