Orioles, Everyone Else Decide Ben McDonald Is the One in Draft

Washington Post

Ben McDonald’s story begins in Denham Springs, La., a small hard-scrabble town 20 miles northeast of Baton Rouge. It begins with his dad, Larry, building a backyard pitching mound. It begins with lessons.

“I told him to forget about velocity,” Larry McDonald said the other day. “He was only 5 or 6 at the time, and you never know what’s going to happen with velocity. If you make a kid think it’s important at that age, all you can do is hurt him. Either that’s going to come or it’s not. What I wanted Ben to think about was control.”

Pinpoint control. He wanted his son to imagine throwing high and tight to right-handed hitters. Low and away to lefties. He wanted Ben to think of situations and of changing speeds. He wanted a foundation.


Larry worked then, as now, for Exxon Chemical, and when he came home afternoons, he and Ben would go into the backyard and play catch. He was supportive and his criticisms were gentle. Focus on the glove a little more quickly. Square your shoulders. Whatever.

Mostly, Larry McDonald was patient and smart, and for nine years, Ben had no other coach. “The mechanics I have today,” Ben said proudly, “those are the same my dad taught me as a kid.”

Larry, 49, hasn’t played serious catch with his son for six years. “When he was throwing in the 70s, that was no problem,” he said. “When he began hitting the 80s, that was all for me.”

He’s a big, burly man with a graying, fuzzy mustache and a deep laugh. Today, having raised a player whose name is already a household word to the executives of 26 major league baseball teams, he’s proud he never let Ben throw a curveball or a forkball or any of the other trick pitches that tax young elbows.

Instead, Ben McDonald grew up strengthening his shoulder by throwing one batting-practice fastball after another and gaining the control that so amazes baseball people. In those days, Ben didn’t need the fancy stuff because then, as now, he was bigger than everyone else.

“When he was 5, he played with 8-year-olds,” Larry McDonald said. “He also was about a head taller than everyone else.”


Ben McDonald is Larry’s only son, and Larry says the goal was never to make Ben great, but to have some fun and teach Ben about doing things right. In those days, Larry had no idea what the final package might be, although in talking to him, it’s clear that wearing the purple and gold of Louisiana State was a high priority.

“It just sort of all came together,” Larry McDonald said.

It has come together this way: Today, Ben McDonald is the best amateur pitching prospect in the world. At 20, he’s a strapping, 6-foot-7, 212-pounder with four above-average pitches, beginning with a big, hard curveball and a fastball that has been clocked at between 92 and 95 m.p.h.

One major league scouting service gave him its highest score ever, higher than Dwight Gooden or Roger Clemens or Frank Viola.

The Baltimore Orioles will make him the No. 1 pick in next month’s amateur draft. They’ll sign him for about $275,000 and send him to Class AA Hagerstown. If he does well, he’ll be moved to Class AAA Rochester, and by Sept. 1, could be in the big leagues, perhaps for good.

Ben McDonald is the Orioles’ reward for those 107 losses in 1988. This is the first time they’ve had the No. 1 selection--Auburn’s Gregg Olson was the fourth player chosen in 1988--and the Orioles hope it’s the last.

So in an organization committed to youth and the draft, Ben McDonald is about to become one of their most prized possessions ever.

McDonald throws his final warmup pitch, and takes off the sweat-stained cap he has worn all season. He gives his flattop a final brush, and as Georgia’s J.R. Showalter steps in, the Southeastern Conference tournament is about to begin on a warm, sunny day at the University of Florida.

A dozen or so major league scouts sit poised in the seats behind home plate. Most of them have notebooks, and five of them have raised radar guns. Oriole General Manager Roland Hemond and his special assistant, Gordon Goldsberry, are watching McDonald for the first time. Another Oriole scout, Jim Pamlanye, is also here.

At least four other Baltimore scouts already have seen McDonald, and the Orioles have had at least one pair of eyes around every time McDonald has pitched.

This day, though, is different. The big boys are in for a peek at the player they’ve heard so much about, and although the circumstances are unavoidable, LSU Coach Skip Bertman isn’t particularly happy.

