Conversations of Our Past Time: Stories of Baseball

Conversations of Our PastTime is an interview series in which I ask former MLB players about their playing days and the things that molded their career and the life after their career. Today: Mike Marshall, the screwball pitcher who won the Cy Young in 1974 as a relief pitcher who believes that his techniques could eradicate the injuries that plague pitchers.  Mike has been an outcast of baseball almost his entire life. He developed a reputation for being too smart, and baseball traditionalists loathe his pitching technique. 

Mike’s credentials speak for themselves: a doctorate in exercise physiology, 14 years in the majors, a 5-team league leader in games finished, three Fireman of the Year awards, two All-Star selections, the Cy Young and two MLB records-106 pitching appearances in a year (1974) and 13 straight appearances that year. Mike also played with nine different clubs over his career the Tigers, Pilots, Astros, Expos, Dodgers, Braves, Rangers, Twins and Mets. Despite his track record and vocalization that you can throw every day and not be tired, the baseball establishment is relying more and more on fewer and fewer innings, something that Mike hopes will one day change. One final note, you’ll notice some spelling errors, I kept Dr. Marshalls words to how he spoke them, grammatically correct or not. 

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Everything we know about pitching mechanics is wrong. EVERYTHING. Before you trash the comments or trash me on Twitter, just give me five minutes. Well, not me, but Dr. Mike Marshall, former MLB Pitcher and Dr. of Kinesiology from Michigan State, five minutes of your time. In the hour and a half, I spent talking to Dr. Marshall, I learned many things, of which two distinct things stood out. The first is that he’s intelligent (He told me that he shares an IQ with Einstein) and that everything taught about pitching mechanics is wrong. Well, three things. The third is that he is extremely passionate about his beliefs.

I reached out to Dr. Marshall via email to as a query to see if he’d take out a part of his day and talk to me. In my initial email, I inquired two things to Dr. Marshall. Firstly, what led him to study Kinesiology, and secondly, what were his thoughts on his unofficial ban? More aptly why was he being blackballed from baseball?

Initially, he only answered the second question. His reply? Audacity.

He elaborated more saying “I had the audacity to earn a doctoral degree in Exercise Physiology with specialties in Kinesiology and Motor Skill Acquisition.”, Continuing he said, “I had the audacity to take 400 frames per second high-speed 16mm film of me throwing my fastball and slider.”. He went on- “I had the audacity to determine that releasing my slider over the top of my Index finger caused me to lose 12 degrees of pitching elbow extension range of motion.”. He further elaborated “I also had the audacity to determine that by taking my pitching arm laterally behind my body, the Brachialis muscle lengthened its coronoid process such that I lost 12 degrees of my pitching elbow flexion range of motion.”  Finally, he concluded, “I had the audacity to set 17 major league records including pitching 208 innings in 106 games, 13 consecutive games and closing 84 games…these audacities ensure that professional baseball will never include me with the top closers, they throw away outliers”. 

Marshall grew up in Adrian, Michigan a small town thirty minutes outside of Ann Arbor. He learned baseball from his dad, who Marshall said: “was an outstanding baseball player.” He continued, “they didn’t have a little league growing up (the city of Adrian). So a bunch of us would go down to the Park (Island Park in Adrian), and we’d play a game for four or five hours It was just loving to play baseball (for me).” he concluded. I’ve been to the park he played baseball at, I’ve run through there, goofed around there, played flag football there. There’s a spark difference between Adrian and Detroit, and if you have been to Adrian, you’d know this. I asked Marshall if being in Adrian hindered his growth, and he didn’t think his talent would have accelerated any faster in a bigger school or baseball conference than it did in Adrian.Adrian isn’t all that big of a city, as of 2010 the population is roughly 20,000. The seat of Lenawee County it’s home to Adrian College and Siena Heights Universtiy, in high school, Marshall told me that he’d sneak into Adrian College. It wasn’t 1969 that Siena Heights became coeducational, long after Marshall’s days in Adrian. Ultimately, “it was just a love of playing baseball and being around my dad”. Marshall went on to to say that he didn’t have any uncles that played baseball, although they were very talented football players. His uncle Robert led Morenci to four undefeated seasons as the high school quarterback.

