ZEPHYRHILLS, FLA. — Clint Wilson figured he'd be pitching baseballs in some pristine minor league ballpark by now. Or at least at Penn State, the Big Ten school not far from his parents' home in rural Pennsylvania.
Instead, he's standing in a clump of weeds a couple of dozen yards from a busy truck route throwing foam cooler lids into a net.
This, he is convinced, is the first step toward the big leagues.
"I got my career back," says Wilson, who was told to give up baseball after a life-threatening blood clot landed him in a hospital three years ago. "I'm throwing so much harder. But I still feel like I can be a lot better than what I am right now."
Joe Williams appeared to be on the fast track toward pitching at Shea Stadium before hurting his back, then his shoulder two years ago. Now the former minor league all-star stands near Wilson, throwing an eight-pound iron ball against a padded wall.
"I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't want to play baseball for a living still," Williams says. "I've got the rest of my life to work."
Once-promising prospects, Wilson and Williams have been repeatedly cut by doctors and coaches who chipped away at their bones, their tendons and their confidence. So with little more than their dreams to hang on to, they've come to west-central Florida to rebuild their arms and spirits at the Pitching Research and Training Center run by former Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall.
Despite the cutting-edge name stenciled on a tired white picket fence that surrounds the 8-year-old facility, Marshall's center seems more like a farm -- right down to the spartan duplexes that bookend the practice field. There the players sleep three to an apartment, sharing a dirty kitchen, a living room with worn furniture and threadbare rugs and a small bathroom with one another as well with an army of ants and roaches.
"When my parents saw it," Wilson, 20, says in a whisper, "they were like, 'We still have the check. Do you really want to stay down here?' "
He did, so his parents went ahead and paid the $10 a day for rent and $10 a day for instruction it costs to attend Marshall's nine-month course.
"I kind of like it down here," the 26-year-old Williams said. "This is almost like being in college again. It's like a frat house."
But it's doubtful the left-hander, once a biology student at Chicago's St. Xavier University, ever had a professor like the man he calls "Doc."
Short, balding and wearing baggy sweat pants and a moth-eaten, baby blue T-shirt turned inside out, Marshall does not look like a scientist -- never mind the story that he turned down a job at NASA partly because it didn't seem intellectually stimulating enough.
So instead of figuring out new ways to launch rockets, he has decided to concentrate on finding newer and better ways to launch baseballs.
"These guys are my guinea pigs to learn how to prevent pitching-arm injuries for everybody," he says of his students. "They come down here and they bust their [butts] to learn these skills."
And to forget just about everything else they know about pitching.
Marshall, for example, has scrapped the traditional twisting windup that pulls the arm away from the body before delivering the ball with a pronated, thumbs-up release, instead teaching a supinated, thumbs-down release and an erect, straight-ahead delivery with a quarter turn that leaves his students looking more like javelin throwers than pitchers.
In addition to the new delivery, the students also must learn the vocabulary that describes it. There's the pendulum swing, the "maxline" pitches that dart to one side of the plate and the torque pitches that shoot to the other.
It's odd, but it works, relieving stress on the muscles and bones, say Marshall and his followers.
"I can't say enough great things about him. He saved my son's arm," says Allen Wilson, a youth baseball coach in central Florida.
Says Lon Fullmer, an Orange County youth coach who has studied Marshall's method: "He dumped a cold bucket of water on my head and told me I didn't know what I was doing. He was basically right. I was ignorant."
But despite those results and a pedigree that includes a Cy Young Award and a doctorate in kinesiology, professional baseball has kept Marshall and his ideas at arm's length for what he says are personal reasons.
"They just didn't want my ideas to get in," Marshall says. "That's ridiculous. But that's the small-mindedness of Major League Baseball. They don't know what the hell they're doing. And if I get in, everybody will know that they don't know what the hell they're doing."