THOMA COLUMN | The hardest-worked reliever ever

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Jun. 7—Nine pitchers have worked in at least 90 games in a single season.

Mike Marshall is three of them.

Marshall pitched more than 208 innings in relief for the Dodgers in 1974. That's the major league record.

The second highest number of relief innings in a season is 179. That's Marshall, too (Montreal in 1973).

Marshall, whose travels through the baseball world took him through Minnesota — one of those 90-game seasons was for the Twins — died last week.

Those of us who followed the game in the 1970s remember a squat, barrel-chested right-hander with a moustache connected to his sideburns who threw a screwball, pitched constantly — he worked in 13 straight games at one point in 1974, his Cy Young season — and seemingly got along with nobody.

He was an intellectual in a tobacco-juice world. He earned his doctorate during his offseasons and spent his summers in conflict with managers, coaches, teammates and journalists.

The only managers who got big seasons from Marshall were Gene Mauch (in Montreal and Minnesota) and Walt Alston (Dodgers). Mauch and Alston had vastly different personalities, but each was willing to let Marshall do things his way.

And eventually Marshall got himself on Mauch's bad side, too. It was bound to happen. Marshall did not suffer fools gladly, and he was certain that he was surrounded by fools.

And he probably was. The difference between pitching instruction in the 1970s and today is enormous. The primary qualification for most pitching coaches in Marshall's era was being the manager's drinking buddy.

As much as we can (and should) marvel at the workloads Marshall shouldered in his career, we should also know him as a pioneer of sorts.

I doubt there is a pitching coach in the majors today without some formal academic background in biomechanics; Marshall pioneered that. Marshall knew more about the mechanics of throwing baseballs than anybody else. He was talking about spin rates and spin axis — staple concepts today — decades ago.

When Fran Tarkenton, the Vikings quarterback, had arm problems in the late 1970s, he turned to Marshall, and the Twins pitcher helped get his passing back on track.

But he couldn't sell his insights within baseball. He was the smartest man in the room, and he had to make sure everybody knew it.

When Mauch urged Calvin Griffith to sign Marshall, Griffith was reluctant: "He's got weird ideas."

Which is how he wound up pitching for nine major league teams in a 14-year career. The people running teams found life easier without him.

And now he's gone. But his influence — liberated by the absence of Marshall himself — has never been stronger.

Edward Thoma is at ethoma@mankatofreepress.com. Twitter: @bboutsider.

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