From there we moved to Tommy John and the infamous surgery. I had read that Marshall was the one who suggested the surgery to Tommy John, and so I asked him what had happened there. When asked Marshall said: “Well what happened there was, he lockered next to me with the Dodgers, and I came out early and did my running around the field and so on. And I saw Tommy John jogging around the outside of the stadium.”. Marshall continued: “When he came in, I said Tommy-you’re wearing one of those jackets that makes you sweat more.” Marshall then elaborated “when you sweat you lose proportionally more potassium than you do sodium, and that’s not okay because that’ll cause muscles to cramp up. And if you’re pitching and the muscle cramps up, you got problems”. Continuing with the Tommy John Story, Marshall went on: “so I says (to him) don’t do that anymore, and he was like 13-1 and pitching just beautifully.” By this point in our call, Marshall has me mesmerized. His passion, his ability to go in and out of the story it’s all magnificent for me to hear. Marshall continued his elaboration on Tommy John: “And he was working hard, as best as he knew how to continue doing what he was doing. And I said you can’t do this. You’ve got to get more potassium in your diet and less sodium, no sodium-don’t eat anything with sodium in it.”

Mike Marshall-LA Dodgers Releif Pitcher August 12, 1974 X 18821 credit: Neil Leifer - contract

Mike Marshall-LA Dodgers Relief Pitcher
August 12, 1974
X 18821
credit: Neil Leifer – contract

Marshall then elaborated on the moment when he knew that Tommy had a UCL problem saying: “so I’m sitting in the dugout, I always stayed through six innings. I wanted to see at least twice through the lineup with each batter, so I could see what they were doing. I always watched batting practice, to see what they liked to do when they were just having fun. So I’m sitting in the dugout next to Red Adams, and we’re talking like we always do, and he kept track of things for me when I was pitching”. Marshall didn’t care about what pitches he threw or how fast they went; he cared about the number of pitches thrown. Longevity, that’s what mattered the most to Marshall. “I see Tommy John throw, and the ball goes about halfway,” Marshall says “and I go Ohh shit. He tries to pick up another ball to throw it, and he couldn’t do it. He walked over to the top of the steps, and he said you were right (to Marshall), and I said ‘Yes, I can see that.'”

It’s here where Marshall starts to get fiery and passionate.  He first tells me that Tommy Johns surgery was a little bit worse than everyone thought and secondly that it didn’t happen because of improper technique, it was because the muscle cramped up. During this part of our conversation Marshalls intelligence shines, Marshall talks about how the muscles shut down when you put too much pressure on then. He then actually starts to drive home the point, muscles do not contract he tells me. That’s the key Marshall tells me, the difference between a ligament and a tendon.  Tendons have muscle on them; they can shorten and tighten up. If you put pressure on a tendon, a muscle can contract and hold it, if of course you have the proper amount of potassium. Tendons cannot contract, so the ulnar collateral ligament (that’s the ligament replaced in Tommy John surgery)  can’t fight when you put pressure on it if you don’t have the proper amount of potassium. So, how does one prevent Tommy John surgery? It’s simple Dr. Marshall says, “it’s to make sure you’re contracting the muscles that are on the medial on the inside of the elbow, mainly the pronators teres muscle.” he finishes. I won’t lie; I knew next to know of these muscles and anatomical parts he was talking about, I had to google many of them afterward just to have a basic understanding of what they were. That little prevention of Tommy John? That’s also the key to all of the pitching.  If you can contract those muscles I can’t pronounce and still have no idea what they are; you’ll never have any muscle or elbow problems ever.

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Mike has known about this since ’67/’68, he’s been quite vocal about his philosophy and techniques on pitching. He’s dedicated an entire website, wth a nearly two-hour video that shows his deep pitching technique.  He’s still in the minority about this pitching philosophy. Letting the old pitching coaches do their thing, at least according to Marshall, is the fastest way to an injured ligament. The most damning thing? To have all this knowledge, especially from Kinesiologists like Dr. Marshalls-people, who have dedicated their lives to the physics of the body, and have orthopedics and surgeons who don’t understand that a ligament isn’t going to protect the elbow. Don’t bother trying to give Dr. Marshall any reverse bouncing, or not contracting the medial epicondyle muscles, he’s not having any of it. Oh, you have citations? Those are “absolutely backward” according to Marshall. What about the rest argument? Don’t give him that either, Marshall pitched every day of the year, did thirty-pound wrist weights and threw a twelve-pound lead weight and never felt tired. If Marshall didn’t pitch the night before, he was out there the next day pitching in batting practice.  Teaching pitchers that less is more is the wrong way to go about it; Marshall iterates that training the elbow to contract properly the muscles each day is the best way.

