08/08/2007 10:00 AM ET
A visionary or just another quack?
Marshall believes his pitching theory will save good arms
By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- He's a pariah these days. Mike Marshall concedes as much, too. Yet he doesn't run away from the label, even though that might be the wise thing to do.
Dr. Mike Marshall speaks at the 37th annual convention of the Society of American Baseball Research in St. Louis. (Ben Platt/MLB.com)
In his mind, it would be the wrong thing to do.
So Marshall, a man with a doctorate in exercise physiology and a Cy Young Award to boot, continues to espouse theories that clash with baseball's mainstream. While doing so, he pushes himself and his theories on pitching into the darkest recesses of the game -- a no-man's land for dreamers, wannabes and has-beens.
Call him stubborn on that score. Go ahead. He's cool with it. But try calling him a crackpot and see what happens. Mike Marshall's now ready to pick a fight.
"Find somebody to prove me wrong," says Marshall, standing on a coffee table as he issues a dare to a group of 40 or 50 men who surround him at a recent Society of American Baseball Research convention.
The next best thing to an "amen" comes from the gathering, which just left a large room inside the Adam's Mark Hotel, where Marshall had lectured for an hour to a full house on the same subject. The men nod their heads. They encourage him to keep going. He obliges.
"They can't," he says defiantly. "Yet they're geniuses. I oughta slap 'em."
What's the fuss?
But Marshall knows a slap upside the head won't knock some sense into anybody. And knowing what he knows about baseball's establishment, he figures it's as mulish as he is. A slap won't do any more than his words have, and they've done little good in the 20-odd years he's spent saying them.
Marshall has offered theories that, he claims, will put an end to Tommy John surgery and turn men into durable pitchers, as he was during his nomadic 14 seasons in the Major Leagues. He still holds the record for most pitching appearances in a season: 106 with the Dodgers in 1974.
From sea to shining sea, he peddles his theories on throwing a baseball, theories that focus on putting maximum effort into a straight-ahead motion. His theories, he says, make efficient use of the arm and elbow, and lessen and eliminate the stress on each.
No sideway motion of the arm, the elbow, the leg and upper body, he says, and an important piece of his theories is the position of the throwing hand at the point of release. As he demonstrates to the crush of people around him, the hand is aimed at home plate with the thumb downward -- or, as he describes it, "pronated."
The delivery leads to an awkward-looking, pendulum-like motion. It is a motion that Marshall says has hard science to support its merits. It is a motion that can spare a pitcher from a surgeon's knife.
"We're getting 12-year-olds with Tommy John surgery," he says. "Nonsense -- you can't have this, folks; somebody's gotta take charge."
That somebody is the 64-year-old Marshall, the high-wired academician, the self-professed "geek" and the hardheaded idealist with the baseball pedigree.
Theory into practice
Marshall has made his theories more than polysyllabic words in the classroom or phrases on the lecture circuit.
In Zephyrhills, Fla., he has built a no-frills compound in the Florida outback where he runs training sessions. His base camp is midway between nowhere and goodbye, a difficult place to find even with a navigational system.
"Mike Marshall's a joke. That's my comment on him."
-- Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan
But the compound is Marshall's piece of baseball Utopia, and for a 280-day program, he brings in men from different stages in their baseball lives to save them from the Shakespearean tragedy that befalls too many pitchers who let tradition trump science.
"I'm only interested in one thing," he says. "I'm interested in people being the best they can be at what they want to do."
His help comes at a barebones cost: $10 per day.
"I make it as cheap as I can to still be able to pay the mortgage on the place," he says.
Cheap, he says, doesn't mean worthless. He'll stack his pitching theories next to anybody else's in the game, he says. But to get people to master those theories takes a Herculean effort, a Ruthian resolve plus plenty of encouragement, because Marshall has to alter habits that are years in the making.
In what amounts to a science lab, he practices his pitching theories on men who weren't signed, who didn't get college scholarships or who can't make a baseball team.
"I make them better than every pitcher that was on that team," Marshall says with a confidence that doesn't hint of a boast.
His pupils work out daily. They train with wrist weights and iron balls; they use footballs; and they throw and throw and throw. To date, none of Marshall's 100-plus pupils has sustained an arm or shoulder injury.
Or so Marshall says.
And his proof is ...
Bold talk, his critics argue. Now prove it.
His critics say Marshall can't, which is why they view him as an annoyance or a quack.
"Mike Marshall's a joke," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan says bluntly. "That's my comment on him."
Duncan, a former Major League catcher, doesn't bother to say a word more. His reaction is one that Marshall's theories face across the sports landscape. Then again, is it people's reaction to the theories or is it to the always outspoken Marshall?
"Well, does he have a track record of success -- other than himself?" White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper asks. "Who, if anybody, had gone on and had success through that, because if there was, a lot more people would be using it -- whatever he's doing."
One general manager, asking not to go on the record, says it this way: "It's hard to experiment with the value of an asset."
A pitcher's throwing arm is as valuable an asset as a baseball organization has. It will pay millions for a durable arm that comes with a high-powered sinker and a curveball that drops off the living room table.
And it would surely be willing to pay millions to protect that investment, right? But no team seems willing to gamble on theories that, as several pitching coaches point out, haven't produced a thick book of success stories.
"As far as if there's merit to it, it's different," says Indians pitching coach Carl Willis, a former Major League pitcher. "I don't know if anyone has gone through his program or uses his ideas and made it. That's not to say it's not going to happen, but I think it has to be around a little longer to gain more credibility."
Baseball tends to embrace fresh ideas as often as the Cubs win the World Series or a pitcher wins 30 games in a season or a thoroughbred wins the Triple Crown.
Major League teams do explore a lot of new ideas for training pitchers and hitters. The I-trac system that trains batters to focus like a laser on hitting the baseball shows promise of being a cutting-edge concept that teams are willing to invest in.
Marshall's theories don't fare as well.
"I have actually been forwarded e-mails with some of his videos and stuff, and I looked at it," Willis says. "But as an organization and, even among other pitching coaches, we've never seriously talked about it."
The messenger himself
Marshall laments that fact. He admits his pitching theories are radical, and he also admits they require risks in terms of mastering something new.
Unfortunately for him, risks aren't what teams and pitchers are willing to take. Besides, Brewers pitching coach Mike Maddux says, Marshall's one-size, fits-all approach can't possibly work for everybody.
"You can't cookie cutter a delivery," says Maddux, a former Major League pitcher and older brother of Padres right-hander Greg Maddux. "That's the big thing."
"There's something you've got to understand. When I'm dealing with professional teams, my Ph.D. hurts me. They like the Cy Young Award, but my Ph.D. hurts."
-- Mike Marshall
Maddux points out that on a 12-man staff, a pitching coach will run into 12 different deliveries. So Marshall's take-it-all-or-leave-it-all philosophy sounds impractical.
Pitching, however, isn't without its absolutes -- balance, generating power and follow-through are three of them.
"How do you do those three things?" Maddux says. "We'll all look a little different."
Unlike Duncan, Maddux and Willis didn't dismiss Marshall as a joke.
They both say their organizations weigh new ideas, but they don't jump to attention when unconventional ones like Marshall's come their way.
Maddux proves as skeptical as anybody else when he hears that a mechanical alteration can prevent an arm injury.
"I don't think that's possible," he says.
He does believe a delivery can be tweaked, but the drastic remaking of a delivery that Marshall recommends does seem to border on impossible -- at least in the short term. And Maddux says unless the pitcher is willing, the change isn't doable at all.
Same old, same old
Don't bother telling that to Marshall. He scoffs at such talk.
With an audience clinging to each word, he continues an animated sermon that carries the fervor and the convictions of a storefront preacher. He'll spread his gospel for saving arms in front of anybody who'll listen. He reminds his audience here that he's talking cold, hard science and not quackery.
There's a big difference, he says. From a science side of it, his theories make sense -- except, he says, to people inside professional baseball.
"There's something you've got to understand," Marshall says. "When I'm dealing with professional teams, my Ph.D. hurts me. They like the Cy Young Award, but my Ph.D. hurts.
"They're not sure they want a Ph.D. in there, because I know that they don't know what they're talking about. They don't like to hear that at all. I mean, would you if you were the boss?"
In the face of such resistance, Marshall marches on -- always to his own music, as single-minded and as intractable as ever.
OK, sure, Marshall's all of that. He's also absolutely right, he says. That's why he's troubled that baseball officials dismiss his scientific theories as easily as they do. And the consequences of that: more Tommy John surgeries.
"Ridiculous," he grumbles. "When you do it with a traditional pitching motion, you just accelerate when they're going to break down."
The thought of that turns Marshall even grumpier. It's led him into joking about slapping people -- a funny notion, even if it's not a politically appropriate one.
Such a threat, idle as it is, draws a laugh or two from an audience of baseball fans that tries to understand a man who believes in a theory as strongly as Marshall believes in his. They can see why he might ... ah, want to slap somebody.
"Mike, if you're going to slap the guy, would you pronate?" one man asks.
The man's question draws laughter, too. It also draws a quick reply from Marshall, a man prone to getting in the final word.
"Nah," he says, "I'd probably backhand him."
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.