'Oli' knew early path to bigs was on bench

October 25th, 2021

A version of this story first appeared in 2019 Issue 4 of Cardinals Magazine. It has been adapted to reflect Monday’s announcement that the Cardinals have named Oliver Marmol as their next manager.

At the time, Oliver Marmol had no idea the identity of the man standing outside the fence during the College of Charleston baseball team’s fall intrasquad game. In fact, Marmol can’t recall some 13 years later whether he even noticed the scout there or not.

It was far from unusual, you see, for Marmol to have extra eyes watching. Such scrutiny had started a few years earlier in Florida, when scouts started showing up to watch a standout high school player who would later be drafted by the Pirates in the 31st round of the 2004 MLB Draft. Marmol passed on that professional opportunity and was now entering his junior season for the Cougars. Scouts were coming out to see him once again.

This one settled into a spot just to the left of home plate so he had the perfect angle to watch the pitcher pound right-handed hitters with inside fastballs. Marmol stepped in and was promptly struck by one on his left elbow.

He didn’t flinch, nor did he take his base. When the next pitch nearly nicked him again, the scout waited to see Marmol’s reaction. There wasn’t one.

“This is one tough dude,” the scout said to himself. “This guy has the makeup to play the game.”

From that first impression, the scout began a more thorough evaluation. His report gushed about Marmol’s speed -- a 70-75 grade in scout speak -- and noted the shortstop’s solid to above-average arm.

The next summer, when the Cardinals’ scouting department gathered for the 2007 MLB Draft, the scout stumped for Marmol in the Draft room. He assigned one of his three “gut-feel” stickers to the infielder and made a strong enough case for Marmol’s big league future that the Cardinals took the infielder with their sixth-round pick, two spots ahead of Anthony Rizzo.

Marmol signed quickly and reported to Batavia, N.Y., where he had been assigned to play for one of the organization’s Class A Short Season affiliates. Upon Marmol's arrival, that scout who had watched him throughout the college season introduced himself as the team’s new hitting coach.

It was Mike Shildt.

Shildt was right about something in those early reports he filed: Marmol was destined to be a big leaguer. He simply took an unexpected route to get there.

Despite never advancing beyond Class A as a shortstop, Marmol made an accelerated climb through the Minors as a coach and manager. He then joined Mike Matheny’s staff as a first-base coach in 2017 and, at the age of 32, became the youngest bench coach in the big leagues when Shildt installed him as his right-hand man for the ‘19 season.

“From really early on in his playing days, we knew he was someone who could have a future in the game if he chose it,” president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said more than two years before introducing him as the Cardinals’ 51st manager on Monday. “We made sure we paved a path for him.”

To find it, Marmol first had to navigate the weeds of a challenging Minor League playing career. His speed and defensive tools may have been intriguing, but he never could muster much production with the bat. He later joked to general manager Michael Girsch, whose analytics team was as high on Marmol as Shildt was on Draft day, that he only ever did two things well as a college hitter: lean into pitches to get hit, and yank balls down the line to take advantage of a short left-field porch.

“Why didn’t you tell us that before we drafted you?” Girsch retorted.

While now-retired field coordinator Mark DeJohn, who was Marmol’s first Minor League manager, insists that Marmol could have benefited from trying to develop as a switch-hitter, the Cardinals never gave him that chance.

Already relegated to a part-time role in his third season with Class A Advanced Palm Beach, Marmol was pulled into his manager’s office in July 2010 and informed of his release. Over four seasons and 151 professional games, Marmol had hit .203 and slugged .365.

The news was hardly a surprise to Marmol, who admitted that he had already begun forming his post-playing plans. His mind had started to wander that March when then-Cardinals manager Tony La Russa visited Minor League camp.

“I’m sitting there listening to him speak to the players, and even though I was a player, the whole time he is talking I’m listening to him as, ‘That’s what I want to do or say when I coach,’” Marmol said. “That’s when I knew.”

Which is why, before he left his manager’s office for the last time, Marmol put in one final request.

“I’d like to put it in your ear,” Marmol told Palm Beach manager Luis Aguayo, “that I’d like to coach.”

Less than a week later, the Cardinals made the 24-year-old an offer. Marmol accepted it and finished the season as a fourth coach with Batavia. A year later, Marmol was named hitting coach for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals.

“It was a very smooth transition,” Marmol said. “I have never missed playing, probably because I hit .180 my whole career. No one misses hitting .180.”

Learning the ropes
How the Cardinals would treat Marmol as a coach followed the same blueprint the organization uses when it identifies a standout playing prospect. They invested in him, and they aggressively moved him up through the system.

Marmol’s first managerial opportunity came with Class A Short Season Johnson City (Tenn.) in 2012. He led the team to a .582 winning percentage and a postseason berth. He spent the next two years managing State College, which, under Marmol’s leadership, advanced to consecutive championship appearances.

By 2015, Marmol was back in Palm Beach, this time as a skipper.

“He’s always been one of those types of individuals that was inquisitive, asked questions and always wanted to learn,” Mozeliak said. “When you have that type of personality, and you’re embracing new ideas and innovation, you’re going to move quickly in our organization.”

The people Marmol surrounded himself with were critical in his expedited climb. In fairness, they actually surrounded him. None more so than Shildt and DeJohn, both of whom saw potential in Marmol as soon as they saw him play.

