SAN FRANCISCO -- Labels of greatness have been attached to pitchers named Ubaldo and Strasburg this season, but as baseball writers assess their rightful place in history, another name continually comes into play: Juan Marichal.
Yes, current events have made Marichal relevant again. The Dominican Dandy's greatness resonates louder now than at any time in the 35 years since he threw his final competitive pitch.
The 2010 season -- the "Year of the Pitcher" -- has brought renewed attention upon the previous golden era of moundsmen: the 1960s. So it's inevitable that the decade's biggest winner -- not Bob Gibson, not Sandy Koufax, but the legendary Marichal -- again stands tall on a figurative mound, his brilliance evident for all to behold. In that decade, the San Francisco Giants' right-hander with the unforgettable leg kick amassed 191 victories and six 20-win seasons.
Colorado's Ubaldo Jimenez recorded a 0.88 ERA after 10 starts earlier this season, becoming the fourth pitcher since ERA became an official statistic in the early 1910s to own a sub-1.00 figure after that many starts. It was last accomplished by Marichal, who posted a 0.59 mark in his first 10 starts of 1966.
Washington's Stephen Strasburg prompted awe with his Major League debut against Pittsburgh on June 8, when he struck out 14 and walked none, allowing two runs and four hits over seven innings. A superlative effort? Of course. But not as astounding as Marichal's debut 50 years ago today -- July 19, 1960 at San Francisco's chilly Candlestick Park. That night, Marichal one-hit the Phillies while walking one and striking out 12 in a complete-game, 2-0 triumph.
"I was freezing my butt off and watching this kid throw strike one to everybody," said Philadelphia catcher Clay Dalrymple, whose clean pinch-hit single to center field ended Marichal's no-hit bid after 7 2/3 innings.
Pitchers who had a sub-1.00 ERA after 10 starts
Marichal, then 22, didn't stop there. He recorded complete-game triumphs in his next two starts, defeating Pittsburgh, 3-1, with a four-hitter on July 23 and outlasting Milwaukee and Warren Spahn on July 28 in 10 innings, 3-2.
Three outings later, Marichal notched his fourth complete-game victory, allowing four hits at St. Louis in a 7-3 decision over Gibson, who had not yet gained stardom.
The prodigious beginning propelled Marichal, who would become the first Dominican inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame, to a 16-year career that included a 243-142 record, a 2.89 ERA, 52 shutouts and 244 complete games. Somehow, Marichal received just one third-place vote in Cy Young Award balloting throughout his entire career. But when asked how Marichal ranked alongside Gibson and Koufax, Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson said, "Right up there with them. He didn't have to take a back seat."
Explaining how he managed to thrive instantly upon reaching the Majors, Marichal recently said, "I think the key to my success was my control." He recalled that he gained this skill in his native Dominican Republic while playing for a team backed by the country's Air Force.
"We used to have a coach who brought every pitcher to the bullpen and taught us how to throw," Marichal said.
Marichal issued just 12 walks in 49 2/3 innings spanning his first six Major League starts -- a rate he maintained throughout his career.
Giants first baseman and Hall of Famer Willie McCovey described Marichal's artistry in simple terms.
"Since the first day I saw him, he was always beyond his years," McCovey said. "Juan has always been a pitcher."
Pitching had a vastly different definition for Marichal than for others.
Nobody in the right-hander's era could unleash pitches so effectively from different arm angles. Marichal was equally effective throwing straight overhand, at three-quarters, or sidearm. Some swore that he had another release point or two at his disposal.
"Once in a while, we looked for him to throw one between his legs," Robinson said. "It wouldn't have been surprising."
Commanding a variety of pitches from different release points gave Marichal a multitude of pitches at his disposal.
"We used to say kiddingly that he had 25 different pitches -- five from five different arm angles," said former Pittsburgh right-hander Steve Blass, now a Pirates broadcaster.
Marichal could throw hard, particularly at the outset of his career.
"He could come over the top with a four-seam fastball at 95 to 100 [mph]," said Bob Skinner, a Padres scout who played outfield for 12 years with three National League teams.
But Marichal also could throw soft.
"He had variations of his curveball," said Ron Santo, the Chicago Cubs' nine-time All-Star third baseman who now provides commentary on the team's radio broadcasts.
