By now everyone is familiar with the principal excuse utilized by frustrated hitters to explain why their batting averages are at .220. A few years ago almost every player with a bat in his hands started with, "The way they keep running those relief pitchers in at you these days, you haven't got a chance."
Until Mike Marshall, however, relief pitchers arrived in golf carts and equipment wagons, as well as in automobiles of all sizes and national origins. Some even walked. But Marshall jogs in from the Montreal Expo bullpen to the edge of the infield, and one can almost hear the batter say to himself, "This guy can't wait to get at me."
By last weekend Marshall had won 14 games for the Expos, saved 16 others and finished 49 times for a team slogging along 10 games below .500. Thus he may well be the top relief pitcher in baseball this year, although Dave Giusti of the Pirates, Terry Forster of the White Sox, Sparky Lyle of the Yankees, Tug McGraw of the Mets, Jim Brewer of the Dodgers, Clay Carroll of the Reds and a coterie of men who work the late shift for the Oakland A's can reasonably challenge that contention. The record books certainly are not overburdened with relief pitchers who won as many as 14 games in a season. Only nine men have ever won more; most of those pitched for pennant-winning teams or at least for clubs that were in the first division. Elroy Face holds the record for wins by a reliever—18 games for the 1959 Pirates—and Dick Radatz put together spectacular seasons with the lethargic 1963-64 Red Sox when he won a total of 31 times.
Neither used Marshall's bread-and-butter pitch, the screwball, a product of much sweat and concentration. A reverse curve, the screwball is one of the most difficult pitches to hit, and it is currently enjoying a tremendous revival. It was, by the way, the pitch thrown most often by Carl Hubbell when he struck out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin in succession in the 1934 All-Star game. Known as a "scroogie," the pitch breaks away from a left-handed hitter and into a right-handed batter when thrown by the right-handed Marshall. It is so difficult lo throw that many managers and pitching coaches forbid it to their younger pitchers because the "inside out" twist of the wrist and elbow often results in either a sore arm or shoulder.
Marshall started experimenting with the screwball in 1967. "I first used it with some success in the middle of 1968," he says, "but it still was not a viable pitch even then. It was hard to control and I had to keep working at it." During off-seasons Marshall threw six dozen balls at a wall every other day while learning to tame it.
A bright, articulate individualist of 29, Marshall has had a stormy ride through baseball. Some of the game's bleaker minds held in the past that he was "too much of an egghead." He has been going to college since 1960 and is closing in on a Ph.D. in education from Michigan State (title of his doctoral thesis: Maturation at Adolescence)
Marshall played shortstop in the minor league system of the Philadelphia Phillies and twice made All-Star teams at that position. He had a couple of good years as a hitter but also led three leagues in errors. Ultimately, he got sore at the Phillies because he felt he had been lied to concerning his future and was traded to Detroit. "For two broken Al Kaline bats," he says.
He went from Detroit to Seattle to Houston to Montreal, and last year he was booed unmercifully at times at Jarry Park. "I feel a great amount of sympathy for those who have to live in close contact with those who boo," Mike says.
Marshall keeps a notebook on how he pitches to each hitter and studies it before each game. "Even before I get down to the bullpen I should be prepared," he says. "Rather than intentionally walk a hitter, I prefer to pitch him "tough" to see if I can get an out by getting him to make a mistake. I really don't care how many men are on base or where they are. The object of the game is to stop the man on base from crossing home plate. The rest is mere foliage on the dinner plate."
Because of back problems, Marshall has learned to condition himself in his own special way. "I believe in pushing myself to the limit of my physical abilities," he says. "I would take defeat well if everyone did that. Then again, if everyone did that, you wouldn't have defeat, would you?"