“He was always an intelligent player, a smart guy,” DeJohn recalled. “Even when he didn’t get to play much, he never complained. He never said a bad word about anybody. He just came to the park and prepared and was ready. You notice that and know it’d be a shame if we didn’t try to keep this guy.”

The intentionality with which others poured into Marmol was matched only by how deliberate Marmol was in soaking it all up.

That started in 2011, when Marmol was assigned to assist Shildt as an instructor in extended Spring Training. Day after day, the two would sit next to each other, watch the game and talk through it. Shildt pointed out process and strategy, all while instilling organizational core values in his newest pupil.

When it was time for Marmol to move into his coaching role with the Gulf Coast League team, the two continued their conversations via text.

“It was real clear real fast that he had a great feel for the game,” Shildt said. “He took to it like a duck to water.”

DeJohn’s impression was much the same, though his delivery often harsher. He never sugarcoated criticism, mostly because he believed that “Oli was going to be better than I ever was.” Tact isn’t in DeJohn’s lexicon.

“There were times I had to throw my ego out the window and just listen,” Marmol said. “You just sit there, and you just wear it. Is it what you want to hear? No. Is that what’s going to get you better? 100 percent.”

Ask for examples, and both men quickly start sharing the story of Marmol’s first day managing in Johnson City. DeJohn had traveled in to observe, and he did a double-take when he walked into the dugout to find only half a lineup card hanging on the wall. He kept his mouth shut.

Hours later, as Marmol headed to the clubhouse on the high of his first victory, DeJohn stormed in. The mood quickly shifted.

“What the hell?” DeJohn exclaimed. “Oli, where was the other half of the lineup card?”

Marmol reminded him how down in extended Spring Training, coaches saved paper by using only half a lineup card. With the rules of those games so fluid, it’s unnecessary to keep track of the other team’s activity.

DeJohn retorted with a not-so-subtle reminder about how these games actually counted.

“What if your pitcher wants to come over and see who they’re going to face?” DeJohn continued. “And how do you know what changes they’re making?”

To which Marmol replied: “I don’t even know what’s happening on my team.”

The two laughed. Lesson learned.

“I now know you need two sides of the lineup card to be a competent manager,” Marmol said.

Climbing the ladder
The education has been ongoing ever since for Marmol, who used Minor League experiences to shape his leadership style and coaching philosophies. From director of player development Gary LaRocque, Marmol learned to see the bigger picture of the farm system. When he was in a setting with Mozeliak, Marmol made it a point to ask questions about front-office decision-making.

Shildt continued to check in via text, and DeJohn with occasional visits and frequent early morning phone calls to dissect moves made the night before.

Every day offered a new test.

“You can tell when people are really pouring into you because they want to see you do well,” Marmol said. “I came to work, one, extremely excited, but two, knowing that I better be on point. You’re not getting away with anything. You can’t just wing it. You had to have a reason for everything you did. And it’s provided me a ton of structure as far as how I do what I do now.”

What most impressed those who observed Marmol was how he quickly learned from his mistakes.

DeJohn recalled sitting in the stands the first year Marmol led State College to the New York-Penn League championship series and watching him make an ill-advised pitching change late in the winner-take-all game. It backfired, and after the loss, DeJohn explained why.

A year later, Marmol had the Spikes back in the championship series, though this time with a little unwanted friction. Speaking with DeJohn on the eve of the final game, Marmol expressed frustration with the effort level of two key hitters. Marmol asked DeJohn if he should bench them.

“Me, Oli?” DeJohn replied. “I probably wouldn’t do it.”

Marmol did anyway, and the two replacement players he inserted helped lift the Spikes to the league title.

“When I saw that, I knew he was on his way,” DeJohn said. “I was so impressed that this kid had enough guts early in his career to do something that he thought was right and not worry about it being one game to win or go home.

“What I didn’t expect,” DeJohn added, “was for him to get to the big leagues as soon as he did.”

That call came two years later from Mozeliak, who interrupted the Marmols’ vacation in the Dominican Republic with an invitation to join the Major League coaching staff. Not everyone in the organization felt Marmol was ready, but he dispelled those concerns with his preparation and attention to detail.

Marmol filled the gap as an infield instructor during Jose Oquendo’s absence, and he brought a knowledge of advanced metrics into the clubhouse. As a bench coach under Shildt, Marmol’s responsibilities only expanded. He was part air traffic controller, part chief of staff.

It was Marmol’s job to organize and run Major League Spring Training. He was a liaison between the manager’s office and the rest of Shildt’s staff. He disseminated information, requested video, built scouting reports and helped with on-field instruction. Once the game started, he offered input toward Shildt’s in-game decisions.

“He gets things done, and they get done right,” Shildt said. “He’s very forward thinking and has a nice blend of old-school fundamentals with modern aspects of the game. He knows the game. He’s got little to no fear. This is a guy who will trust his gut and communicate what he thinks.”

He’s also relatable. Marmol’s age, as well as his fluency in Spanish, allow him to communicate and connect within a diverse clubhouse.

“If you were building the perfect manager or bench coach, he checks a lot of the boxes,” said Matt Carpenter, whose relationship with Marmol goes back to when they were road roommates in Class A a decade ago. “He’s bilingual. He played in this organization. He’s managed at the Minor League level. He can relate to the younger generation well because he is a part of it. He’s smart. He understands the analytical side of the game, but also has a feel for it.

“It’s a unique skill set. And it doesn’t surprise me he is where he is.”