Cooperstown Confidential: The unofficial ban of Mike Marshallby Bruce Markusen
August 27, 2010
I’m generally not a believer in the theory of players or coaches being blackballed by Organized Baseball, mostly because I think most teams want to win regardless of personality. Yet, Mike Marshall might be one of the exceptions to that rule. Marshall has not worked for a major league or minor league team since he pitched for the Mets in 1981. That’s rather astounding given his extraordinary levels of intelligence and education, not to mention the success he attained as a premier relief pitcher during the 1970s.
Mike Marshall never allowed orthodoxy, convention or politics to interfere with his pitching philosophies. At times, he treated writers and broadcasters belligerently. He offered his opinions to teammates bluntly and without compromise. Not surprisingly, he has made a number of enemies along the way. Are those enemies keeping him out of the baseball establishment, even when others achieve only mediocre results with conventional methods? It would seem to be the case; baseball, despite the Sabermetric revolution, remains essentially a conservative sport.
|Marshall in his Los Angeles days (Icon/SMI)|
Ever since making the major leagues, and even prior, Marshall has done things his way. He attended college during the offseason, studied the science of kinesiology, exhibited an endurance level matched by few other relief pitchers in the game’s history, and, even after his playing days, continued to espouse unconventional pitching mechanics that contradict existing baseball wisdom.
As an 11-year-old boy, Marshall encountered a tragedy that changed his life. He was riding in a car driven by his uncle when the vehicle was struck by a train. The collision killed his uncle and left Marshall with a severe back injury. Hospitalized for a lengthy stay, Marshall developed an interest in the human body and the mechanics of how it worked.
Marshall carried that interest into college. Attending classes at Michigan State University, he majored in physical education. Marshall became engrossed in kinesiology, the study of mechanics in the human anatomy, earning his bachelor of science degree in 1965.
Marshall applied his college course load to pitching and began to develop his own theories of pitching and pitching mechanics. He even devised an unusual pickoff move, in which he twisted his body in the direction of first base while making a throw to second base. The move looked painful, to say the least, but Marshall executed the maneuver without hurting his arm.
Another theory involved a pitcher’s workload. Marshall believed that he could pitch more effectively by pitching almost every day. After bouncing around with the Tigers, the expansion Seattle Pilots and the Astros, Marshall began to back up his theories with durable and effective on-field performance.
After breaking through as a capable fireman with the Expos, he emerged as a star with the Dodgers in 1974. Marshall set major league records by appearing in 106 games and compiling 208 innings, all in relief. Displaying a revolutionary level of endurance, “Iron Mike” pitched more innings as a reliever than a slew of starting pitchers around the major leagues. Even more remarkably, he did so by featuring the screwball, the pitch considered one of the most damaging to a pitcher’s elbow.
The Dodgers bought into Marshall’s philosophies, but most of the baseball establishment did not. Marshall’s abrasive personality didn’t help. Known for being surly and a touch arrogant, Marshall believed in doing things his way and showed little regard or patience for those who didn’t accept his beliefs. Marshall also became one of the most vocal leaders of the Players’ Association during the 1970s; that role may have influenced Marshall’s frequent movement from team to team during a tumultuous decade.
As Marshall’s ERA rose over the next year and a half, the Dodgers became less tolerant of their abrasive right hander. In the middle of the 1976 season, they traded him to the Braves for the relatively meager package of utility man Lee Lacy and middle-line reliever Elias Sosa. Marshall finished the bicentennial season strongly for the Braves, but a poor four-game start to the 1977 season brought a hasty finish to his Atlanta career. The Braves sold him to the Rangers, receiving only cash in return.
After a mediocre and injury-shortened season in Texas, Marshall found new life when he signed a free agent contract with Minnesota. Pitching for the also-ran Twins, Marshall forged two extraordinary seasons, especially considering that his birth certificate put his age at 35 and 36 in 1978 and ‘79,. Combining his numbers for the two seasons, Marshall saved 53 games, won 20, and logged more than 240 innings as an imposing late-inning workhorse.
Considering the volume and quality of his workload those two seasons, it’s remarkable that the Twins unloaded him after he pitched poorly in his first 18 appearances of the 1980 season. Rather than bring in some young talent via a trade, the Twins simply released Marshall, receiving nothing for the American League’s best fireman this side of Goose Gossage and Jim Kern.
No other major league team placed a waiver claim on Marshall. Even when he cleared waivers, the rotary phones in his house remained silent. None of the other 25 big league teams gave him so much as a tryout. Do we mention blackball? Major league executives publicly denied such a conspiracy, but members of the media wondered aloud whether Marshall’s outspoken tendencies as a member of the players’ union had resulted in the freezeout.
Blackball or not, Marshall’s tenure on the unemployment line finally ended more than a year later. In August of 1981, the Mets signed Marshall, gave him the ball 20 times, and watched him post an ERA of 2.61. Lacking a power pitch to finish hitters, Marshall struck out a mere eight batters in 31 innings, but allowed only 26 hits and eight walks. They were respectable numbers for a Mets team lacking in quality relievers, but not good enough to avoid his unconditional release a few days after the season.
Unlike most players, Marshall has relied on his academic achievements since his retirement. He had continued his education, earning his Ph.D. in 1978, which he added to his masters degree. In his post-playing days, Marshall has worked as an independent pitching coach and consultant for numerous athletes, preaching the theories of kinesiology.
A major part of Marshall’s teaching involves the highly unusual pitching motion that he advocates. With this delivery, the pitcher has no real leg kick. He does not rotate his hips toward second base. After the pitcher lifts the ball over his ear, he follows through with an extreme pronation—turning the wrist outward with his thumb pointing toward the ground. By following these precepts, Marshall believes, pitchers can become injury free.
I’ve seen Marshall demonstrate this pitching motion on HBO and the MLB Network. It looks painful and awkward. Then again, maybe I’m just imagining that it’s pain-inducing because I’m so used to watching the classic pitching delivery. After all, Marshall knows a lot more about the human body, and the ways that its limits can be stretched, than I do.
Really, what would be the harm in some major league organization taking a few of its struggling young minor leaguers—pitchers who are not considered prospects—and having them adopt the Marshall philosophy? If they have no chance of reaching the major leagues using their current mechanics, what would they stand to lose by giving another approach a try?
Yet, Marshall remains apart from major league baseball. No team has ever hired him, in part because of his jarring personality and partly because his pitching philosophies are too radical for the conservative baseball establishment. That’s regrettable, considering the number of pitchers who continue to come up lame, despite the overwhelming prevalence of pitch counts and innings limitations. I’d like to see one team—any team, really—give him a chance to show that his methods might work at the professional level.
That’s all Mike Marshall needs—one chance to prove his critics wrong.
For more on Mike Marshall and his methods, visit his web site at http://www.drmikemarshall.com
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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