It's a simple proposition, says Bob Mericle, owner of Bob's Parking, along Interstate-44 in Strafford. Secure parking at a low price for over-the-road truckers. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

First, there was Bob’s Storage. It’s in Nixa.

Then, a few years later, there was Bob’s Parking. It’s along Interstate-44 in Strafford, just west of the Wild Animal Safari.

“People tell me, ‘Man, you must have some kind of ego,” says the man, the Bob, himself. “No, I just want to keep it simple.”

Bob Mericle, 73, son of a trucker and a man who once pitched to baseball legend Willie Mays, thought he had a can’t-miss business idea when he bought an empty 15 acres on the south side of I-44.

Bob Mericle owns Bob’s Parking in Strafford and Bob’s Storage in Nixa and in 1972 once pitched to Willie Mays. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

You’ve probably seen the towering sign along the highway, which says, you guessed it, “Bob’s Parking.”

His plan was to rent spaces to over-the-road truckers at a low price.

Well, his can’t-miss venture almost cost him his life savings.

He opened in late 2019 and, basically, no one came. Few of the 400 spaces were filled.

“I about went broke,” he tells me. “I thought I was going to lose my nest egg. It took me a while to get my head above water.”

Mericle says when COVID-19 hit in 2020, he realized truckers were hurting, too.

So he did something from the heart. After all, he has a special connection with truckers. His father, Ray, for 40 years drove up and down the California coast.

Between ages 11 and 15, Bob would travel with his dad several times during summers. The boy considered it an adventure on wheels.

“I remember how he had two sets of log books — one legal and one illegal,” Mericle says.

(For safety reasons, over-the-road truckers must keep a log of how long they drive before taking a break. The fear is that they might fall asleep at the wheel. These days, electronic devices on rigs monitor when vehicles are moving.)

Mericle decided in 2020 to let the few truckers staying at his lot to stay there for free.

“I didn’t think I would get a lot out of it — but I got a lot of goodwill,” he says.

Might not look like $1.5 million investment

Word of Mericle’s good deed spread among truckers, a close-knit community. Business picked up.

In addition, he says, he and his wife Susie worked at it. They distributed advertising fliers at various truck stops.

“We did everything we could think of,” he says.

All things considered, he says, it’s a simple proposition.

“You get a clean bathroom, a fenced lot with lights and security cameras and I’m told I’m cheaper than other places,” he says.

He charges $10 for 24 hours or $80 a month. It’s $60 monthly for vehicles under 30 feet in length.

Some truckers keep rigs there for repair. Others keep their cars there while on the road.

In addition, people pay to keep RVs and boats at Bob’s Parking.

A husband-and-wife team lives on the premises and manages the lot. Mericle believes the business is now on solid footing.

It might not look like it, he says, but the business is a $1.5 million investment. That figure includes the land purchase.

“It’s a lot more than throwing some gravel out and putting up a fence,” he says.

The parcel — contrary to the Welcome to Webster County sign near the entrance — is actually in Greene County.

“I thought I was in Webster County; it winds up that the sign is in the wrong place,” he says.

Mericle worked with Greene County officials before opening. He had to raise part of the land with fill, he says, to control water run-off.

He chose gravel because paving 15 acres would have cost him $3 million.

For a while, says Bob Mericle, it looked like Bob’s Parking was going to be a bust that cost him his life savings. (Photo by Steve Pokin)

Whatever you do, do not hit Willie Mays

Mericle was born in Richmond, California. He attended the University of Nevada at Las Vegas on a baseball scholarship. He was a pitcher. His degree was in restaurant and hotel management.

While a student, he worked overnight at a Sambo’s restaurant. (The chain has since gone out of business.)

“I worked the third shift at a restaurant on the Las Vegas strip — talk about an education,” he says.

After college, he moved to Rolla to manage a new Sambo’s.

“It was their ‘fraction of the action’ program,” he says.

Once he opened the store, he was paid 20 percent of the profits.

“I came to Missouri with $75 and a broken-down pickup.”

He career-hopped to Waffle House, where he worked for 37 years. At one point he oversaw 300 employees at eight Waffle Houses from Joplin to Rolla, including Springfield.

“With 300 employees you always have headaches,” he says.

He retired in 2017 and after three weeks knew it was a mistake.

“I went crazy,” he says.

So he unretired. He bought two self-storage businesses in Nixa, and Bob’s Storage was born.

It was 1972 when he faced Willie Mays, who was in the twilight of his career.

Mericle had played minor league baseball and in 1972 made it to spring training for the San Francisco Giants. That season would be the final one as a Giant for Mays, now 91.

It was an intra-squad contest. Mericle would later have arm trouble; he never pitched in a Big League game.

“Willie Mays comes up to bat,” Mericle recalls. “My only thought is ‘don’t hit Willie Mays. Do not hit Willie Mays.‘ Because if I hit Willie Mays, they are sending me right back down (to the minor leagues).

“So I threw it right down the middle, and he hit a double.”

To this day, he wonders how a baseball hit that hard ever stayed in the park.

This is Pokin Around column No. 51.

Steve Pokin

Steve Pokin writes the Pokin Around and The Answer Man columns for the Springfield Daily Citizen. He also writes about criminal justice issues. He can be reached at spokin@sgfcitizen.org. His office line is 417-837-3661. More by Steve Pokin