Dr. Mike Marshall's Pitching Coach Services

July 02, 1979 Sports Illustrated

July 02, 1979

The latest word out of the Twin Cities is that Mike Marshall, once the brooding intellectual of the bullpen, has undergone a dramatic personality transformation, has cast off, as it were, his mantle of Kierkegaardian gloom and donned the motley of a candidate for local office in Rotary International.

Indeed, a scene in the Minnesota Twins clubhouse following a game with Kansas City last month in which Marshall, brought in to protect a 3-2 Twins lead in the seventh inning, had given up the tying run in the eighth and the winning run in the ninth, would suggest that reports of this astonishing metamorphosis are not unfounded.

Marshall stood before his locker sipping from a large cup of milk as members of the press encircled him.  Where, he was asked, had he gone wrong?  "I deserved what I got," he said matter-of-factly.  "I underestimated a major league baseball player."

He made reference here to Royal Outfielder Willie Wilson, whose leadoff triple in the ninth had led to Marshall's undoing.  "I threw him a fastball down the middle," Marshall continued, warming to the unpleasant subject.  "It was as if I said, 'Here, hit it,' and he did."  Marshall smiled.

Now that he is showing it more often, it can be seen that he has an engaging smile that shines brightly beneath the ribbon of hair—sideburns curving into mustache—that bisects his round face.  He elaborated on his own folly:  "I got him out too easily the first time [Wilson had struck out on three pitches in the seventh], and I didn't learn anything from him.  Now I know he is a bona fide major league hitter who will make a few people in this league respect him."

The reporters moved away from him, apparently satisfied with this analysis from the busiest and brainiest relief pitcher in baseball.  Marshall's face took on a look of alarm.  "Is that all?" he inquired anxiously.  "Where's the innuendo?  Where's the double-edged question that can get me either way?"  Then he laughed.

So it was all there:  civility, humility, a generous tribute to an opponent, a sense of irony and, finally and most conclusively, humor.  A man who in the not-too-distant past had greeted his interrogators with, at best, a stony silence or, at worst, a diatribe on their myriad inadequacies had appeared before them this time as an urbane and self-effacing wit.

Two men Marshall respects highly, Twins Manager Gene Mauch and Michigan State University physical education Professor William Heusner, have also observed a change in the Marshall manner.

"A different person?  Yes, I think so," said Mauch one sunny afternoon as he hit grounders to his infielders.  "He's not quite as angry a man.  He fought his way through all those years in the minor leagues, and he fought to establish himself in the big leagues.  He fought with his teeth clenched and with all the combativeness within him.  All of this, in his mind, necessitated being uncooperative.

He thought he'd been rushed around a lot early in his career, so he was just—what's the word?—a little strident.  I think I understand the man.  That doesn't mean I can read his mind, but I think I understand him."

"Mike is like a bulldog in many ways," said Heusner from his office in Michigan State's department of health, physical education and recreation.  "He grabs and hangs on to things...sometimes too long.  He can be harsh on people—students, the press, even friends—and he is quick to think people are against him.  It is an uncompromising approach, one he developed as he went on.

But look at it this way:  he's out there on the mound attempting to effectively destroy an opposing team.  You have to have a pretty strong ego to do that.  But in Mike these feelings have peaked, and now he is arriving at a more equitable approach.  He is mellowing."

At 36, Marshall has reason to mellow.  After years of struggle and wandering, he has security in the form of a four-year contract worth an estimated $1.2 million, the most lucrative ever signed by an employee of the renownedly impecunious Calvin Griffith.  A part-time student at Michigan State for 18 years, he now has a doctorate in exercise physiology and the prospect of a post-baseball career as a college professor.

He is playing for the only manager he says could have coaxed him into returning to baseball—Mauch.  He is fully recovered from a back injury that had plagued him since he was 11 years old and that threatened to terminate his career until it was corrected by disk surgery two years ago.