“I’m worried about Ben,” Bertman said two hours before game time. “There are some new Baltimore people here, and Ben knows about it. He was the ace on the Olympic team. He has pitched a lot of big games for us. But in a way, this is more pressure than he’ll face in the big leagues. This is Ben trying to prove he deserves to be the No. 1 pick.”

During batting practice, Bertman strolls out to left field and has a chat with his pitcher. McDonald says he’s fine, says that one game won’t make or break a reputation that, both on and off the field, is virtually beyond reproach.

Eight hours later, he admitted otherwise. Big shots are here, and when Showalter steps in, McDonald is on the mound “with nothing. I can’t get my curveball over, and my fastball is all over the place.”

He says he’s not bothered by Hemond’s presence, and in a conversation after the game, listens as Hemond tells him, “We hope to get to know you better.”

He also knows something else, that “I’m supposed to win when I don’t have my best stuff. A pitcher is only going to have good stuff 65% of the time. That’s one of the things Coach has emphasized. I pitched a game against Colorado Springs (Cleveland’s Class AAA team) before the Olympics and got by with a fastball and changeup. Part of learning to pitch is learning to get by with what you have that day.”

Still, it’s uncomfortable. Showalter gets an aluminum bat on the ball and grounds a wrong-field single to right. The second hitter, first baseman Doug Radziewicz, punches an opposite-field double down the left-field line.

Showalter scores, and LSU trails, 1-0. It’s no small moment. “The one thing we haven’t done here is win a national championship,” McDonald said. “That’s the ring I want to leave here with.”

Indeed, in McDonald’s freshman year, Stanford’s Paul Carey tagged him for a sudden-death grand slam that eliminated the Tigers. McDonald said it was that game that convinced him to quit the LSU basketball team and concentrate on baseball “to prove I was better than people thought.”

He became a runner and a weight lifter, and because of that homer, brought together a lot of the pieces to what is now a magnificent package.

He bounces a curveball in the dirt, and Radziewicz goes to third with none out. He steps off the mound and pauses. Catcher Roger Miller is the Georgia hitter, and later Miller would say, “You could tell he was struggling. But it looks like when there are men on base he can rise to another level. He can just turn it on and keep runners from scoring. That’s the talent he has.”

McDonald comes back to strike out Miller on a fastball that one gun clocks at 97 m.p.h. He gets the next hitter on another one and leaves Radziewicz at third by getting designated hitter Brian Jester on a slow infield grounder.

On a day when he has “nothing,” he will retire 25 of the next 28 Bulldogs and take a two-hitter and a 6-1 lead into the ninth.

“The weird part is that I was throwing pretty well in the ninth,” he said. “The only two pitches I’m able to get down in the strike zone all day are the ones they hit the hardest.”

One is by Miller, who bangs a one-out double off the wall in right-center. McDonald strikes out Bruce Chick, but Jester golfs a low fastball over the wall in left-center. That makes it 6-3, and McDonald steps off the mound, pounds his glove and kicks at the dirt.

Bertman comes out to calm him down, and McDonald gets the final out on a grounder to shortstop. He has won, 6-3, on a complete-game four-hitter, but in some ways he has failed.

He’s clearly angry after the game, and even Bertman apologizes for his pitcher’s performance.

“Eight strikeouts, three walks,” he said. “That’s not Ben McDonald.”

A few hours later, McDonald could laugh about it, saying, “You do get charged up by what other people expect. The first game this season I gave up two runs in seven innings, and everyone said, ‘What’s wrong with Ben?’ Then, I threw 45 consecutive scoreless innings, and everyone said, ‘Now, that’s what Ben is supposed to do.’ To some people nothing I do will ever be good enough.”

After this game, Hemond is noncommittal, saying, “Anything I say would be counter-productive.” Anything he says publicly in May could raise the signing price in June. For the record, the Orioles haven’t even settled on McDonald, yet for the most part, major league scouts from other clubs don’t come around any more.

“That’s when I knew he’d be the No. 1 pick,” Bertman said. “After midseason, interest dropped off. It was just the Orioles.”

