The highlight of Baltimore Orioles baseball on MASN this season has been former starter Ben McDonald‘s analysis.
Birdswatcher: What was it like being a No. 1 pick coming out of LSU?
Ben McDonald: “I tested higher than any other player at the time in the history of Major League Baseball so there was a lot of expectations going in and of course you get two starts in 10 days in the minor leagues and you’re in the big leagues as a 21-year-old kid. … That’s what happened in 1989.
I signed August the 19th. I was in the big leagues September the first as a 21-year-old with not a clue of what I was doing and how to handle the big leagues. The off the field life, everything that goes along with it.
I knew I had good stuff but Skip Bertman, who was the coach at LSU, he called every pitch I ever threw at LSU. He called it and I never really understood why I could do that or I could do this. And all of a sudden you get in the big leagues at 21. They give you the ball and say go call your own game against the best hitters in the world. I didn’t have a clue. And so there was a big learning curve for me.
Stuff was there but the mental side of it wasn’t. And then I had to live up to all the expectations of being the No. 1 pick and the Orioles finished last in ’88. That’s how they got me, obviously. And I was going to be the savior and Frank Robinson told me at the beginning of 1990 that I had to win 20 games or we weren’t going to win any ballgames. He said that in a newspaper and I’m like, I don’t even know how to pitch yet and the skipper’s saying I’ve got to win 20.
And so there was a lot that went into it and it bothered me for a while because I tried to live up to everybody else’s expectations … and Scott Boras … my agent said, ‘Ben this is not going to be easier … but you get about 200 innings in the big leagues and that light bulb’s going to begin to flicker a little bit for you’ and it did and it took some time and I had some success as you know. I went out my first-ever start and threw a complete-game shutout. But there were a lot of nights I went home banging my head on the wall wondering why I couldn’t consistently get big league hitters out and it was after about 200 innings pitched that I kind of had a game plan.”
Birdswatcher: When you were at LSU, you were on the basketball team. Being 6’7, was it a tough sell to tell people that you wanted to play baseball instead of basketball?
Ben McDonald: “Dale Brown, who is still around today. One of the best motivators and best coaches I ever had. He taught me so much about not basketball but just life in general. Still stays in touch with me about my kids and everything that I do and he watches some of the broadcasts. But yeah, it was a tough sell for him because you know I was one of those honorable mention Parade All-Americans out of high school.
Actually got way more attention coming out of high school shooting a basketball, playing basketball than I ever did playing baseball although I was drafted by the Braves out of high school but basketball was my love, and probably had more success doing that than I did anything. But I played all sports and I played football too and I loved football and I did those things as well but it was a tough sell to Dale Brown because he always has been, ‘you’re going to play in the NBA’ To this day, he says, ‘I still think you chose the right sport but you could have played in the NBA. That’s how good you were.’ I can’t answer that question but I love the baseball too … ended up being what I chose to do professionally.”
Birdswatcher: What is the difference pitching at your height compared to some of these guys that are 6’3, 6’4?
Ben McDonald: “I always say, how many 6’7 golfers do you see on the PGA Tour? And the answer to that is none. Because of the mechanics of golfing, it helps to be smaller and have a compact swing. A swing that you can reproduce and be consistent with. Well, the same thing is true in pitching for a pitcher. When you’re 6’7 like I was and you’re all arms and legs, it really has to sync up to be consistent.
It’s all about being consistent and being able to duplicate your mechanics. If you can do that, you can throw the ball where you want to throw the ball but you get a little bit off over the top of that rubber being as tall as I was, it’s a lot off by the time it travels 60 feet, six inches so that was always the challenge for me.”
Birdswatcher: What clicked for you in 1993, your best season? You had a 3.39 ERA in the Steroid Era.
Ben McDonald: “I think it was just the innings finally got to a good point for me after a full season in ’92 where I threw over 200 innings. I got a lot of starts under my belt. I never missed a start. I think that carried over. I came up with a cut fastball toward the end of ’92 where I could cut the ball down and away to righties and inside to lefties. I think that changed the game for me in a lot of ways.
But I think it was just my experience. Knowing the league, knowing the hitters. And being more comfortable and having a full year of staying healthy under my belt in ’92 and that just kind of carried over to ’93.”
Birdswatcher: It has been 25 years since Cal Ripken Jr. broke the consecutive games record. What was it like playing with the Iron Man?
Ben McDonald: “He played the game the right way is the best way I could describe it. It was just fun to be a part of it and watch him go through it. Watch him play banged up more than most people knew. But a tough guy, man. Just a gritty guy that fought through a lot of stuff and was a hell of a player.
As far as baseball IQ, he might be the smartest guy I ever played with. It was … fun seeing everybody relate to what he was doing and everybody talks about McGwire and Sosa and yes, they were big helping bringing people back to the game of baseball after the work stoppage but make no mistake about it, it was Cal Ripken Jr. and I said this on the air … people can’t relate to somebody that throws 95.
They can’t relate to a guy that hits a ball 450 feet. The average person can’t relate to that but they can relate to a guy who all he wants to do is go to work every day. And I think that’s what Jr. did is just got up, put his spikes on and he went to work every day. And I think millions of Americans can relate.”
Birdswatcher: What was pitching in the Steroid Era like?
Ben McDonald: “It was different. There was always rumors and you knew the McGwire’s and the Canseco’s because my gosh, you’d go in there one series when they weren’t cycling. They’d be 30 pounds lighter. You go back the next and their head’s this big around.
You knew what was going on. I didn’t think in my time, that it was as widespread as it ended up being. I never and I played parts of nine years in the big leagues.
I never saw needles or any of that kind of stuff in the Oriole clubhouse or the Brewer clubhouse. … We found out that there were a lot of guys that I was suspicious of because I knew how hard I worked in the offseason … and if I worked really hard, I could gain about five pounds of muscle. But then some guys would show up to spring training and they’d be 15, 20 pounds heavier and I know good and well in hell that guy didn’t work harder than what I did in the offseason.”