Oli Marmol takes over as the first-base coach of the Cardinals this year after being promoted from his job managing Class A Palm Beach. 

By Rob Rains

It’s been nearly seven years since Oli Marmol was called into the manager’s office of the Palm Beach Cardinals and told that, at the age of 23, his career playing baseball was over.

The news didn’t come as much of a surprise. After four years during which he never advanced past Class A, and never hit higher than .221, Marmol even then had a good enough baseball mind to realize he was never going to fulfill his dream of playing shortstop in the major leagues.

What he didn’t know then, however, was that getting released would turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened in his career.

It helped Marmol find his passion – for coaching – that provided a different avenue to make his dream of reaching the major leagues come true. He will make his debut as the first base coach for the Cardinals when they play the Cubs in the season-opener on Sunday night at Busch Stadium.

At 30, Marmol is extremely young to become a major-league coach. He was promoted after five years as a manager in the Cardinals’ farm system, one in Johnson City, Tenn., followed by two each in State College, Pa., and Palm Beach, a rather meteoric rise that has left him humbled and grateful.

“God’s been good and this organization has been really good to me,” Marmol said.

It’s no secret the Cardinals minor league staff, particularly director of player development Gary LaRocque and field coordinator Mark DeJohn, keep their eyes out for players who they see as potential coaches or managers some day when their playing careers are over.

They saw such an individual in Marmol, who quickly transitioned from playing to becoming the hitting coach and first base coach for the rookie level Gulf Coast League Cardinals in 2011. It did not take long for Marmol to realize he had found what he believes he was born to do.

“You definitely start playing this game with a goal of getting to the big leagues,” Marmol said this spring. “But once I started seeing that that wasn’t going to be the case, I really was passionate about coaching. Being honest, I found more passion in coaching than I ever did playing.”

In 2012, Marmol was named the manager for the rookie-level Johnson City Cardinals. He was 25, at the time the youngest manager in affiliated baseball.

But then, like now, he has never been consumed by his age. His wife Amber once asked him why he seemed to have a lot of friends who were older than him. Having grown up around three older brothers, his answer was that it just seemed natural to him.

“I’ve had some really influential people within this organization teach me how to go about it, in the right way, how to carry yourself in a way that gets you respect,” Marmol said. “I don’t think age is a factor. You carry yourself in a certain way, and prepare in a certain way, and then you go to battle.”

General Manager John Mozeliak certainly was not worried about Marmol’s age when he telephoned him in December and offered him the chance to move from Class A all the way to the majors, skipping over two levels.

“I’ve never been one of those who looks at the minor league system as sort of a hierarchy,” Mozeliak said. “You have to do that with players but it’s not something you have to do with staff. Steve Turco, I think, is one of our most respected people at the minor league level and he manages the GCL team. I actually value teaching at all levels.”

That was the biggest reason Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny added both Marmol and Mike Shildt to this year’s coaching staff. Shildt spent the last two years managing Triple A Memphis before he was named to the new position as quality-control coach.

“When Jose (Oquendo) stepped away it allowed us to rethink how we were doing some things and it created an opening for both Marmol and Shildt,” Mozeliak said. “Oli is someone who from day one of entering the coaching ranks was very much a student of learning his discipline. He transitioned from the coaching side to the managerial side and really did a lot of positive things in our minor league system at a very young age. He is very well respected and has a great work ethic.

“When you think about some of the things we were dealing with last year one of the things we wanted to emphasis was continuing education or teaching even at the major league level. That’s why we identified both Oli and Mike, both of whom had a very strong discipline on the teaching side.”

Marmol, even though he was working at one of the lower levels in the organization, already had built relationships with many players at the major-league level. He lives in the Jupiter area, and spent the winters working with players who wanted some instruction at the Cardinals’ spring training facility.

That was one of the reasons Matheny was quick to endorse adding Marmol to the big-league staff.

“This never gets received or heard right but this (coaching) is a serving position,” Matheny said. “When you serve people well you get a great opportunity to just gain traction. Every time Oli was out here all winter long he was building up credibility and the more he was learning from other coaches who were teaching when he was around them.

“He is a giver and he’s smart. He’s bilingual. There’s a whole bunch of things he brings to the table. Most of it is with the idea of doing whatever he can to help each guy get better. Not everybody does this. There are people with an agenda in this game. This is a guy who really wants to help.

“I’ve had players tell me as long as you get people out here who are willing to help and work and care about us getting better, that’s all you can ask.”

The players who have been around Marmol the longest believe nobody better meets that description.

The learning curve

Marmol made his managerial debut on June 19, 2012, when the Johnson City Cardinals took on the Greenville Astros. His starting third baseman that night, hitting seventh, was a 17-year-old kid only a few weeks removed from an Oregon high school, Carson Kelly.

Kelly probably was not too sure who was more nervous that night, him or his manager.

“He was still trying to figure out what was going on and how everything worked,” said Kelly, who could have made the same statement about himself.