Three years ago, the Atlanta Braves made him a 20th-round draft pick and offered $67,000. Larry McDonald said no.

“We were asking for $100,000,” he said, “but I don’t even think that would have done it. I just didn’t think Ben was mentally mature.”

Ben also didn’t know which sport to pursue. His attempt at being a veer quarterback eliminated football, but he was good enough to attend LSU on a basketball scholarship. He was also good enough to start the first six games of his freshman year, although he said, “That was tough. I was recruited to be a wingman, and injuries forced Coach (Dale) Brown to put me inside. I was in there going up against guys three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier. I took a beating . . . I love basketball, but I think in the back of my mind, I always knew I’d end up in baseball. I mean, how many 6-7 white kids make it (in basketball)?”

He didn’t make a decision until at the end of his freshman baseball season. Specifically, after he pitched very little, then gave up the home run that he stills calls “a crusher.”

McDonald said he still looks at tapes of that home run. He said he still thinks about the lessons he learned, “and when I’m feeling too cocky, I go back and look at it. You can get humble in this game pretty fast.”

“We were watching on television at home,” Larry McDonald said, “and I thought it was a fly ball to left field. You never know with those aluminum bats. The next thing I see is Ben kneeling beside the mound. You know what that does to you? He called 30 minutes after the game and I said, ‘Ben, how’re you doing?’ He said, ‘Daddy, I made a bad pitch.’ I said, ‘OK, that’s what I wanted to hear you say.’ ”

A week later, Ben left to play in an Alaskan summer amateur league, and Larry said, “He changed 180 degrees. He started running and lifting weights, and after about a week up there, he called and said he was giving up basketball. There were some tears from all of us, but the bad thing is that he thought me and his mother wanted him to be a basketball player more than a baseball player. I don’t know where he got that, but you could tell he thought he was letting us down.”

Ben said, “It was simple to me. If I kept playing basketball I couldn’t reach my full potential in baseball.”

That was that. McDonald went 13-7 with a 2.65 earned-run average his sophomore year. In 118 2-3 innings, he struck out 144 and walked 27. What scouts saw was someone who could not only throw a 95-m.p.h. fastball, but also had the control to put it where he wanted.

He developed a two-seam fastball that runs into right-handed hitters. His curveball got better. His changeup was passable. He even worked on a hard forkball that Bertman refuses to let him throw.

“That arm,” Bertman said, “is too valuable for me to allow something like that.”

It was also an unnecessary weapon against college players, and in his first couple of seasons, the Orioles will have to go through the catalogue and decide what stays and what’s to be discarded.

What many scouts predict is that he’ll become a pure power pitcher--”You don’t see many of those any more,” New York Yankee scout director Brian Sabean said--and will need to throw the curve and changeup only a couple of times a game.

He was headed toward his stardom by the end of his sophomore season and went 8-2 with a 2.61 ERA for the U.S. Olympians.

By the time this season began, scouts flocked to see this prize package of power and size. “Hitters hate big, tall pitchers,” Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson said. “Give me a big tall guy every time.”

Or as Mississippi State’s Barry Winford whispered to LSU catcher Mike Bianco during one at-bat: “That curveball ought to be illegal.”

He has responded to the pressure of this junior season (when he’s again eligible for the draft) by going 12-2 with a 1.82 ERA. He has 160 strikeouts and 24 walks in 118 2-3 innings, and for his college career, has averaged 5.5 strikeouts for every one walk.

“This is my 28th year around this game,” Bertman said, “and at this juncture, he’s better than Clemens, Viola, Greg Swindell, any of those guys. None of those guys had the control this guy has. He has also handled adversity. If he gets lit up and 11 minicams come around, he can handle that. He knows the ways of the world.

“Did you see Mark Langston lose that no-hitter? Ben knows there are going to be days like that. He knows you’re going to lose some games, and he knows there are things you can’t control. I’ll say one thing, though. People are going to be surprised. I don’t care what they expect. When he gets to Baltimore and (catcher) Mickey Tettleton drops the sign, the pitch is going to be right there. How often does a guy like that come along? I’ve never seen one like him. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing for me.”