Nate Mercado, 35, is one of the established stars of 16-inch softball. He plays shortstop and bats leadoff for one of the sport’s elite teams, the 45’s. Mercado and his teammates are seeking a four-peat of No Gloves championships, having won the last three. Despite all of his softball success, Mercado remains modest and considers it an honor to play alongside some of the sport’s best players.
Mercado discovered softball when he was growing up in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. He started playing on the Shooters when he was 17. His dad, Mannie Mercado, was the shortstop and Nate played the outfield. They played in a league at many North Side parks. He later played with his dad in a senior league that was strictly for fun.
Mercado has never lost his sense of fun on the field, even as the games became more serious. He played on one of the top teams, the Roadrunners, for six or seven years before the 45’s invited him to play.
“It was like joining the Yankees,” Mercado recalled.
The 45’s may have been a dynasty, but they were beginning to show their age. The infielders were 45 and over when the young shortstop took over the position.
As it is in baseball, shortstop is the most demanding position to play in softball. It involves more than just making tough plays.
“The shortstop is the general of the field,” Mercado said. “We talk to the pitcher and help position the infielders and outfielders. I’m expected to be a vocal guy.”
Mercado doesn’t blow his own horn but is justly proud of his team. He attributes their success partly to their ability to recruit younger players.
He recalled a time when softball seemed to be dying of old age.
“A lot of the city leagues folded,” Mercado said. “The game was disappearing. … People were playing video games and going to concerts. They forgot the joy of playing a sport.”
Mercado fortunately has friends who still revel in this joy.
“We brought in our friends and it was fun to see younger guys join the 45’s,” he said.
Among these new recruits, the team has a father-son combination. 56-year-old Israel Sanchez pitches, while his son, Anthony, patrols the outfield.
The elder Sanchez, who was already a 16-inch Softball Hall of Fame first baseman, also manages the team. He is assisted by the president of the Hall of Fame board, Ron Kubicki, who has retired from coaching but still serves as an organizer.
Kubicki makes all the behind-the-scenes arrangements for the 45’s and does their scorekeeping. He has nothing but praise for Mercado.
“He’s the best player in the game,” Kubicki said. “He has the best attitude and plays softball every day of the week.”
That’s an understatement. Mercado often plays two games a night. He estimates he plays 150 games during the summer and another 150 in the fall. He plays in league games during the week and in tournaments on the weekends.
He even plays on Sundays in a co-ed league with his girlfriend, Kelly Fazio. This is a “fun” league in which the guys play without gloves and the girls wear mitts.
“The girls take it more seriously than the guys,” Mercado said, noting that Fazio is a former college athlete.
Mercado sees similarities between the world of softball and college.
“Sixteen is like a fraternity,” Mercado said. “I’ve met some of the best people in my life. I’ve made some life-long friends.”
Among these are his teammates on the 45’s. “I love the camaraderie on the team. We’ve got great chemistry. We don’t have any ‘I’ guys.”
Mercado takes pride in not missing games and loves competing in the No Gloves tournament in Forest Park.
“It’s considered the premier tournament,” Mercado said. “There are only 24 teams invited. There’s a big aura to the tournament. There are big crowds all weekend. It has the best fields in 16-inch softball. The grounds crew keeps them immaculate. They groom the fields and redraw the lines before every game.”
The Bud 45’s first won the No Gloves in 1996 and haven’t looked back. As the Miller 45’s, they dominated the decade from 2001 to 2009. Now, they are the Tito’s 45’s and their success continues. They won the Forest Park League this year and have lost only five games all season. Mercado, though, does not consider the 45’s to be prohibitive favorites.
They lost key players in left field and short center, and winning the No Gloves is always the ultimate challenge. In past tournaments, the 45’s have remained in the winner’s bracket, which required them to win six games to take the championship.
But as Mercado noted, “One bad game can change your whole tournament. If you lose your first game, you have to win nine games in the loser’s bracket and beat the top team in the winner’s bracket twice. It’s exhausting. You have to play seven games in one day on Sunday.”
It’s all worth it, though, because the trophy goes on display at the Hall of Fame. Mercado himself might someday have a plaque in the Hall of Fame, but he’s not thinking about that now. He’s just enjoying the journey.
“With no injuries, I hope to play until I’m 45,” he said.
There must be something special about that number.