He is having another brilliant season—one that, barring misfortune, projects to about 100 appearances and nearly 40 saves, awesome figures that only Marshall has regularly approached.  And he, his wife Nancy, whom he married when he was 20, and daughters Deborah, 15, Becky, 14, and Kerry Jo, 11, will move next month into a house on Minnesota's Lake Minnetonka, there to "sail and swim, that sort of thing."  Marshall, the devoted family man, has been obliged to live apart from his "four women" for much of his 18 years in professional baseball.

Now, with the doctorate achieved and with the secure knowledge that he will finish his career in Minnesota, he will move his women from East Lansing, Mich. to the new home.  This alone has done much for his peace of mind.

"They've paid a high price," Marshall says of his family.  "I want to diminish the cost now.  The Lord knew I needed a lot of loving, so he gave me three daughters."

Marshall listens politely to those who describe his conversion from Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll.  Then, his voice taking on some of the old edge, he replies, "The only thing that's changed about me is that I can sit here talking like this without feeling pain.  People mistook my physical discomfort for impatience.  I will still tell somebody if a question is inappropriate or aimed at ridicule, and I still reserve the right to conclude an interview in order to get a job done."

And, because he thinks youngsters should have better heroes than ballplayers, he still refuses to sign autographs.  He also remains an implacable foe of those he thinks have done him wrong, most prominently his former team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the physical education and intramural administrators at Michigan State.

Marshall tends to hold a grudge, and his antagonism toward the Dodgers and his alma mater's athletic officials has been exacerbated by the fact that for the first time in many years he is having trouble finding new enemies.  In the meantime, the old ones will have to do.

Marshall does, however, remain an anomalous character in the tightly structured society of professional baseball.  He is a serious man among clubhouse cut-ups, a scholar among non-readers, a family man among road-trip rakehells.  In the groves of academe, where he has spent half of his adult life, Marshall is not extraordinary;  on the ball diamond, where he has spent the other half, he is a flaming eccentric.

Baseball has always had trouble absorbing the highly educated men, few though they may have been, who have entered its ranks.  It was not that long ago that any player, illiterate or otherwise, who wore glasses was likely to be called "Perfessor."  In a game where nicknames are derived almost exclusively from physical characteristics ("No Neck Williams") or even from handicaps ("Dummy Taylor"), quirks of the intellect go unobserved.

You will not find any "Double Negative Andersons" or "Malaprop Ozarks" on the premises.  Bobby Brown, who doubled as a medical student while playing for the Yankees, became in baseball's lore a sort of straight man for Yogi Berra.  Moe Berg, the linguist, polymath and, as it developed, American spy during World War II, was considered positively extraterrestrial.

These thinkers do not even fit into the one classification—"flakes"—baseball reserves for the slightly different.  Call Mike Marshall a flake and he will respond with a chemical analysis of snowflakes or even cornflakes.  He abhors ethnic jokes and detests—in fact, fears—ridicule of any sort.  Alas, the Marshalls of baseball are destined to be regarded with awe or secret laughter by some of their confreres and resented by others, who will search for chinks in their intellectual armor.  An ivory tower is a safer place for a scholar than the clubhouse.

But even in the real world, Marshall might be considered a bit unusual, because he is a mass of contradictions.  He does not, for example, consider playing baseball to be an important or particularly useful occupation, and he is appalled by those who take the game seriously.  "I'd like to have people come out here to the ball park, see us play and go home and forget about it," he says.

Yet no one takes the playing of this frivolous game more seriously than he.  The man who wishes fans would forget about what they've seen studies the hitters he must face as if they were textbooks.  No one keeps more complete records of his opponents.  He prides himself on being a master craftsman, and yet the ultimate test of that craftsmanship—winning and losing—is, he says, irrelevant.

"I love the individual challenge involved," he says of pitching baseballs.  "People often misunderstand me when I say I love the hitters I pitch to.  But I do.  I love them to challenge me and then, win or lose, I can say, 'Hey, we had a little fun out there.'  The winning is not important.  The quality of competition is.  Each game is a new experience.

I play bridge and chess.  In bridge I might not get any cards all night, but I'll still sit back there and enjoy it.  Chess, the same way.  You can beat my brains out, but I'll enjoy the game.  If you do your best, that's all that matters.  People who live or die with winning and losing will die more often than they'll live, and they'll end up dead anyway."

