Mike Marshall: Before Moneyball, He Was Pushing Brainball

When you root for any baseball team for 65 years, a few odd ducks are going to stick with you.

Since that usually means a player who has some harmlessly wacky streak, like the Red Sox’s Bill Lee, it doesn’t feel like exactly the right term for Mike Marshall, a first-rate relief pitcher who was 78 when he died Monday at his home in Zephyrhills, Fla.

But he did stick with you.

I remember Marshall best from his two and a half seasons with the Dodgers, though he also had terrific seasons with the Expos and Twins.

The season no Dodgers fan can forget is 1974, when Marshall appeared in a staggering 106 games, winning 15, losing 12 and saving 21. He won the Cy Young Award that year, the first time it had ever gone to a relief pitcher.

Just as Young’s 511 victories constitute a record unlikely to be broken, so are Marshall’s 106 appearances, during which he threw 208.1 innings.

The workload wasn’t a random accident. It’s exactly what Marshall insisted a pitcher should be able to undertake if he simply threw with the correct motion.

The correct motion would minimize the physical stress that leads to those way-too-frequent pitching injuries, Marshall maintained. He said a pitcher with the right form should be able to throw every day and reach a velocity of 115 miles per hour.

That was his argument, anyway, and “argument” is exactly the right word. Marshall had no patience for anyone who saw the science of pitching differently, which of course was almost the entire baseball world.

His insistent nature often got him labeled a jerk, not to put too fine a point on it. He wore out his welcome often enough to pitch for nine teams over his career, and after he pitched his last game for the Mets in 1981, he was never offered a job in baseball — a game famous for giving almost every ex-player a shot somewhere. Well, at least almost every white ex-player.

This stands out in Marshall’s case because he wasn’t some dumb jock with a theory. He had a masters and a Ph.D in kinesiology, the mechanics of body movement.

So Dr. Marshall could explain precisely why throwing a baseball a certain way would minimize the unnatural stress it places on the arm and body when the pitcher throws any other way.

In a minority of eyes, including his own, this made him an unappreciated revolutionary genius. To others in a sport that loves its traditional wisdom, he was an arrogant pain. While it didn’t enhance his popularity that he was an aggressive promoter of the players’ union, it wasn’t just owners who rolled their eyes when they saw him coming. He didn’t hesitate to volunteer micro- and macro-advice to his teammates, on a number of subjects.

He also inspired some ambivalence in fans.

Dodgers fans loved seeing him come into games in 1974, because he was the finishing piece that catapulted a pretty good team into a pennant winner. While he didn’t blow anybody away — he only racked up 143 strikeouts in those 208 innings — his killer screwball kept batters pounding the ball into the dirt.

What fans loved less was the fact he never signed autographs, explaining that any person who wants signatures should collect them from teachers, because it’s teachers, not athletes, who shape your life.

Not surprisingly, this didn’t fly with a lot of fans, though I should add that I was recently discussing Marshall with a friend who said the autographs-and-teachers line was the reason Marshall was one of his all-time favorite baseball players. In contrast to so many other athletes, he was an apparent jerk for the right reason.

As if to run the table, Marshall could also be curt and dismissive with sportswriters, perhaps simply confirming that he had little patience for people he viewed as less bright than he.

His academic credentials say he really was that smart. It may be a more open question how he scored off the academic playing field. We have a lot of stats on his baseball performance, not so many on the rest of his life.

We don’t even know for sure whether he was right about the kinesiology. Baseball traditionalists have noted that in 1975, the year after he threw 208 innings in 106 games, he only threw 109 innings in 58 games and his ERA went up almost a full point — suggesting that perhaps he wore himself down in 1974 despite having the right motion and an appropriate workload.

In any case, his stats say he had a superior career, as well as a couple of notable baseball moments.

In the second game of the 1974 World Series, he picked Oakland’s Herb Washington off first base in the ninth inning, a moment of electric drama that very likely secured the Dodgers’s only win in that Series.

He is also credited with urging his Dodgers teammate Tommy John to undergo experimental surgery that could repair a seemingly career-ending tendon injury to John’s throwing arm. Today what’s amusingly known as Tommy John surgery, though it was really performed by Dr. Frank Jobe, is the best-known and most popular medical procedure in baseball history.

So Mike Marshall left a visible mark on baseball, even if he probably remained convinced to the end that if baseball just had the brains to listen, he would have left more.