Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

August 12, 1974 Sports Illustrated


August 12, 1974

But baseball's best reliever—and most reluctant hero—seldom waits for long.  Mike Marshall is busily working on his doctorate and a pennant for the Dodgers.

By Ron Fimrite

It is best that Mike Marshall never learn that his peers—if it can be said he has any—tend to think of him as a luxury item.  As an academician and a libertarian, Marshall has little tolerance for those who would confuse a person with a commodity.  The dignity of man is one of his enduring passions, a subject to be taken no more lightly than, say, physiological psychology, his field of scholarship at Michigan State University.

Nevertheless, when Walter Alston was asked last week to describe what the addition of this indefatigable relief pitcher had meant to his team, the Dodger manager said, "Mike Marshall gives us the luxury to do things we could not do before."  He cited as a perfect example the events of that very night when Andy Messersmith, the Los Angeles starter, mysteriously departed a game against San Diego after seven innings of nearly flawless, seven-zip pitching.

Naturally, his replacement was Marshall, making his 70th appearance of the season.  With the bristling efficiency that characterizes his every movement on and off the diamond, Marshall mixed his favorite screwball with a good fastball and a hard slider to retire the next six Padres and preserve the victory.

"Why was Messersmith removed?" Alston was asked.

"We talked it over and decided to rest Andy for the important games coming up with Houston and Cincinnati," he replied.  "And we had a pretty good man out there in the bullpen."

Was Messersmith, whose record is 13-2, miffed at being deprived of both a complete game and a possible shutout?

"So what if I go nine and get a shutout?" he said.  "That's personal baseball, and I don't believe in it.  Besides, Mike had a day off yesterday and we were afraid he'd get rusty."

Two nights later, Marshall relieved starter Al Downing after that worthy walked the first San Diego batter in the seventh inning.  Downing was leading 3-1 despite occasional fits of inaccuracy and seemed to be pitching effectively enough.  No matter.  In came the ubiquitous Marshall for the 71st time.

Did the Padres score another run?  Is a betting man a good credit risk?  Marshall not only shut them out in the remaining three innings, he singled in two of the five runs the Dodgers scored after he appeared on the scene.  But why was Downing taken out of the game so abruptly?

"He kept getting in trouble with his control," said Alston.

"We only had a two-run lead," said Downing, a gracious man.  "And we've got a pretty good man out there in the bullpen."

In both instances, Marshall was a luxury.  He can work so often and with no appreciable diminution of skill that a manager can rest a Messersmith or remove a slightly shaky Downing with no fear of the consequences.  Because of Marshall, Alston carries only nine pitchers on his roster, although he ordinarily prefers 10.  He could just as well limit himself to five—four starters and that "pretty good man out there in the bullpen."

"If he wasn't winning, I might complain about not pitching," said fellow reliever Charles Hough of Marshall.  "What can you do when you're playing behind the best there is?"  Not much.  After relieving Don Sutton last Friday, Marshall had appeared in 73 of the Dodgers' first 109 games, including a record-breaking 13 in succession from June 18 through July 3.

During those thirteen consecutive games, he won six, lost none and saved two.  In one six-game stretch, the Dodgers won five times by one run and Marshall was the winning pitcher in all of those narrow victories.  Dodger pitchers have not had two complete games in a row since mid-May and have had only 26 this year.

Complete games are indeed rare when Marshall is within hailing distance.  Last year, when he was with Montreal, which traded him during the off-season to the Dodgers for Willie Davis, he set a major league record by appearing in 92 games, a total he is certain to exceed this season.  His record is already 11 and 6 and he has 16 saves.  He could become the first pitcher to appear in 100 games in a season and the first reliever to win 20.  He is, as Hough says, "fantastic."

Marshall rejects such hyperbole.  He is able to do what he does, he says, because he has spent 10 years studying both pitching technique and the workings of the human body.  Despite the objections of several major and minor league managers, he developed the screwball to a fine art.

But Marshall is not merely a student of the game.  Sometime this year, he should receive his doctorate in physiology from Michigan State as the result of a five-year program of study that he describes pedantically:  "I am in the College of Education, Department of Physical Education, majoring in exercise physiology with a cognate degree in physiological psychology.  My specialty is child growth and development.  The topic of my dissertation is Classifying Adolescence Males for Motor Proficiency Norms.  No one ever seems to get all that straight."

Marshall insists it is scholarship, not unusual physical prowess that is the source of his durability.  He can pitch more often than anyone else because he knows more about his body.  He trains his own way, stubbornly ignoring baseball conditioning rules that were developed, if that is the word for it, in the days of the brothers Delahanty.

"He's inventive in a game that hasn't had much inventiveness in the last 103 years," says Steve Garvey, the Dodgers' first baseman who was a student of Marshall's in a kinesiology class at MSU.

"Mike believes in long-distance running, not sprints, in weight work and in a lot of muscle stretching," says Messersmith.  "He knows more about what goes into the pitching motion than anybody in the world.  He has lectured to me a lot about the functions of the body."

Marshall's 31-year-old body is unremarkable.  He is short for a pitcher—only 5'10"—and he weighs 180 pounds.  He has big shoulders and a weight-lifter's arms, but he bulges at the middle.  He has long sideburns and an impressive mustache, but his curly brown hair has thinned on top.  Standing one sunny day last week in the doorway of the Lanai Coffee Shop at San Diego's Town & Country Hotel pensively chewing on a toothpick, he could have passed for a life-insurance salesman.

What is remarkable about Marshall is his mind.  Baseball may never have known one quite like it. "I am an educator," he explained from the improbable vantage point of the Dodgers' dugout.  His teammates busied themselves with batting practice and shagging fly balls, activities that seemed increasingly trivial as Marshall ventured random opinions on the human condition.

"Baseball is a hobby I pursue.  Other than the actual playing of the game, I find the whole of professional baseball extremely boring and mind-dulling.  Oh, certainly, there are some fellows here I enjoy, but it's not the same as in the academic community.  Fortunately, I'm able to see some of my friends in education during the summer.  They recharge me."

Marshall's idea of a night on the town scarcely coincides with the notions of the majority of his associates on the diamond.  "I don't drink or smoke, so that lets me out of a lot," he says.  "And I'm not interested in the idle chatter of groupies.  I mean groupies of all ages, sizes and genders, not just the young females, but anyone who tries to sap some self-respect out of having us in his proximity."

On the road, Marshall lets his teammates revel in the presence of "live one."  He prefers the company of corpes."  During a recent trip, Messersmith accompanied Marshall to the Michigan State anatomy laboratory, where the scholar showed his fellow pitcher what it means to have a really dead arm.

"I spent a couple of hours in the lab - cadavers, the whole bit," recalls Messersmith, who didn't take physiology during his undergraduate days at the University of California.  It was one of the most amazing and enjoyable things I've ever done.  What impressed me was that the whole trip was devoted to me."

"Mike is a very blunt and honest person.  Some people can't handle that.  I know a lot of people think he's some kind of bad guy because he doesn't give autographs or talk to fans.  Really, he's a considerate and warm person."

Autograph seekers might incline more toward the bad dude conclusion.  Once, refusing autographs to a group of youngsters, Marshall explained that he would willingly sign if the boys could show him that their autograph books also contained the signatures of their teachers and others who "were really meaningful in their lives."  The kids were understandably stunned by such a preposterous noticn, and since none could produce the requisite signatures, Marshall strolled pedagogically past them.

"As an athlete, I am no one to be idolized," he explained in the dugout, urging teammate Jim Wynn's young son to take his bat and ball farther away.  I will not perpetuate that hoax.  They say I don't like kids.  I think that refusing to sign autographs, I am giving the strongest demonstration that I really do like them.  I am looking beyond mere expediency to what is truly valuable in their lives." All around him in the ball park, Marshall sees evidence of distorted values.  He thinks that the fan who enthusiastically cheer his every appearance are probably doing so for all the wrong reasons.  They should applaud his performance, not his person.  And the fans foolish enough to approach this very private person in public had best be prepared for a cold pitching shoulder.

"Just watching me perform does not give someone the right to steal my time off the field and thrust himself upon me," Marshall says.  "To maintain that I have a responsibility to the fans is absurd.  In my view, the fans either likes the quality of my craft or not.  Either way, he has no right to impose on my rights of privacy.  A lot of people get upset because I won't talk to them in a public place where I'm eating.  That doesn't bother me at all.  I feel sorry for someone so shallow.  Actually, if a person walks away from me saying, "Those damn professional athletes, I feel I've succeeded in convincing him that the professional athlete is just not important."

The rabid, dog-loyal fan taht team owners and most athletes feed off is to Marshall's a woefully misguided, psooibly even dangerous person.

"The fan should enjpy the high skill level of the performance and not build anything more into it than that.  For a fan to feel momentary elation or depression is a complete misapplication of values.  He should enjoy the quality of performances, not the result.  Our whole society is deluged with the concept of winning is all that's important.  That is bull.  All that's important is that the individual does the best he can.  Victory does not elate me, nor does defeat depress me.  The only victory for me is in the quality of the competition, not the final score."

Marshall pounded his glove.  He was anxious to take a pregame turn at shortstop, a position he played with indifferent skill in the minor leagues.  For a man so ferociously cerebral, he seems uncomfortable in repose.  On the field before a game, he is everywhere, exercising in the outfield, playing all the infield positions, his tireless arm constantly in motion.  It was time to get on with the day's workout, yet he felt compelled to assail one more philosophy he considers fraudulent.

Our Constitution is based on the integrity of the individual, but you hear coaches and managers preach that no individual should be more important than the team.  Why, every individual is more important than the team.  Every individual has an integrity taht cannot be stolen by a team or any majority.  What was it that Franklin said?" He could not think of it.  Maybe it was:  "They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."  Anyway, Marshall was off and running, looking strangely like a small boy at play.

That night he would jog in from the bullpen, carefully tamp down the mound, rescue Downing and, as a true team player, help achieve victory with his bat.  Afterward, he would dress quickly, steer clear of journalists imposing on his privacy and retreat out of sight.

Marshall has a wife and three daughters, but he refuses to discuss anything so private as family life.  He is equally reluctant to reveal what plans he might have after he achieves his doctorate.  He has said before that he is fully prepared to abandon the ball park for the groves of academe, although he cannot expect an educational institution, even one as affluent as Michigan State, to reward him with a salary comparable to the $87,500 the Dodgers reportedly pay him.  The inordinate amounts paid big leaguers is merely an added incongruity in the life of an intellectual who plays a child's game so well that he keeps winning, even while deploring the concept of victory.

Messersmith, also a speedy dresser, was happy with the victory that kept the Dodgers 5½ games ahead of the Reds, their opponents in a key three-game series this week.  "I know what Mike says about winning, and how performance is all that really matters," he said.  "But there's one thing:  his kind of performance leads to winning."

Happy Pitching Everybody

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