Marshall says he pitched every day until 55, including the arm ball and wrist weights and he, never had the arm fatigue that is plagued by many of the pitchers today. “Rest is Atrophy, everything gets weaker when you rest, not make you stronger,” he tells me. Baseball has got it all wrong. Marshall iterates that he is the minority with this school of thought, he claims that they (people in baseball) are doing things that make no scientific sense. So, I ask Marshall if he thinks that these individuals (orthopedics, surgeons, various pitching coaches) have attributed to the spike in Tommy John surgery. His response: “Absolutely”. “There is a cause for the increase of all these injuries,” he continues, “it’s all on the orthopedic surgeons, they may be surgeons, but they are not Exercise Kinesiologists.” Part of Marshall’s argument lies in how outfielders throw; they don’t throw like pitchers, and the speed of their ball is above (on average) five to eight miles an hour faster than the speed on the mound, and you don’t see them throwing like a pitcher with the high leg kick. “Maybe you outta do that on the mound,” Marshall says. The traditional baseball pitching motion is bumming up knees and backs, consequences that are unnecessary according to Marshall.

One such player that Marshall has applied his pitching philosophy with is Brent Honeywell Jr.  Marshall taught Honeywell his pronation curveball (most of us call it a screwball), driving the ball through over the front foot. Before Marshall showed him, this technique Honeywell was throwing 83-85. After? Honeywell was throwing 97 MPH in his first year of rookie ball. How do you go from throwing 83-85 to throwing 97? You use Marshalls throwing technique. It’s not magic, its science, in a game of analytics we are ignoring science itself. Mike has dedicated most of his life to kinesiology and his pitching philosophy, he even earned his Ph.D. while he was still a serious ball player, so I had to ask “Why’d you do it?”. His response: “because I share one thing with Einstein-his IQ, that’s why I wanted to have a doctorates degree.”

Finally, Dr. Marshall and I discussed his performance during his career. He’s quick to point out that he’s held the following records:

Major League Professional Baseball Records
01.   Most seasons leading major leagues in games finished (5)
02.   Most seasons leading major leagues in saves (3)
03.   Most National League games by any pitcher in a season (106)
04.   Most Major League games by any pitcher in a season (106)
05.   Most National League games in a season with no games started (106)
06.   Most Major League games in a season with no games started (106)
07.   Most National League innings pitched by a relief pitcher (208)
08.   Most Major League innings pitched by a relief pitcher (208)
09.   Most National League consecutive seasons leading leagues in games finished (3)
10.   Most Major League consecutive seasons leading leagues in games finished (3)
11.   Most American League games finished (84)
12.   Most National League games finished (83)
13.   Most Major League games finished (84)
14.   Most National League consecutive games pitched in a season (13)
15.   Most Major League consecutive games pitched in a season (13)
16.   Most consecutive major league seasons leading leagues in games finished (4)
17.   Most consecutive seasons leading major leagues in saves (2)
18.   Most National League consecutive games won by a relief pitcher (3)
19.   Most Major League consecutive games won by a relief pitcher (3)
20.   Most American League games by a pitcher in a season (90)
21.   Most American League games by a relief pitcher in a season (89)
22.   Most National League seasons leading league in games finished (4)

 

He was also the first relief pitcher ever to win the CY Young Award. As well, he finished 4th, 2nd, 1st, 5th and 7th in voting in consecutive years.  You would think that would be enough to get him into the MLB HoF, but Marshall’s intelligence and his passion made him an outcast with traditionalists in baseball. I asked Marshall his thoughts on the matter. “Well usually they try and determine the athletes that have performed above and beyond all the others,” he tells me, “I thought,” he continues ” 208 innings in 106 games, 13 consecutive games, 85 finishes and on and on” he finishes. “It’s better to leave it like it is to demonstrate their ignorance because there’s no closer in the history of baseball who could do what I did.” Marshall’s biggest regret, as least what he told me, is that he learned things such later in life. It wasn’t until he was 28 that he learned his pitching philosophy. At 18 was when he started pitching Mike thinks that had he learned younger, his pitching technique,  he would have had a more fruitful career.

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