By Rob Rains
A piece of paper taped to a clubhouse wall taught Donnie Ecker a great deal about OIi Marmol.
It was in Ecker’s first week working as the hitting coach for the Palm Beach Cardinals in 2016, where Marmol was beginning his second season as the manager of the Class A team.
“The paper had a schedule on it and it was slightly crooked,” Ecker recalled. “It also had a little bit of a typo on it. He (Marmol) ripped it off, made a new one, and put it up perfect.
“I just remember observing that and just knowing, ‘OK, attention to details here matters. Environment matters.’”
Ecker would go on to learn much more about Marmol over the six months that they shared a dugout, the start of a close friendship that continues to this day, even years after Ecker’s coaching career took him away from the Cardinals.
What he learned left Ecker convinced that Marmol would one day find himself running a major-league team, which became a reality when Marmol was promoted last month to manage the Cardinals.
“When you are in the minor leagues, a lot of people want to talk about being great and elite and being a future major-league coach, but not all of them want to do all the little things and the details and match the behaviors that it takes to do that,” Ecker said.
“For me, it stood out right away that this was someone I wanted to latch on to and learn from.”
It was Marmol’s attention to detail, his baseball knowledge, his desire to succeed, his eagerness to question why things were being done a certain way if there was a better way to do it, and his passion for the game and his players, that impressed Ecker and others.
Conversations with many of those who played or coached for Marmol in his five years as a manager in the Cardinals’ farm system produced one universal reaction – nobody was surprised that he is now a major-league manager.
“I could have probably told you when I played for him that he would manager in the big leagues someday,” said former outfielder Collin Radack. “He’s a super passionate dude. He loves coaching, and he’s very good at it.
“His drive to win, his drive to be successful – it was pretty clear to me. I played pretty much my entire career with Oli; I kind of moved up with him. It was pretty clear he was going to do something big in the major-leagues at some point in his career.”
The journey begins
Marmol’s managing career began on June 19, 2012 with the rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals. In his starting lineup that night against the Greeneville Astros was a 17-year-old third baseman making his professional debut.
Carson Kelly knew how nervous he was that night, but if his rookie manager, then a month shy of his 26th birthday, was nervous too, it didn’t show.
“You can’t really tell if he’s nervous or not,” said Kelly, who would go on to play for Marmol in three of the next four seasons, becoming a catcher before he reached the majors, then traded to Arizona. “He brings that presence, that energy. He’s serious. We were out there to win ballgames, even if it was in Johnson City.
“He has goals. He has a vision that he wants to set, a culture he wants to have. Everything is calculated and thought through, which is going to help him. I had him for three years, and we kind of grew a little together. He wanted to be a manager at the big-league level. That wish, that dream, that desire has all paid off now – so it’s time to go out and be the best manager he can be.”
While Kelly was just 17 when he first played for Marmol – and welcomed how Marmol always looked out for him off the field, making sure he was doing OK and that his teammates were treating him right – it was another trait of Marmol’s personality that impressed an older player a year later.
Mitch Harris made his professional debut in 2013, after Marmol was promoted to manage the State College Spikes. Harris had not pitched for five years while completing his military commitment following his graduation from the Naval Academy. Then 27, Harris was a year older than his manager.
“That was an interesting dynamic,” Harris said. “He showed me the type of person he was and the type of leader he was. The most important thing to him is winning. He is 100 percent a competitor; all he wants to do is win. I can tell you that with first-hand knowledge.
“The guy does not like to lose. That’s one of the reasons me and him got along so well. We just don’t do well losing.”
That desire to win was noticeable to all of those who were around Marmol on a daily basis during those minor-league seasons. What also stood out were the steps that he took to try to reach that goal.
“He’s passionate about the game,” Kelly said. “He wants the best for his players. He challenges players. He tries to pull the best out of them. He’s an intense guy. Over my career in the minors he helped push me to places that I never thought I would get to.
“There were a lot of times that maybe we would butt heads on things but that brought better out of me and out of him. Oli did a great job in pushing me and helping me get to the point where I am today.”
Radack saw that too, and he also watched, and learned, from how Marmol never was satisfied – he knew there had to always be another way to do a particular drill, or another way for his players to reach the next level.
“Oli expected excellence from us every day,” Radack said.
“Each guy, he saw what they were capable of and what they needed to bring every day as far as energy and focus. He really gets the most out of guys. That’s the biggest thing with Oli.”
Radack first met Marmol in 2014, when he was the Cardinals’ 20th round draft pick out of Hendrix (Ark.) College and was assigned to State College. He was with him for most of the next three seasons, before Radack decided to retire so he could become a college coach.
Now the hitting coach at the University of Richmond, Radack’s own coaching experience has only increased his respect for Marmol and “how he sees the game.”
“I didn’t get to appreciate it until I started coaching,” Radack said. “Once you start coaching you start looking at different things in the game that you didn’t normally see or look for before. The way that he sees the game is so high-level; the amount of things I learned from him.
“I was at a small D-3 school and really didn’t play baseball at a high level until I was with the Cardinals. It was amazing to me how much he was able to see. It was kind of overwhelming to me about how much goes into being a good outfielder; understand who’s hitting, positioning, moving on every pitch. That helped me with how I teach our outfielders now. You are thinking through things in the game, not just standing out there and being ready for the next fly ball.”
Something else Radack and others learned from Marmol was not to be satisfied with something simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”
“He showed me that being a coach wasn’t just showing up and writing a lineup card and doing a couple of hitting drills,” Radack said. “It could be much more than that. You can kind of make of it what you want rather than just doing what everybody did. You could bring your own creativity side and think about things differently and be more successful.”
Added Harris, “He’s the type where if this isn’t working, then why are we going to do it? If this way does work, we’re going to do that. The competitive drive within him is just elite. He’s always trying to figure out what’s the edge. How do I continue to push these guys to win every night?”
Even in batting practice, Marmol would create competitions instead of watching players just go through the standard, old-fashioned method of preparing for a game.
“For the longest time batting practice was just showing up, taking 20-30 swings off a coach throwing slow pitches to you and then you go play,” Radack said. “Him and Donnie (Ecker) would just throw different things at us – pressure situations, give us different looks. They would do different things to put us in situations that maybe we were going to see in the game.
“That’s normal now; it just makes more sense. It’s better for the players … That’s a cool thing about Oli. He doesn’t really go with the status quo. He saw things very differently, always questioning things. ‘Is there a better way to do it?’ It’s normal now, but Oli was thinking that way and doing those things before it was cool.”
Marmol took the same approach to fielding drills and infield practice. He would let players try to make throws behind their back or other free-form plays – just on the off-chance it might actually happen during a game.
His attitude was,“’Why would we not practice that?’” Harris said. “The first thing you think of is there is no way a coach would allow a guy to do that. His thoughts were different; ‘Why would I not, because if he can do that, he can do it normal.’
“A play might come up in the ninth inning where you need that lead out at second and the only way he can do that is behind his back or between his legs. He will know he can do it because he’s done it in batting practice.”
What Harris also quickly saw in Marmol was that even though the manager let players express themselves and be individuals, nothing was more important than the team’s success.
“I saw it first-hand; he won’t put up with it,” Harris said. “It’s either team or nothing. That’s another thing I respected about him. You get a lot of guys who come through the minor leagues who have crazy talent, just ridiculous talent. But as soon as you put that talent and yourself before the team, I will tell you right now Oli will snip it in the butt.
“He’s a guy who knows you are not going to win without the team. If you think you can win in baseball by yourself you’re crazy. Anytime he had those attitudes he had to snip that out as quickly as possible.”
“An ultra, ultra competitor”
Ecker didn’t really know much about Marmol before the two were paired together by Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ director of player development. The two men were the same age.
“Gary told me in the interview process that he thought this was a good match for me,” Ecker said. “I just knew going in that somebody as influential as Gary thought that I was going to connect well with Oli.”
It didn’t take Ecker long to find out that LaRocque had been correct.
“One of the first things he asked me was about two games into the season,” Ecker said. “He said, ‘I see you like observing a lot,’ and I said yes. He said, ‘Tell me everything you see. I want to know everything that you think is wrong and off.’ I was like, OK, all the way down to the lack of engagement in the dugout right before the game, to how people stood for the National Anthem, to the lack of game planning and tightening up training.
“I basically went heavy criticizing him on everything I saw. I think a lot of people in that moment would have had some type of defensive guard up, and Oli took all of that and we sat down and started solving problem after problem. That kind of told me a lot about the fact that this guy is really committed to growing and pursuing best.
