'Erik the Peanut Guy' finds perfect balance between work, play

July 29, 2009 

I may never meet anybody as good at their job as Erik Mertens.

In all probability, neither will you.

That’s not an insult to anybody. If you’ve ever seen Mertens in action at Gesa Stadium, where he’s affectionately known as “Erik the Peanut Guy”, you know exactly what I mean.

And before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to make sure I plug his band’s upcoming concert — they’re called Johannin — following the Tri-City Dust Devils game on Friday, July 31 at Gesa Stadium. I’ve heard a few songs on the band’s myspace page (www.myspace.com/johanninmusic), and let me tell you — if you love Erik’s energy on the field, you’re going to love him on stage.

More on the band later. (But check out their website at www.johannin.com)

Mertens, a Kennewick High graduate, has become a crowd favorite because of his playful banter with fans and his hilarious between-innings execution of the Dust Devils on-field promotions. Mertens takes great care to learn each participant’s name and offers encouragement to every child along the way. Each event usually has just one winner, but as long as Mertens is on the field, there are no losers.

“I love making people feel good,” said Mertens, who graduated summa cum laude with a B.A in applied communications from Gonzaga in 2005. “Part of it is a God-given talent, but I find myself borrowing from (David) Letterman, Conan (O’Brien) and Steven Colbert. I love how they have a gift of making me feel good. It’s a good way to end the day.”

He seems to have a natural talent, too, for working with children. He hones those skills working part-time as a teacher's assistant at a Catholic elementary school in Portland. If you think Mertens is fun to watch at a Dust Devils game, he can get just as goofy with his students.

“If a kid starts randomly dancing, some teachers will say, ‘Hey, calm down,’ ” he said. “I’ll just start dancing with them.”

The first time you see him at a Dust Devils game, this much is obvious — Mertens loves life and he loves baseball. He also proudly wears his faith on his sleeve. The former youth minister sees minor league baseball as a perfect confluence of one of the most basic Christian principles.

“What I love is that it connects a community,” he said. “When you come out to Gesa, you see teachers, janitors, firefighters and doctors. There’s a guy from Boardman who makes a two-hour round trip for every game. It brings our region together. That’s why I love working here. It gives us a chance to be in relation with each other, which is what it’s all about.”

I grew up in a Christian family myself, and I have always wondered what heaven might be like. If you ever saw the movie ‘Field of Dreams’, you’ll remember the scene where Shoeless Joe Jackson asks Ray Kinsella, ‘Is this Heaven?’. And Kinsella responds, ‘No, it’s Iowa.’ ”

Even before that movie hit the theaters, I had wondered about the possibility of baseball in heaven. So I posed the question to Erik.

“I went to a conference where one of the speakers said, ‘Heaven had better be better than anything I can come up with,’ ” Mertens said. “When I see a baseball diamond and smell barbecue in the air, I think, ‘What can heaven be other than this?’

“What I pray and I think I know about heaven, even though we can’t know for sure, is that all the good things that we experience will be there. But I think it will be a lot more than we can imagine.”

One thing Erik has rediscovered in the last two years is his passion for music. He was a freshman at Gonzaga when he and his roommate, Puddy Agans, started a band that played all around the Spokane community for the next four years. But when Mertens and Agans — another Kennewick alumnus — graduated, they broke up the band and moved on to different paths.

“Puddy became a youth minister in Portland, and I volunteered with Reach Youth Ministries in Yakima. But after two years, I felt like something was missing,” Mertens said. “So I called Puddy up, and one of the other guys from the band was moving down to Portland to join him.

“I packed up my stuff from Spokane, worked a few games in Tri-Cities and moved down to Portland.”

Mertens admits he’s not much of a musician. “I can’t play guitar, but I can sing,” he said. But each member of Johannin has a comfortable niche in the band. Erik is lead vocals, Puddy handles lead guitar and backup vocals. Randy Gearhart plays bass, and Darien ‘Dino’ West is on drums.

As far as the band’s style, Mertens calls it ‘high-energy rock’, but their first CD is mainly acoustic tracks.

“The translation to acoustic is pretty interesting, but it’s funny, so we put some of our funny songs out there,” said Mertens, who can’t wait to bring his music to the place he holds close to his heart. “I’m so thankful and so excited that the Dust Devils invited us to play. These are two huge parts of my life.

“Working with the Dust Devils is my dream job. If I could do this year round for the rest of my life and make enough money to survive, I’d be here. But I’d love to see how far (the band) goes.”

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