It is generally conceded that no one knows more about the mechanics of pitching than Marshall.  He has taken what he has learned in the college laboratory and put it to use on the mound.  It is his knowledge of his own body, its strengths and limitations, that allows him to pitch in as many as 100 games a season.

Already this year he has appeared in 41 of the Twins' first 65 games and has 16 saves, eight wins and a 2.22 ERA.  He would have it no other way, because he considers himself most effective when pitching four or five times a week.  Marshall reveals his pitching secrets grudgingly and then only to those willing to take the necessary time to learn properly.  Andy Messersmith, who attended the University of California at Berkeley, was one such willing student when he and Marshall pitched for the Dodgers.

"He gave me information I couldn't pay to get," says Messersmith, who is struggling to make it back with the Dodgers after trying times with the Braves and the Yankees.  "I wouldn't have been able to come back [from two years of arm and shoulder injuries in Atlanta and New York] if he hadn't told me some things about the body.  A sore arm can be pretty scary if you don't know what's under that skin.

But if you want Mike to describe something for you, you just don't go up and say.  'Hey, Buddy, tell me what you know.'  He doesn't just donate his time to every Tom, Dick and Harry.  He's a unique and complex individual.  There is no one like him in this game, I'll tell you.  He's smallish and rotund, but I haven't seen anything athletic he can't do if he puts his mind to it.

I've never known Mike to go into anything, even Frisbee throwing, without some thought about the muscles involved.  He loves to teach.  He wants to make baseball as academic a subject as possible.  I spent three weeks with him at Michigan State a few years ago, and I learned more about the body in that time than I had in 30 years.

I can recall one piece of advice he gave me that I've never forgotten:  Challenge yourself, not the hitter."

"I think that Mike has improved his pitching ability enormously as the result of his studies," says Professor Heusner.  "He has taken relatively modest physical attributes and become a magnificent athlete."

William Schmidt, a Michigan State professor in educational psychology and applied statistics, worked with Marshall in developing, through statistical data, the theoretically ideal sequence of pitches to throw to various types of hitters.  "We've fantasized about eventually having a computer in the dugout," Schmidt says.  "From the statistical point of view, Mike's work here is unique, certainly not run-of-the-mill."

Short for a pitcher at 5'10" and a barrel-chested—he is not really rotund—180 pounds or so, Marshall does not overpower hitters.  But he has a live fastball and, to go with it, a slider, a "let-up sinker" and one of the most devastating screwballs in the game.  It is a pitch Marshall began tinkering with in the late 1960s, inspired by a course in kinesiology (the study of body movement) he took from Heusner and, perhaps more practically, by his desperate need to find an effective pitch against lefthanded hitters.  He could not use it "significantly," he says, until late in the 1971 season, his first full year in the big leagues.  Today, the screwgie is his most feared pitch.

"Would you mind throwing a few of those things for us," Clint Hurdle, who was then with the Royals, called out to Marshall from the cage during batting practice before a recent game.  "I want you to show me how you do it."

"You just turn your arm over like this," said Marshall, twisting his right arm away from his body instead of toward it, as he would in delivering a curve.

"Can't do it," said Hurdle.  "I don't have hinges on my arm."

Neither does Marshall, but his knowledge of muscle control allows him to throw the screwball effortlessly.  Red Adams, his former pitching coach with the Dodgers, has said that Marshall is so well versed in body mechanics he can isolate individual muscles in his weight workouts.

With the screwball. Marshall is as effective against lefthanded hitters as right, an attribute he insists should dictate the way he is used.

"The major contribution I can make," he says, "is to pitch frequently, a couple of innings at a time.  The way I work, you don't simply use me to pitch out of jams or to pitch to righthanded batters.  You use me in the eighth or ninth innings when you want to give your starter a rest.

I can come in and pitch two, three innings and finish off a game four or five times a week.  My type of pitch saves a starter from having to go all that long all the time.  That helps keep him sharp."