“Internally he’s driven by two things; how do we help this player do his best, and second, what’s the truth. In the minor leagues that can be kind of intimidating for players who haven’t been told the truth. Oli is consistent that the quicker we can offer him the truth, the quicker we can start to progress.
“Oli is never going to skirt around the outside. He’s going to tell them the truth, and then he’s going to lock arms with them to say, ‘Let’s go, every step of the way I’m with you.’”
Sometimes that honesty isn’t always what a player wanted to hear.
“He tells you how it is,” said pitcher Rob Kaminsky, who played for Marmol in Palm Beach. “He is honest. He sticks up for his players and wants to win. That’s all you can ask for in a manager.”
Ecker remembers many of the conversations he and Marmol shared that summer; not only about baseball, but about life, about their goals and dreams.
“I think he’s just a learner by nature and it has nothing to do with baseball,” Ecker said. “Oli is always evolving… Oli likes options. He really wants well-thought-out options. I remember a comment he made to me during a rain delay.
“I held back some information from him because I thought it was too staticky. It had to do with defensive positioning, and he kind of jumped on me and he said, ‘Don’t ever do that again. I want all of the information and I will figure out how to edit it.’ This is a guy who wanted options. He wanted all of the information and wanted to act on his principles and best practices to make the best decision.”
While baseball is the same game at the major and minor-league level, a manager’s responsibilities are different. While winning trumps everything else in the majors, there are times in the minors when there are other goals that have to be met.
That’s one reason his former players and coaches believe Marmol could be even more successful with the Cardinals than he was in Johnson City, State College or Palm Beach.
“I know it got under his skin that he knew he had to develop guys and he knew he had to get guys in at certain times, and in the back of his mind he wanted to win and he felt like in some of those situations he knew he wasn’t putting the team in the best position to win,” Harris said. “In the minors at the end of the day you’ve got to develop players and that was a struggle for him.
“I think he’s going to do well when all you have to do each and every day is win. He’s a perfect guy for that.”
Ecker saw that mental struggle as well.
“I was a naïve young coach,” he said. “I wanted to pinch-hit for one of our first-round draft picks in the sixth inning one game because I thought we had a better matchup on the bench. He (Marmol) said, ‘I do too, and I want to win this game, but if we do that Gary (LaRocque) will clean out our lockers tomorrow.’ Oli always knew how to balance player development in the minor leagues, but he knows there is a scoreboard … and the guy is an ultra, ultra competitor.”
Marmol reached the majors in 2017, first serving as the Cardinals’ first-base coach, then promoted to bench coach when Mike Shildt – one of his most-important mentors – replaced Mike Matheny as manager. Ecker got to the majors two years later, first as a coach with the Reds and last year working for the Giants.
If the timing had been just a little different, Ecker likely would be rejoining the man he calls “my number-one mentor and best friend in the game” in St. Louis, but by the time Marmol was named the manager, Ecker had already agreed to become the bench coach of the Texas Rangers.
“He has a big challenge and I have a huge challenge on my hands,” Ecker said. “Let’s put our heads down and do what we do and go get better … and we’ll see what the Lord has planned for us later on in life.”
What Ecker does know is how hard Marmol is going to work in his new job.
“If you put your right arm up and say the standard is this high, it’s world championships and excellence, he’s one of those rare people that’s willing to raise up his left arm and make all of his behaviors and his habits match the standards,” Ecker said.
“His personal framework on how he lives is best suited at the major-league level. These guys (players) want to know how they can create value in their lives. Oli is the kind of perfect person for that.”
Like Ecker, Marmol’s former players will be watching – and expecting – success.
“He was hard on himself, and he doesn’t take that responsibility lightly,” Radack said. “He wants to see players succeed in all parts of their life. That’s why he’s successful. His leadership and principles, what he brings to the table, those are the qualities of a good leader. That’s what good managers are, they are good leaders.”
Added Harris, “If you look at managers who are successful, like Dusty Baker, Joe Maddon, Brian Snitker as examples, their players absolutely love them. Those managers also allow the leaders on the team to get the clubhouse culture where it needs to be.
“That’s the epitome of what makes Oli such a good manager; he knows how to do that. … At the end of the day you still have to get the job done. I think the city will rally around him. He’s a young guy, and the type of person that he is, I think they will love him. He’s just an awesome guy.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photos courtesy of State College Spikes and by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports