FORT MYERS, Fla. - Mervyl Melendez has spent his last three summers working with, first, 11-year-olds, then 12-year-olds and, this summer, with 13-year-olds. For the past 13 years, he's spent his springs and falls dealing with a much more mature group of ballplayers.
Melendez is here this week as the head coach for MBA Pride Elite, one of 16 teams that played their first-round playoff games Thursday morning at the Perfect Game 13u BCS Finals. MBA Pride Elite, the playoffs' No. 5 seed, topped the 12th-seeded South Florida Orphans, 13-4 in five innings, to move into Thursday afternoon's quarterfinal round.
When Melendez isn't coaching the 13u team from MBA (Melendez Baseball Academy), he has what some might say is a much more important calling, at least in terms of paying the bills. Melendez just completed his first season as the head baseball coach at Alabama State University.
He had spent the 12 previous years as head coach at his alma mater, Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., before becoming the head coach at Alabama State before the 2012 season. He won 379 games in 12 seasons at Bethune and his first Alabama State team finished 20-36.
He founded the MBA about three years ago in Daytona Beach when he was still at Bethune.
"I went from Bethune-Cookman to Alabama State, but I was still working with those kids even though they're farther down south. We just have to travel down there now," Melendez said Thursday morning from Terry Park. "We're just moving on and working with the kids, and they're doing a good job and we're just looking forward to continue to play today and (Friday) and take it one day a time."
It would be easy to assume that a person would have two distinctive coaching styles when it came to dealing with 13-year-olds and players who are generally six to nine years older and competing at the NCAA Division I level. It would be easy to make that assumption but it would also be wrong.
"I coach them exactly the same way," Melendez said. "That's the benefit of being here with MBA because these kids have been together since they were 11 and they have been coached like they are big boys, like they were college players. I tell their parents, 'I'm not going to baby them - we're going to work with tandem relays, we're going work on bunt defense, we're going work on how to do things fundamentally right."
The MBA Pride Elite 13u roster features youngsters from cities that cover a wide swath of Florida, including Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. One roster spot is filled by catcher Mervyl "MJ" Melendez Jr., who now calls Montgomery, Ala., home.
"This is a team that most of the players have been together for three years," Melendez said. "We're trying to get them to the next level; get them into high school baseball and eventually on to college or the pros.
"This Perfect Game event is one of the best - certainly you scout them at a higher age group - but Perfect Game, there's nothing like it and we're honored to be here and we're looking forward to continuing to play."
MBA Pride Elite finished 2-1 in its first three-game round of pool-play with its only loss to playoff No. 1 seed Banditos Black. It beat its next three opponents in the second round of pool play by a combined score of 27-1, and the only game that lasted seven innings was MBA's 2-1 win over Action Baseball Club Green.
Parents, spectators and scouts watching a 13u game will witness all levels of ability and aptitude for the fundamentals, even at an event like the 13u BCS Finals which brought in 20 of the most talented teams from seven states and Puerto Rico. The coaches are constantly coaching, constantly teaching.
"All of these boys are a work in progress," Melendez said. "Even though these boys from MBA have played at a high level - they have played very good competition the last two years - there are still flaws you'll see in their swing, flaws fundamentally on pitching. They're learning how to play the game ... so events like this where you play very good teams will make you do things the right way."
Perfect Game brought the 13u BCS Finals back this summer after a six-year absence, and it's proved to be a popular move. Players, coaches, parents, other family members and fans in general have been enthusiastic and the play has generally been at a very high level.
Melendez, speaking like the college coach that he is, feels it's important for the youngsters to experience a tournament like this as soon as possible.
"Why not get them started early?" he said. "Some of these boys are going into ninth grade right now and they need to be exposed. Perfect Game putting on an event like this is really fitting for these boys because they need to be seen. There are very good teams here - the (East Cobb) Astros, Banditos, Team Florida - all the elite teams in the United States, so why not get them seen early.
"This is a great event and I hope that Perfect Game continues to carry the 13u BCS."
In the next month or so, Melendez will leave the world of 13-year-old ballplayers behind to focus once again on coaching talented Division I players, most of whom enjoyed Perfect Game experiences when they were youngsters. The young prospects that played in the last 13u BCS Finals in 2006 would be 19 today, and it's a certainty quite a few of them are playing at the collegiate level some place today.
For the here and now, however, Melendez remains in that world occupied by 13 year old ballplayers.
"Fundamentally, this team is very sound and we will continue to work with them," he said, smiling. "I'm glad to work with them, I'm having a blast and I wouldn't change it for the world."