Mauch agrees that the variety of Marshall's pitches separates him from the run of relief pitchers.  "A Rich Gossage goes out there and just pounds at you.  A Sparky Lyle slides it at you.  A Bruce Sutter forkballs you to death.  Jim Kern used to be just a fastballer, but now he's developed more than one way.

Well, there are days when Mike is quick, very quick.  There are other days when his screwball is unhittable, absolutely unhittable.  And there are days when his slider is exceptional.  On days when he has only one pitch, he might have a problem.  When he has two, it's easy.  When he has all three, it's a joke.

When I bring him in, we'll discuss what we're featuring this day.  Then we'll go accordingly with the positioning of our fielders.  He'll pretty much handle the shortstop and the second baseman, and we have a general alignment that the other fielders will follow.

I'll tell you, nobody has ever done the things Mike has done.  No relief pitcher has pitched that many games.  I'd say there are no limitations on how I'll use him.  I wouldn't hesitate to use him in any spot, not just how he says he should be used.  Ideally, of course, no relief pitcher wants to be brought in with the bases loaded and the count three and two on the hitter.  They all like a little room."

Mauch is convinced that, applied kinesiology aside, the reason Marshall can pitch as frequently as he does is because he was a shortstop during the early years of his professional baseball career, and "an infielder has to get his arm up to maximum velocity every day."

Marshall played shortstop from 1961 through 1964 at such waystations as Dothan, Ala. (Alabama-Florida League), Bakersfield (California League), Twin Falls, Idaho (Pioneer League) and Chattanooga (Southern League).  He hit .304 in 107 games for Twin Falls and .275 in 133 games for Chattanooga, but his aching back eventually forced him to abandon daily labor for piecework in the bullpen.  It should also be observed that he led three of those four leagues in errors, committing 68 in 134 games for Bakersfield in 1962 for a woeful fielding average of .896.

The back was injured 25 years ago when the car the 11-year-old Marshall and his uncle were riding in was struck by a train at an unmarked crossing near their home in Adrian, Mich.  The accident, in which his uncle was killed, left Marshall injured, seemingly for life, and traumatized by the loss of a close relative.

Quite possibly it also left him with the residual suspicion that somebody is out to get him, because life itself can be something of an unmarked crossing.  On the positive side, the accident left him with the courage and determination to withstand pain.  He became a star in baseball, football and basketball at Adrian High School, and, upon graduating, was offered a baseball scholarship to Michigan State.  At the same time, the Phillies offered him a modest bonus to sign with them.

Marshall claims that the university reduced its scholarship offer to half the sum originally promised.  The final offer, he concluded, was insufficient to put him through school, so he went with the Phillies, intending to use his baseball earnings to support his education.

He enrolled at Michigan State, anyway, in 1960, although his new professional status made him ineligible to participate in intercollegiate sports.  Marshall's position was that the school had reneged on its scholarship proposal;  the university's was that Marshall had reneged on his letter of intent to compete for its baseball team.  From that moment on, in Marshall's opinion, he and the athletic establishment at Michigan State were at war.

Almost simultaneously, Marshall began an arduous trek through the thickets of academe and organized baseball.  Attending classes only in the fall and winter, he earned his bachelor's degree in physical education in 1965, his master's in '67 and, with one year off for winter ball, his doctorate in the spring of 1978.

His climb to the major leagues, including various occasions on which his contract was sold or traded, was equally prolonged.  For the first 10 years of his professional career, says Marshall, he earned an average annual wage of only $6,000.  And he was perpetually on the move.

In 1970 alone, he recalls, he went from spring training in Cocoa, Fla., to Oklahoma City, Houston, Winnipeg, Montreal and then back to East Lansing for school.  "I don't know how my wife put up with it," he says apologetically.

In that year, a decade after he signed his first contract, he settled, at age 27, in the big leagues for good.  His manager at Montreal that first season was Mauch, a baseball fundamentalist who, nevertheless, tolerates individuality.  Mauch did not interfere with Marshall's training regimen, and he did not regard the screwball as an aberration, as some of Marshall's previous employers had.