Kelly spent that season watching Marmol grow, and did the same the following year when both moved up to State College. By 2015, they were together again in Palm Beach, with Kelly by that having changed positions to become a catcher.

“I’ve had him most of my career. You could see how he changed and grew each year, you could see he was feeling more comfortable and understanding the pace of the game,” Kelly said. “It was really cool to be a part of it. You could see his focus and determination to get better. He has a good feel for what players need, and that’s really going to help him at the big league level.”

One of the first experiences Marmol had with managing a player older than himself came in State College, where former Navy Lieutenant Mitch Harris began his career.

“I didn’t even know that until I had been there for a few weeks,” Harris said. “I told him from the get-go that if he had to make an example of me just to prove a point to the team, do it. With my background it’s not going to bother me. I told him, ‘We are peers, but I respect you as my manager.’ I took a lot of things from him that year. If you didn’t know it you would think he had been coaching for a while. He knows the game well, he manages it well.”

One conversation from that summer has stuck with Harris, who knows he is in a different position that a lot of younger players because of his age and the fact he didn’t play baseball for five years after graduating from the Naval Academy. That put him on a different timetable than most of the younger players just beginning their careers.

“He said, ‘If you have a Plan B, then your Plan A must not be working out very well,’” Harris said. “I still think about it to this day. I do have to think about what’s next because of my background and age, but that can’t overshadow what your goal is, your plan A, and you can’t let plan B get close to that. That was an especially good lesson for younger guys, not wondering about what kind of job they can have next.”

When it came to his own Plan A, Marmol knew exactly what his goal was, and it was not a long-term plan to work his way toward a major-league job someday.

Sitting in the manager’s office in Palm Beach in 2015, Marmol said all of his focus and attention was targeted on what was going on that day.

“As I sit here I see that I have a game at 6:35 tonight and I have to figure out a way to get those guys going,” Marmol said then.

That single-minded approach to his job is one of Marmol’s attributes that stood out to Matheny as the manager watched him this spring.

“No doubt people who have spent any time around him realize he’s got a really good baseball mind and he’s got the right mentality for this game,” Matheny said. “He’s done a real nice job managing all the different levels and he seems to manage people really well. He’s just a guy we think makes people better.”

Eight of the players on the Cardinals opening day roster are older than Marmol, but that is not something Matheny has even thought about.

“I don’t think age matters, I really don’t,” Matheny said. “It’s the same as when I took the job as a young manager, either you have something to bring to the table or you don’t. I think he’s already brought significant value to these guys, how he works, how he really cares about them, how he makes himself available to do whatever they need to do.”

That might not be an official part of his job description, but it is an accurate summation of what Marmol intends to do every day of this season.

“This isn’t about me,” he said. “This is those guys’ careers and I need to be prepared enough to provide them with what they need to reach their goals. That’s what this is about. We’re making sure we are available both physically to get in the work and mentally in preparing to provide everything they need to reach what they want to reach.”

It’s a formula that already has worked well for Marmol in his burgeoning career.

“I’ve kept my mouth shut and I’ve observed, I think that’s the key (to success),” Marmol said. “Not jumping in just to jump in. Consistent, take time to sit back and watch how things are done, why things are successful. I need to put all my chips in those baskets.”

One of Marmol’s primary responsibilities on the Cardinals’ staff will be setting the infield defense. It was an area of concern last season, but one which both Matheny and Marmol are convinced will be improved in 2017.

“He’s the voice of the defense on the infield.” Matheny said. “He’s got a lot of people invested in him. Last year we got stuck in a spot one week before we broke spring camp. All of a sudden we had to reconstruct how we do our defense on the infield with Jose’s issues. That was a tall order. David (Bell) and Billy (Mueller) did a great job of stepping in. What they did will be a valuable asset to Oli.”

Since he was concerned with his own team’s performance in Palm Beach last year- and since he had no idea then he would be on the major-league staff this year – how the Cardinals played defensively was not on Marmol’s mind. It is now.

“It’s a challenge; one tht I want,” Marmol said. “As a manager in the minors you are kind of in charge of that on a daily basis so it’s something I’m familiar with.

“As a staff we’ve had a lot of conversations about last year but last year is done. We’ve put our heads together about how to approach this year defensively and what we need to improve, and that’s what we’re working on. There’s no secret to it. It just takes work.”

A special moment

As hard as Marmol worked this spring, and as prepared as he will be, he knows there will be some nerves and butterflies when he rides around Busch Stadium on Sunday night for his formal introduction to Cardinal fans.

In his five opening days as a minor-league manager, the largest crowd Marmol saw was just over 5,000 fans at State College. The average of the five crowds was just more than 2,000.

“It will be exciting,” he said. “You set your goals to get there as a player, but to stand there as a member of the staff and to be part of this organization, that’s something I’m really looking forward to.”

One of those happy that Marmol will get to enjoy that moment is Mozeliak.

“It’s nice when you can reward people internally and allow them to advance, but to do that you have to earn it,” he said. “He earned it.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains