The biggest game of Oliver Marmol's season came not in front of the 3,000 folks packed into Tri-City's Joseph L. Bruno Stadium for the short-season Class A New York-Penn League title game in early September, but rather on an unkempt lot in the high-poverty Nicaraguan town of Cristo Rey just a little more than two months later. Gone were the bright lights and the pursuit of a trophy, all that glitz exchanged for the acrid odor of surrounding sewage and a gesture that signified hope.
This wasn't about a championship. It was about championing a cause.
Marmol, a rising managerial star in the Cardinals' farm system, would prefer not to be defined by the traditional resume, which includes a recent promotion to manage the organization's Class A Advanced affiliate in Jupiter, Fla., the same spot his own playing days stalled five seasons ago. There has been gratification in the career shift, but also the opportunity to turn it into the means for something greater.
When he isn't grooming the next wave of Major League talent, Marmol is doing all he can to ensure children in underdeveloped countries simply see their next birthday. It is a focus that bloomed out of a February 2011 trip to Guatemala, during which Marmol and his wife, Amber, made an eight-day stay at an orphanage.
From this, they were inspired to pour their money, time and hearts into life-saving and health-sustaining projects. There have been other trips, including this most recent one to Nicaragua, and other efforts supported. There was also a promise made three years ago that for every dollar earned through the O.MAR Performance company -- his baseball instruction business that he uses to supplement his income in the offseason -- half would be given away.
For Oliver and Amber, it is a forever pledge.
"We live in an industry in baseball where everything we're told is about how we're supposed to make much of ourselves, to build our brand, to make people know us more," Marmol explained. "After going on these trips, it just makes me think a lot less of myself. I really don't care how people perceive it. There are so many more important things going on out there, and if I can just think less of myself and make more of other people and their needs and how I can help and aid them, then that's worth it.
"We want to decrease to make sure we're increasing other peoples' lives."
Marmol, 28, estimates that Omar was about 9 years old when he first met the boy who was angry, disfigured and prone to starting fights. This was during Marmol's first trip in 2011, and Omar hadn't been at the Guatemalan orphanage long, but his image was striking. His right arm hung by his side, the bone not healing properly due to a lack of medical care in the days after an accident.
Omar had been selling goods in the streets -- the way so many children in the neighborhood do to earn pennies they then flip for food -- when he was struck by a car. Soon after, his grandmother brought him to a fast-food restaurant and told him to sit down. She promised to be right back.
While Omar waited, his grandmother slipped away.
Marmol chipped away the trust issues that trailed Omar by offering attention and showering him with affection.
"Oliver and Amber both seemed to be drawn to the kids that were a little bit on the outside and who weren't engaging with everyone else," said Rick Whitter, founder of International Orphan Support, the group that organized this mission trip to Central America. "I remember specifically him playing catch with [Omar] and teaching him how to swing a bat with one hand. It was really a heartwarming thing to watch that little guy smile and see that somebody cared enough about him to invest in him."
Omar's history wasn't all that unique in such a setting, but he became the face to Marmol's mission and the significance behind the name of his company.
"We wanted to name it something that reminded us that we would never get off track as far as our promise to give half of what comes in," said Marmol, who, through O.MAR Performance, offers baseball lessons, helps in maximizing training-facility resources and books speaking engagements during the Minor League offseason. "When you talk about it changing your perspective and the way you do things here, that's exactly what it's done. Everything that we make, we just split it."
Marmol may never have found this purpose had it not been for a chance meeting with Whitter, the minister at a church near the Cardinals' facility in Jupiter. Whitter, a lifelong Cardinals fan, introduced himself to Marmol and a group of other Minor League players who had attended a service during Spring Training in 2010.
A friendship bloomed, during which Whitter shared his vision for International Orphan Support, a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit program. After more than two dozen years of working with children in underdeveloped countries, the Whitters started IOS in 2007 with the hope it could become "bigger than ourselves."
Sensing Marmol might be interested in getting involved and believing the bilingual player could be a huge help in Spanish-speaking countries, Whitter invited Marmol to Guatemala. Marmol joined without hesitation.
"If we don't make ourselves available," Marmol insisted, "then really, what are we doing?"
Their primary initiative during the stay was to assist with a feeding program, but there were also efforts made to start teaching children a trade so they could grow into self-supporting adults. The Marmols led Bible study groups and lent their hands to fix-up projects around the grounds.
They would not leave as they had arrived.
"You go and you do this and you hope they get something out of it," Marmol said. "But you leave with a completely different perspective. It's life-changing."
LIVING WITH LESS
Marmol, who was born in Orlando, Fla., and taken in the sixth round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft out of the College of Charleston, hit .203 as a utility man spread out over four Minor League seasons. He started his coaching career as a low-level hitting coach in 2011, and began managing at the short-season level the next year and led his club into the postseason, something he's accomplished every year since. Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak recently described Marmol as a manager with "tremendous upside" and, more generally, "just a complete young man."
Marmol's managerial career may be on an upward trajectory, but the reality of having to live on a Minor League paycheck -- starting salary for a Class A manager is in the $40,000-per-year range -- drove him to try and find other means with which to provide for his family. Using free time in the offseason to coach and teach was an easy compromise.
Now, it's also his outreach, with all funds immediately split in half so that he can give a chunk away.
"It's not easy," Marmol acknowledged. "We're on a Minor League budget, and we're young and just started off in our marriage. You see different ways that you can use that money when it's sitting in that account, and there have been plenty of times when I've looked at it and thought, 'Man, we could really use that as a down payment on a house or for this.' But it is more rewarding than padding my savings account, if I'm going to be completely honest with you."
In their first year of pledging 50 percent, the Marmols were able to feed a Haitian village for six months with the help of IOS. Residents who were eating one meal every three days now had two to three each day.
Their donation also went toward building a chicken farm and supplying the chickens as part of a microeconomic project that would allow those in the community to be self-sustaining.
"The last I heard," Whitter said, "there were about 200 kids a day eating at that place."
Marmol hopes to soon visit Haiti to witness the impact of those dollars.
"Every day we are impacting a lot of kids because of their generosity," Whitter said. "It's not glamorous. It's not a big splash. He certainly isn't doing it for the PR. He's doing it because he has a great heart."
BASEBALL IN THE BARRIO
Landing in Nicaragua's biggest city on Nov. 17, Marmol and the rest of his traveling party spent their first night in Managua, where poverty and pain were largely masked within the country's industrial, commercial and cultural center.
The next day's journey down dirt roads to Cristo Rey offered the contrast. The further the group got from Managua, the more devastating the scene became. Lining the road way were piles of trash, which drew vultures, wild dogs and people, all trying to uncover scraps of food. Children would follow the dump trucks bringing a new load to the landfill so they could get to it first.
When the group's vehicle would stop, kids approached, some selling candy, others washing the windows in hopes of receiving a few coins. Without tips, many wouldn't eat.
"If you think what people call the sticks here," said Cardinals Minor League outfielder Nick Thompson, "it's basically the sticks of the sticks there."
Thompson was one of three players from the 2014 State College club to accompany Marmol on the trip, which was set up with an organization called Hope Project International. Outfielder Collin Radack and right-handed pitcher Jeff Rauh joined, too. The three would be assets to one of the primary purposes of the visit: baseball.
After spending two days building a home for a family whose previous structure leaked so much that the children hid under a staircase when it rained, fearing that the roof would collapse, Marmol and the others spent a day at an orphanage and the next learning more about the local culture.
The final two days of the trip were then set aside for baseball.
Marmol and the players had traveled with suitcases full of equipment, shoes, bats and balls, all of which they unveiled to the group of local children who had long improvised by using sticks, socks wrapped tightly around marbles and tree stumps at bases.
"They were just stunned silent," Thompson said. "They were amazed."
The boys grabbed gloves and headed down to the schoolyard where there was enough land to play. Marmol gave infield instruction, while Rauh worked with the pitchers. Thompson offered hitting lessons, and Radack spent time teaching outfield.
"Everybody got a glove," Marmol said. "Man, those kids went nuts. It was unbelievable. It really was."
Word of the visitors' generosity spread throughout the village, leading to even more boys showing up the next day. Marmol had them line up against a wall, and one a time, each was called forward to be fitted for a pair of baseball pants. Once dressed, they formed two teams of 20 and played a game.
"Every time we're around Oli, it's in baseball and he's a manager," Thompson said. "Here you're able to see a more personal side of him. Obviously, you know he cares about these things, but it's awesome to see a manager give back to a community like that. It's inspiring in a way."
Before the visitors left, the children proposed a trade, offering Marmol one of their homemade bats in exchange for all of the equipment.
"It was a pretty even trade, I'd say," Marmol noted, "and a reminder that can stick with me."
ON THE HORIZON
Marmol has much to get ready for next year, as he's set to become the manager of a full-season Minor League club for the first time in his career. He and Amber just relocated to Jupiter, taking on several home-improvement projects after purchasing a home.
But he's also looking far beyond the start of another season or the completion of the next renovation. There is much unfinished work elsewhere to be done.
Marmol is already talking about returning to Nicaragua with Hope Project International, where he'd like to build a baseball field for the children. Through it, he would be able to teach more than just a game. Making school attendance a requirement to play on local teams would bring children back to education.
Marmol intends to assist a feeding program in Cristo Rey, as well as visit the Haitian village that he is already supporting. He dreams big, and he dreams a lot.
"I think he's probably one of the more authentic and genuine people I've ever met," Whitter said. "These kids go to school, they get medical care, and we're able to make a commitment to these orphanages and these kids because of people like him."
For Marmol, the philosophy is simple and sound: He can live with less so that others might have more.
"Everything we do now is geared toward finding ways to really help," Marmol said. "Going there and teaching them what we believe and going alongside them and helping them with whatever they need, it just seemed to put into perspective how much you can actually help when you just make yourself available. When you talk about it changing your perspective and the way you do things here, that's exactly what it's done."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.