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McDonald Ready to Help Orioles Build Future

BALTIMORE SUN

Gone fishing. Gone hunting.

Caught 100 white trout. Honest. Fired three boxes of shells, got a powerful kick from the rifle, and felt a dull pain in the right shoulder. Decided to shoot left-handed. Bagged two deer, 30 ducks and assorted squirrels and rabbits.

It’s a long off-season. Good thing Mom’s freezer is filled.

A reminder: Ben McDonald represents the future of the Baltimore Orioles.

Sure, last summer was all buildup without a payoff. But McDonald is preparing to give the Orioles a return on their $1 million-plus investment. He is running. Lifting weights. Restoring his confidence back home in this town of 9,000 by the Amite River. Aching to loosen his golden right arm and throw 90-mph fastballs in January.

McDonald also is attempting to comprehend all that occurred last summer, and all that is yet to come. He is young and innocent, and he just wants to play ball.

“I’m not a flashy guy, a Neon Deion Sanders-type who eats all this stuff up,” he said. “I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t do anything special to make it happen. I’m a down-to-earth guy.”

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McDonald still lives at home, and he is comfortable spreading his 6-foot-7 body across an LSU Tigers blanket that lies on an overstuffed couch in the family room. He has an obvious love and affection for his parents, Rebecca and Larry, and his older sister, Pasha.

The family room remains very much a monument to Ben’s success. The Southeastern Conference school pennants that once lined the paneled walls are gone, to be replaced by baseball pennants. The new collection begins with the Orioles and Texas Rangers. A large-screen television set is equipped with a satellite dish that can pick up Orioles games. An Orioles teddy-bear ornament hangs prominently on the family’s Christmas tree.

“We’re a very close family,” Larry said. “And we’re very proud of Ben.”

Last summer, the McDonalds’ son became a national celebrity. Selected No. 1 out of Louisiana State University by the Orioles in the June free-agent draft, the hardest-throwing pitcher in college was supposed to step right up to the majors and blow strikes past the Jose Cansecos and Kirby Pucketts of the American League.

Right.

A contract negotiation that lasted longer than Batmania took care of those expectations. McDonald did finally pitch, but he was out of shape, overmatched and forgotten during the closing days of a September spectacle.

McDonald watched. The race played out. The miracle died. The day after the Toronto Blue Jays eliminated the Orioles to win the 1989 American League East Division title, McDonald pitched one inning in relief at the Toronto SkyDome and got his first major-league victory in the season’s 162nd game.

Big deal. The ball is in his bedroom closet.

Went to basketball games 12 miles down the road at the old state university in Baton Rouge. Picked up five Player of the Year awards, including the Golden Spike, the top amateur baseball prize. Ate at Mickey Mantle’s restaurant in -- are you ready for this? -- New York. Played whiffle-ball games in the back yard with the neighbors.

Worked in the Florida Instructional League. Had trouble with the curve. Went fishing and caught a five-foot alligator. Dragged it back to the hotel room, taped its mouth shut and dumped the ‘gator in a teammate’s bathtub. Made the national news.

“The major leagues were everything I thought they would be, and a little more,” McDonald said in a drawl that is a half-beat quicker after months of being chased and caught by people holding microphones and minicams.

What McDonald experienced last summer was unprecedented. College players, even juniors who have one year of playing eligibility remaining, normally have little clout when it comes to bargaining with major-league clubs. But McDonald was different. His tour of duty with the 1988 U.S. Summer Olympic baseball team and a knee-weakening, heart-thumping fastball made him a phenom. Hours of television exposure on ESPN turned him into a star. A rumor of a new league to challenge the established major leagues transformed him into a highly sought prize.

The negotiations were to be difficult.

Picture this: Larry McDonald, an operations supervisor at the Exxon chemical plant in Baton Rouge, going one-on-one with Orioles President Lawrence Lucchino, Yale Law class of ’72. With the college game’s crazy eligibility rules to consider, all the old man could do was tell the Orioles that Ben wanted “a Bo Jackson-type contract.” Gulp. The translation: at least a million bucks and a major-league contract. The Orioles countered with a $230,000 bonus and a minor-league contract.

Time to get a hired gun. Enter Scott Boras, a California-based attorney who represented the cream of the 1988 Olympic pitching staff, Andy Benes of the San Diego Padres and Jim Abbott of the California Angels. The McDonalds liked Boras’ friendly touch and his ties with Ben’s Olympic teammates.

“We talked with 15 or 20 agents,” said Larry McDonald. “There are a lot of honest people out there, and then there are some crooks.”

Boras didn’t want to let his client down.

“The first time I saw Ben pitch was in February, and after the game, I walked seven miles back to the hotel,” Boras said. “I kept asking myself, ‘What am I going to do?’ I can’t let this kid sign a traditional minor-league contract.”

Boras laid out a plan and a figure: $1.25 million over three years. To get it, the McDonalds would have to hold tough and take heat after the Orioles drafted Ben on June 5. But before judging their actions, specifically the public role played by the father, ask yourself this: What would you do?

Imagine: Other agents tried to swoop in and get Ben; the talk-show callers in Baltimore cut up the McDonalds nightly; reporters called the family at all hours of the day and night; and Ben wanted to pitch.

“I know that some people in Baltimore thought I was a jerk,” Larry McDonald said. “They didn’t know me. But this was a straight evolution. At that point, baseball becomes a business, an honest business. A player’s negotiation power is nothing after that first year.”

Day after day after day, stories appeared in Baltimore-area newspapers detailing the contract impasse. Boras hit the airwaves in Baltimore, lighting up the switchboards of the talk shows. After a while, it all became boring.

“It was a very hard negotiation,” Lucchino said. “We’ve determined to put those negotiations behind us.”

It got weird. Ben showed up to pitch in the Cape Cod League in Massachusetts in July. Six thousand people watched the game.

There was a murky episode with a fledgling group identified as The Baseball League. According to the McDonalds, this new league, which plans to operate in 16 cities by 1991, offered Ben a $2.25 million, three-year, personal-services contract with none other than ... Donald Trump.

“I wanted to play in the major leagues,” Ben said. “I didn’t want to have to wait another year.”

Finally, a $950,000, three-year, guaranteed deal was cut Aug. 18, more than 10 weeks after the draft. With bonuses clauses that reach $225,000, McDonald easily could push the package above $1 million. The next night, Ben and his family showed up in Baltimore, signed the contract and watched the Orioles play. The crowd cheered the image on the DiamondVision scoreboard as the camera panned across Ben’s face. But the fans booed when Larry’s face appeared. The father had become a villain to some while protecting his son.

“I was surprised,” Larry said. “I met some people at the ticket window and they thought I was a real jerk. But once they got to talking with me, they understood everything we were going through. Once the contract was signed, it was let’s play baseball.”

The McDonalds say they harbor no ill feelings toward Orioles fans.

“You have to understand, we don’t have pro sports around here,” Larry said. “We were amazed at the amount of enthusiasm there was in Baltimore for a pro sports team. I never assumed that a city would be all that excited over a pro team. And those fans are knowledgeable. They were great.”

Ben made his minor-league debut Aug. 23 with the Class A Frederick (Md.) Keys. More than 8,000 fans, 18 television crews and 28 reporters invaded Frederick’s McCurdy Field.

“It was a circus,” Ben said. “I wasn’t ready to play. I wasn’t in shape. I couldn’t concentrate.”


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