(BamaStateSports.com) Friday night was a time for reflection for Alabama State head baseball coach Mervyl Melendez.
The Hornets pulled out a win over Winthrop for their first victory of the season. For the Hornets' fifth-year coach, it was the 500th of his coaching career, making him the third youngest coach ever to hit that milestone.
"I've been very fortunate in my life and I have to thank a lot of people for giving me an opportunity to do what I do," he said. "First and foremost, I think my parents have had the biggest influence in baseball on my career. Professionally, Brian Reese, as my mentor, is the one who had the biggest influence in me being a college coach. And the one that believed in me and gave me the actual job was (athletic director) Lynn Thompson at Bethune-Cookman.
"I have a lot to be thankful for, but those people God put in my path to allow me to do what I do. You never know which way God is going to turn you and which way you're going to go, but fortunately enough He put the right people in front of me for me to do this."
Melendez never thought much about coaching as a youth, but he thought about baseball a lot. He grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico, the same hometown as Major League standout Roberto Clemente, but for him the idols lived much closer. His father Gamaliel had been a baseball player and pointed Mervyl in that direction at an early age.
"My mom (Nellie Nunez) and dad, especially my dad, is an avid baseball fan," he said. "He played baseball, semi-pro in Puerto Rico, so we grew up playing organized baseball -- there was no T-ball or anything like that -- at the age of four. He knew his sons were going to be baseball players. And my mom was my biggest fan. I think they both worked to make our dreams come true. I think they both sacrificed their careers, in a lot of ways, to make sure that their sons were going to do whatever they set out to do."
The baseball talent was enough to earn him a ticket to Bethune-Cookman, where he earned all-conference honors as a junior and senior in 1995-96 while splitting time between third base and relief pitcher. Even then, if he thought about a future in baseball, it would have been as a player, not a coach.
"My last year in college, before I became an assistant coach, I didn't want to coach," he recalled. "I was approached by Coach Reese, telling me, what do you think about staying here and being an assistant coach? I had to think about it because it wasn't in my sight. I didn't want to do that. That's why I have to thank him because he brought it up to me and he brought it up to me in a way that made sense."
He served as an assistant in 1997-99 before the job as head coach was presented to him. Over the next 12 seasons, Melendez would advance to the NCAA regionals 11 times, winning 10 conference titles and compiling a record of 379-320. Along the way, he developed a style of baseball that preached defense and pitching but relied on aggressive base running to generate offense.
"I think you develop your own ideas and your own patterns and your own philosophies of coaching, but I do like the aggressiveness," he noted. "I've taken a lot from different coaches and different programs. It's a good thing philosophies are not copyrighted.
"I have taken some from Andy Lopez when he coached at Florida, I've taken some from Jim Morris at Miami, from (Florida coach) Kevin O'Sullivan. Even when we played Oral Roberts, I got a couple of things, how aggressive they were in the base-running part of it. Once again, my mentor and the one that takes most of the credit in the baseball part of it and how to coach the game of baseball in college is Brian Reese. I think I owe a lot to him. I've mentioned it to him but he doesn't know to what magnitude."
One part of his success which is fairly unique is Melendez's willingness and ability to recruit his native Puerto Rico, a hotbed of untapped collegiate baseball talent.
"It didn't start out that way," he said. "It became that way a little later when we started recruiting the Florida area and we knew the ones we were recruiting against were taking the bulk of our players. I'm proud of that because a lot of those guys don't get the opportunity because a lot of college coaches don't go there to recruit. Now, in hindsight, I'm giving opportunities that may not have had that opportunity. It didn't start like that."
The aggressive offense, combined with a talented defense, has led to success both at Bethune-Cookman and at Alabama State, where he is 122-105 in his fifth season with the Hornets, who return to action Wednesday at Jacksonville State before hosting Jackson State this weekend. In 17 seasons, he has 501 wins for an average of 30 wins a year.
"I never looked at it that way," Melendez said. "To me, the internal pressure of winning was never about wins and losses. It was about doing it the way I want it done, which eventually will translate into wins and losses. I never really thought about how many championships I would win and how many wins I would rack up. What was important to me was to run a good program."
At Alabama State, his 100 wins in 2013-15 marks the best three-year stretch in the history of the program. In 2014, the Hornets were 37-20 with a first-place finish in the Southwestern Conference East Division. The overall wins, conference wins (21) and first-place division finish were all high water marks for the Hornets' baseball program. Along the way, Alabama State has posted wins over programs such as Troy and Auburn and baseball powerhouses like Miami and Cal State-Fullerton, creating an expectation for success that was unprecedented at ASU.
"The honest truth is when you're coming into a new program, you don't know how it's going to work out," Melendez said. "You try to do the best job you can at whatever you know, but you never expect a lot of success because you've got to live day to day and not have those expectations that if we don't win a championship, it's been a failure. We've been able to win, we've been able to beat a lot of opponents that a lot of people here seven or eight years ago didn't think this program could but in the meantime we've graduated a lot of kids.
"You know what I'm most proud of? We had a section here of former players. We never called them, we never told them come to the home opener, but about 10-15 players were here (for Friday's game against Winthrop) that were proud of being a former ASU baseball player. That makes me feel good, that they want to give back and still be part of the program. In that sense, that's why we do what we do."
Youngest to 500 NCAA college baseball wins
1. Keith Guttin, Missouri State, 40 years, 9 months, 18 days, recorded his 500th win on May 17, 1996 vs. Wichita State.
2. Gene Stephenson, Wichita State, 41 years, 5 months, 23 days, recorded his 500th win on Feb. 22, 1987 vs. Kearney State.
3. Mervyl Melendez, Alabama State, 42 years, 22 days, recorded his 500th win on Feb. 26, 2016 vs. Winthrop.