And as Marichal indicated, he almost always could throw the ball where he wanted it.
"To me, before Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal was the surgeon general of pitching."
-- Former pitcher Steve Blass
"The only thing you knew was that it was going to be over the plate," said Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre, one of Marichal's contemporaries, who hit .297 in 18 seasons. "You didn't know where it was going to come from or which part of the plate it was going to go over. He was remarkable. You could put a postage stamp down there and he could throw the ball over it."
"Juan didn't walk anybody. He challenged everybody," said Hall of Fame first baseman Orlando Cepeda, a Giant from 1958-66. "I remember one time we were playing Milwaukee. Eddie Mathews was a great fastball hitter. The bases were loaded with one out. Juan told [catcher] Tom Haller, 'I want to throw nothing but fastballs.' Haller said, 'But Mathews is a great fastball hitter!' Juan said, 'Yes, but I'm going to throw it where he isn't going to hit it.' "
Said Blass: "To me, before Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal was the surgeon general of pitching."
Marichal maintained all these gifts despite -- or because of -- his impossibly high leg kick, which required him to possess a boxer's core strength, a tightrope walker's balance and a gymnast's flexibility. Marichal's skyscraping motion made him not only entertaining to watch, but also one of history's most singular pitchers aesthetically.
Opposing hitters got no kick out of Marichal's motion, since it enhanced his deception.
"Usually with guys who come right over the top, you can pick up their pitches early," Santo said. "But with Juan, you wouldn't pick it up until it was halfway to the plate."
Marichal's talent suited the customs of the '60s. A starter was expected to finish what he began, or else he was derided as a "seven-inning pitcher." Now, a seven-inning pitcher earns an eight-figure salary.
"It was so much different then," said Washington Nationals scout Chuck Cottier, a former infielder who went 0-for-4 in Marichal's third big-league game. "There were fewer teams and they wanted pitchers to be Major League-ready when they came to the big leagues, rather than have to teach them at the Major League level."
Marichal's fast start proved that he was ready. He averaged 21 complete games from 1962-71 with a high of 30 (in 38 starts) in 1968.
Neither Marichal nor his peers would have been as durable had they been subject to the pitch counts that dominate today's game.
"They let them throw 95 to 100 pitches now," said Hobie Landrith, who caught Marichal's big league debut. "Juan would throw 140. How many did he throw in that Spahn game?"
Answer: 227, adding to the rich lore surrounding Marichal. "That Spahn game" might have been the greatest joint pitching performance in baseball's modern era. The Giants' 16-inning, 1-0 decision on July 2, 1963, featured Marichal and Spahn going the distance and Willie Mays hitting a game-winning home run.
Marichal is quick to deflect praise when he discusses his career.
"It was easy to pitch with guys like Willie Mays in center field," said Marichal, who speaks of the privilege of having teammates such as Gaylord Perry, Felipe Alou and McCovey -- who saved his June 15, 1963, no-hitter against Houston by robbing Carl Warwick of a home run in left field.
"It was an honor for me to be a part of that great team. They were superstars," Marichal said, his graciousness genuine.
"Juan was gentle and reassuring," said Chris Speier, the Cincinnati Reds bench coach who began his 19-year Major League career as a shortstop with the Giants in 1971. "He was extremely helpful in allowing me to make rookie mistakes and build my confidence by giving me a pat on the fanny when I'd screw up behind him. ... He kind of took me underneath his wing a little bit. I was a bit overwhelmed and he reassured me that I belonged there: 'Don't worry about the mistakes and I'll pick you up. Be ready for the next one.' He was really great from that standpoint."
The Aug. 22, 1965, brawl with Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, who Marichal hit over the head with his bat, threatened to ruin the pitcher's reputation. But Marichal's mostly calm demeanor otherwise, combined with the friendship he ultimately forged with Roseboro, defused that controversy.
"Juan's a remarkable guy," Landrith said. "It was so unfortunate that the Roseboro incident developed, because he was a very, very nice man. I marveled at his ability. But I always marveled at what a quality guy he is."
Marichal is a bona fide legend in the Dominican Republic. Jimenez confirmed this on the day before he started last week's All-Star Game for the NL.
"When I went to high school, he was in the [history] books," Jimenez said with a grin. "Everyone talked about Juan Marichal."
Most likely, they'll never stop.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.