The next year Marshall pitched in 92 games for Mauch and had an earned run average of 2.66, while saving 31 games and winning 14.  It was perhaps the finest performance until that time by a relief pitcher.

He would do even better in 1974 with a different team.  In December of '73, the Expos traded their star reliever to the Dodgers for Willie Davis in the mistaken assumption that the speedy outfielder was all that was required to convert a fourth-place team into a contender.  The Expos finished fourth again in '74;  the Dodgers, with Marshall, won the pennant.

That year Marshall set records for appearances (106), games finished (83), innings pitched in relief (208?) and consecutive appearances (13).  He won 15 games and saved 21 others.  His earned run average was 2.42.  He appeared in all five of the World Series games that year, holding the world champion A's to one run in nine innings.

He became the first relief pitcher ever to win the Cy Young Award.  No reliever before or since has approached these stunning statistics, although Marshall himself appears to be bearing down on them this year.  In 1974 Marshall was at the very top of his game.  He was also miserably unhappy.

"That entire year was not a joy for me," he says.  His displeasure was soon apparent, and he quickly developed a reputation as the game's resident curmudgeon.  On the most public-relations-oriented team in any sport, on a team where dissension—until last year's Garvey-Sutton contretemps—had been kept undercover, on a team where a smile is always an umbrella, Marshall greeted the public and the press with all of the bonhomie of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

Marshall concedes that conditions were just right for a banner season.  The Dodgers could score runs, their starting pitchers usually required help in the late innings, and the weather at Dodger Stadium was ideal for a pitcher.  He will say today with a straight face that he should have had a better year.

The Dodger fielders, he says, regarded his suggestions on where they should play the hitters as gross impertinence.  The responsibility, he says, should not have been his in the first place, but Manager Walter Alston's.  For all of their hail-fellow facade, says Marshall, the Dodgers were a team divided into cliques, none of which he was invited to join.

The Los Angeles press was mocking and negative, and if there is anything that discombobulates the sobersided Marshall, it is the thought that someone somewhere might be laughing at him.  Even Vin Scully, the sainted broadcaster, "laughed at, not with, people," in Marshall's sour opinion.  Finally, the culture shock of Tinseltown was more than his Midwestern soul could bear.

"We didn't enjoy the life-style," Marshall says, understating the case.  "In Michigan the country is only five miles away.  There are picnic areas where you can have family outings.  In Los Angeles, you go to Disneyland.  That's make-believe.  A day in the country is spent at a plastic mountain with cartoon animals.  I believe in relatives and friends.  I enjoy being with people and talking about real things."

Informed of Marshall's disapproval of them, the Dodgers seemed more amused than affronted.  "If he was that unhappy, it must have agreed with him," says Fred Claire, the team's chief image-maker as vice-president for public relations and promotions.  "That was the only year he won the Cy Young."

"It makes me wonder why a man so successful would make comments on a situation in the past that was by and large a good time," says First Baseman Steve Garvey, the quintessential Dodger and a former student of Marshall's at Michigan State.

"He's a very interesting person.  He was a tough guy to play behind," says Bill Russell, who, as the shortstop then and now, was most affected by Marshall's criticism of the Dodger defense.  "He never made a bad pitch, according to him.  And according to him, we were always out of position.

He had a variety of pitches and he'd throw them in situations another pitcher wouldn't.  We couldn't figure him out.  Mike was just a different person.  He wouldn't allow smokers on the same bus with him, and he always wanted a water bed in hotels.  We were pretty loosey-goosey.  We did a lot of joking.  He took it as if we meant it all.  We were just doing it to stay loose.  We'd say things we thought were funny and he wouldn't laugh.  He'd say things he thought were funny and we wouldn't laugh.  But overall, he's a super guy, a great competitor.  Without him, we wouldn't have been in the World Series that year."

Marshall's career took an emphatic turn for the worse after 1974.  He suffered an injury to his left rib cage the following year and was waived to the downtrodden Braves midway through the '76 season.  In 1977, following knee surgery that winter, he moved to the Texas Rangers but lasted only half a season, pained by his chronically bad back.  Late that year he underwent disk surgery, after which he decided that his playing days were over.

Although the back held up in campus workouts and in touch football games, he had no intention of returning to baseball.  "I had had an excellent major league career and I had made enough money to make my family worry-free," he says.  "There was no chance of my coming back."

Then on May 10, 1978, Mauch called and asked him to work out.  On May 15, he was back in uniform "because I can't say no to Gene Mauch."  In his first seven days as a Twin, he picked up four saves.  Playing only three-quarters of a season, he appeared in 54 games, won 10, saved 21 and had an ERA of 2.45.  It was an amazing comeback, particularly for a man who had abandoned the game.

And yet baseball remains essentially a second career.  In the course of his work at Michigan State, Marshall has developed a physical education program for elementary school children that he hopes someday will resolve the age-old problem of how to involve every youngster, whatever his or her skills, in some physical activity.

"Physical education departments do a negligible job today," Marshall says.  "What you usually see is three or four kids dominating all play while the rest stand around.  We have worked out a procedure for teaching each kid at his own level within a group structure.  It's just like teaching math.  You don't work with A-squared, B-squared until you teach one plus one.

I have little interest in coaching.  I realize now that coaching is not where the important work is being done.  I want every youngster to enjoy movement.  What I need is three or four more years of working with graduate students and teaching kids the basic skills of running, jumping, catching, throwing and so on.

I'll spend a lot of time after this season writing letters to various universities.  I would like to work at a major university with a medical school, anatomy laboratories and psychology and physiology departments, where all of our disciplines can be intertwined, where we can share our knowledge."

That Marshall should conduct a running battle with the intramural and physical education administrators all during this period of serious academic work represents just another contradiction in his complex nature.  Marshall was miffed at first because Michigan State would not permit him to participate in intramural touch football—the sport he loves best, next to baseball—after his freshman year because he was a professional athlete.

This issue was finally resolved with a rules change in 1972, when Marshall, of course, was still a student.  In the next several years, he quarterbacked his team to two championships and two second-place finishes in the 350-team intramural league.

He next ran afoul of the authorities in a conflict over the playing of baseball in a portion of the Michigan State fieldhouse that is also used for tennis.  In true opéra bouffe fashion, this dispute culminated in Marshall's arrest for trespassing.  He was acquitted after a five-day trial in February of 1977.  He still insists he is a victim of a program of harassment by school authorities, manifested now in the form of parking tickets.

Marshall, who has much better things on his mind, fails to see anything amusing about this essentially inconsequential conflict.  His unswerving devotion to principle, no matter how small, will not permit it.

Even Professor Heusner, Marshall's friend and trusted counselor, is of the opinion that his protégé has gone a bit far on this issue.  "I think he blew the whole thing out of proportion, and I told him so.  In a university of some 43,000 people, no department is willing to spend that much effort to get one individual.

He challenged the system, of course.  But there are two sides to every question, and in this case neither side comes out smelling of roses.  I think very highly of Mike.  I wish all of our students were so diligent.  He is a fine young man with a tremendous future.  He is a-scholar.  But I was unhappy to see his to-do with the intramural department go as far as it did."

Oddly, Marshall seems least contentious when he is in uniform preparing for a game.  There his love of pure sport shines through and his blue eyes brighten.  Before a recent game, he sat on the dugout bench chuckling as he watched the 53-year-old Mauch take a turn at first base during batting practice.  "How can you not enjoy working for a man like that," Marshall said.

"Oh, it's a shame that I love this game so.  But I'll tell you, it was behind me last spring.  If Gene hadn't called, I'd be in a university somewhere now.  The man is beautiful.  He's the smartest and best manager in baseball.  But it's wasted effort trying to explain these things, to explain why some people—my wife, Gene, Bill Heusner—are special.  I should say extra special, because everyone is special."  Laughing, he shouted out at Mauch, just as an ordinary ballplayer might, "Nice play!"

Happy Pitching Everybody

Home Page