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Marshall Puts Rumors and A’s to Rest

You’re Mike Marshall and you have big problems.

You never bother anybody. You keep more or less to yourself, keep your own counsel.

You don’t smile much. You always look as if you had something on your mind.

You mind your own business, do your job, kind of deadpan.

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You’re always second banana on the ballclub. Sometimes, they don’t know what to do with you. First, they have Pete Guerrero and he doesn’t share the limelight with anybody. You don’t get along with him. Or vice versa. Anyway, it’s an uneasy partnership.

Then, they get Kirk Gibson. You and Kirk hit it off, but he’s the star, you’re the best friend. He’s the take-charge guy. He has the charisma. He’s Rambo, Hondo, and you’re the faithful old companion again.

But, at least, the air isn’t poisoned.

Guerrero needed you. A lineup has to have two big hitters in the middle to keep the pitcher honest. But Guerrero bought the whispers that you were a weekend player, a guy who wanted to get his paycheck in the whirlpool tub or on the rubbing table. You wanted to march in the parades but not fight the war.

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You’re so big, it’s hard for people to feel you’re not indestructible. So, when you say you got a bad back, everybody winks and people nudge each other in the ribs. Anyone who has ever had a bad back strain knows how excruciating it can be, but you’re doubted. When you take yourself out of the lineup with what is inadequately described as a wart on your hand, the town holds its sides. Guerrero wants to fight you out in the parking lot, and the bleacherites wonder if your little pinky hurts, too. Your reputation gets so that if you were hit by a train, everyone would shake his head and say, “There goes that Marshall jaking again!”

The game doesn’t come easy to you. There’s a kind of mechanical aura to what you do. You don’t exactly clank when you move but you’re not Willie Mays in that outfield. You’re probably a lousy dancer. You throw the ball with the awkwardness of a girl softball player but you’re so powerful, you can throw it through a battleship on a line if you have to. You get the job done but you never look like a gazelle doing it. Still, you don’t look like a giraffe, either.

You don’t get too excited. When the other guys are skying champagne through the clubhouse or mugging for the cameras, you’re sitting in a corner fixing your glove. You can put a certain amount of suspense into a fly ball but you catch everything you’re supposed to.

You come up as a first baseman, but they like the other guy on the minor league rosters better. So, you move to the outfield. You do what they tell you. When you get comfortable there, they want you to move back to first base.

When you think the outfield will be less harmful to your back, they grumble. But they let you go there. And you’re right.

You never get too happy when you win nor too unhappy when you lose. You’re not a helmet-thrower or a cooler-kicker but your reputation as a guy who doesn’t necessarily come to play grows. It’s harder to snuff out than Rasputin. Untruths have a life of their own. So you finally shrug and live with it.

You’re not somber exactly but you kind of have the face of a funeral director who’s sympathetic but not really involved. No one is quite sure what you’re thinking, whether you feel you’ve been abused by the Dodgers or whether you accept that’s just the way the game is played.

The town wanted you traded, but the general manager is not fooled. He trades away Guerrero. The atmosphere in the clubhouse clears up immediately, and your importance to the ballclub grows. They bring in a guy with star quality, Gibson, but he needs you like the Lone Ranger needs Tonto and he knows it. He can relate to you and he will get better pitches because of your presence.

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In all of this, no pitcher in the league underestimates you. They know you can break up a game with a one-handed swing and you can hit it over a wall with a broken bat. They also know you can be struck out. You have a strike zone bigger than Rhode Island and a big, sweeping swing that’s just short of going around twice. You don’t try to hit a ball, you try to disintegrate it. You just want to leave a ball of yarn when you make contact.

You make a lot of contact in 1988, for 20 homers, 27 doubles, 150 hits in all, 82 runs batted in. The Dodgers can’t win without you--and finally they get a year when they don’t have to. You play your career-high 144 games in ’88. There’s an uneasy moment in September when your long back begins, predictably, to spasm but you play through it.

With Gibson disabled, you’re probably the only real power threat in the Dodger lineup when it takes the field for Game 2 of the 85th World Series at Dodger Stadium Sunday night.

In the third inning, the team has a run in and runners on second and third with one out.

Everybody in the ballpark knows what Oakland’s play is there: Walk you. Put the slugger on the open first base. It would short-circuit a home run threat and set up the possible double play.

But after the game, you admit you knew what they were doing: “They thought they could strike me out. I strike out.”

He also hits home runs. He hit one there. It was the old ballgame. Unless the Oakland A’s leave a wakeup call, it may be the old World Series.

Marshall faced the press later, typically unexcited and unimpressed, looking for all the world like a guy who had a stuffy nose or a sinus headache. “It’s too early to go pumping your fist and throwing paper,” he said diffidently. “I just try to stay well within myself.”

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If I were the Oakland Athletics, that would send a cold chill down my spine. Mike Marshall within himself is a very dangerous character with a bat on his shoulders. He’s the most misunderstood ballplayer in the league or on the Dodgers. But they’re near the threshold of a World Series championship today because the pitcher Marshall identified as “Our 55,” Orel Hershiser, pitched another (ho-hum) shutout.

And also because a much-maligned outfielder has outlived the baseless rumors and is as dedicated a ballplayer as any holler guy who ever suited up in one of these fall classics. Or anywhere else.


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