RIP Mike Marshall - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
RIP Mike Marshall
Mike Marshall in 1969 (Wikimedia Commons)

Records are made to be broken, so the saying goes. And most eventually are. See Roger Maris, Henry Aaron, even Barry “Pharmacy” Bonds. But some records seem less approachable than others. Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak seems fairly safe, especially in today’s game where pitchers dominate and few batters seem able to put the round bat on the round ball. Speaking of dominating pitchers, even with today’s plague of strikeouts, don’t look for any pitcher to soon top Nolan Ryan’s 5,714 lifetime strikeouts and seven no-hitters. And until Major League Baseball introduces the bionic ballplayer, Cal Ripkin Jr.’s record of 2,632 consecutive games played appears to be off the table for the mere mortals currently playing the game.

Another record almost certainly out of reach is Mike Marshall’s 106 relief appearances in one season. That’s 106 games out of a regular season’s 162. Marshall performed this miracle of endurance for the 1974 Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched 208 innings that season, all in relief, with a 2.42 earned run average. For this herculean effort, he and his rubber arm won that year’s National League Cy Young Award, the first reliever to win the best-pitcher-of-the-league honor.

The holder of that honor and that record died Tuesday at his home in Zephyrhills, Florida, a small town north and east of Tampa. He was 78. No cause of death was given, but a family member said he had been in hospice care.

In today’s game, where pitchers are babied, a starter who pitches 200 innings in a season is called an “iron man.” Marshall pitched 208 innings in relief in one year. This was in an era when relief pitchers came in to finish the game, not finish the inning, then to be followed by a procession of one-inning wonders, as is today’s practice. In one stretch of the ’74 season, Marshall appeared in 13 consecutive games. If a manager attempted to oblige a pitcher to appear in a half dozen straight games today, the player’s agent would sue the team, the manager individually, Major League Baseball, and probably the Abner Doubleday estate. The players’ union would file an unfair labor practices complaint. There would be rings around the moon, and Venus would be too bright.

For comparison, only five other pitchers have appeared in 90 or more games in a season. The last to do this was Pedro Feliciano, who appeared in 92 games for the New York Mets in 2010. But Pedro pitched only 66 2/3 innings that year, facing 280 batters. (See above re: coming in to finish the inning.) In Marshall’s 208 frames, he faced 857 batters.

The iron man feat of ’74 clearly took something out of the mighty Marshall. He appeared in only 58 games the following year, and in the seven seasons left in his career he went to the mound 90 times in a season only once more. This may have been due to overwork or to the fact that his out pitch was a screwball, a pitch that few pitchers master and that is very hard on the arm to throw. It’s also hard for hitters to deal with as it breaks the opposite way from a curveball or a slider. Takes some getting used to.

Marshall pitched 14 seasons in the bigs. The quality was there, save for the injury seasons. He finished with a fine lifetime ERA of 3.14. But he pitched for nine different teams, likely because he was an outspoken fellow holding strong views on the nature of pitching that were crosswise to the received baseball wisdom. He may have had a case to make as he was working on a doctorate in exercise physiology, which he earned from Michigan State while still pitching for the Minnesota Twins. And no one could put together a season like Marshall’s 1974 without knowing a bit about pitching. But managers, pitching coaches, and teammates did not always consider it a privilege to be instructed by Marshall on what they were doing wrong. It was a way to wear out one’s welcome and to be headed for yet another team. Marshall’s final year in the bigs was in 1981, when he appeared in 20 games for the Mets.

I’ve read that he was a prickly personality, but in my slight experience with him I didn’t find him so. That fine lifetime ERA shows big-league hitters had a tough time with his screwball. But I’m proud and privileged to report that I once tagged him for a single. Not in the Show, alas. The good high-school curveball made it clear that I was going to have to make do with legitimate work rather than as a professional baseball player.

Marshall and I faced off in the Men’s Adult Baseball League of Tampa Bay, a fine amateur outfit that got husbands out from under their wives’ feet on Sunday afternoons and Wednesday nights. Mike was one of those guys who loved the game so much he kept playing when he was long past prime time, even if it meant competing with a bunch of local has-beens and never-weres. So he started sometimes for a team called the Tampa Stars, chief rivals of my team, the Tampa White Sox.

The first time I faced Mike, he got me out on my front foot, and I rolled over lamely to second base. But I watched him closely while waiting to come up again. He was then 50-plus, like me, and built a bit like a Coke machine. He could no longer bring it like he did in the bigs. But he had an assortment of dipsy-doodle breaking pitches, which he could still hit corners with. I noticed that he rarely threw the fastball, and when he did it was off the plate. He was just showing it to the batter to give him something else to think about, and, with Mike’s velocity then, to hope for.

The second time I went up, I set up for the off-speed only. If he threw a fastball for a strike, he would just lock me up. So be it. But I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t. On about the third pitch, all off-speed, I tracked it well, and, per plan, put a level swing on it. Not too hard a swing. Just trying to get the fat part of the bat on the ball. The result was a soft line drive over the third baseman’s head. 

Yahoo! I think I’ll order that to be inscribed on my tombstone (which I hope I won’t need soon): “Once got a hit off a Cy Young Award winner.” But I couldn’t stay cocky about it. In that game he was gone before I came up again. He rarely pitched more than five innings. But I faced him a couple more times, including once in a playoff game, and he ate my lunch both times. I could watch him. But he could watch hitters too. He had loads of baseball savvy. And if a hitter showed any kind of tell in the batters’ box, Mike would see it and exploit it. He put a lot of zeros on the scoreboard.

Please accept my apologies for banging on about this minor personal triumph in my otherwise thin baseball résumé. But as I have no grandchildren to tell this story to, readers of The American Spectator will have to do.

RIP Mike Marshall. Iron man. A skilled and great competitor, whether it be the Major Leagues or the local old-timers’ field of dreams.

Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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