McDonald wrestles with big expectations


March 04, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The story grows with every new alligator that shows up in the clubhouse and every new allegation that stretches the limits of believability. If Ben McDonald had been born during the 19th century, schoolchildren would be singing songs about him by now.

But is this latter-day Louisiana legend bigger than life or just bigger than truth? The Baltimore Orioles' promising young pitcher would be the first to tell you that he's probably a little bit of both.

"It's exaggerated to some extent," McDonald said. "When you talk about Louisiana, all people think about is airboats and swamps. I grew up in a town [Denham Springs] with 12,000 people, and I live in the same neighborhood I grew up in. But as far as the things I like to do -- like hunting and fishing and fooling around -- that's not exaggerated."

The alligator tales are true. He fished a small one out of a pond at a golf course the other day and brought it into the Orioles' clubhouse in a duffel bag. It was only 30 inches long, but it caused quite a stir when it scurried under pitcher Bob Milacki's locker and refused to come out.

McDonald has picked on gators his own size, too. That doesn't elicit the same kind of chuckles from the Orioles' front office, not when anyone stops to think about what a 6-footer could do to the most valuable arm in the organization.

"The biggest one we ever wrestled was 6-foot-10," he said. "My buddy jumped on it, but it was whipping its tail, so I had to jump on the back to get it into the boat. We've only had one guy get bit. That was four years ago, and my buddy had to have 68 stitches, but he's still doing it."

Not-so-gentle Ben supposedly gave up reptile wrestling after that happened. ("Though I'll still drive the boat sometimes," he said.) Someone pointed out that it would be a shame to risk a multimillion-dollar pitching arm for a cheap thrill, but he couldn't resist bringing the miniature alligator to camp Tuesday.

"Let's put off that alligator-wrestling stuff for the next 20 years or so," said pitching coach Al Jackson, who would like to build the Orioles' starting rotation around McDonald for at least half that long.

The Orioles were so impressed with the way he pitched during the second half of last season (8-5, 2.43 ERA) that manager Frank Robinson already has named him the starter for the regular-season opener against Chicago White Sox April 8.

"I look at his arm as a very valuable part of our future," Robinson said. "You don't want to do anything unnecessarily that could physically harm yourself."

McDonald, 23, doesn't argue. He knows what his arm is worth, and he's already earned more with it than some of the great pitchers of the past made in their careers.

Here's where the backwoods image cracks. This kid is no hick, even if he spends a lot of time trying to be a 20th century swamp fox. He knows all about the business of baseball, and he never has sold himself short.

The Orioles grappled with agent Scott Boros for months trying to get McDonald under contract after making him the No. 1 pick in the June 1989 free-agent draft. It got so acrimonious that McDonald had to tiptoe around the clubhouse for a while after he was called to the big leagues that year.

He signed a three-year contract that immediately made him one of the highest-paid pitchers on the team. But that package (worth more than $800,000) no longer seems so large in baseball's new economic environment.

Right-hander Roger Clemens of Boston recently signed a four-year deal worth $21.5 million. Mediocre pitchers routinely sign for $2 million annual salaries. What will McDonald be worth when arbitration eligibility gives him some real leverage in a couple of years? What kind of package will he command as a free agent?

It all depends on whether he continues to live up to his vast potential, but he could be looking at some amazing numbers.

"If I were him, I'd insure that arm for $10 million," Robinson said.

McDonald saw the headlines the day Clemens signed. He knows what the future holds if he becomes a consistent winner in the majors. He also knows what it takes after a very successful half-season with the Orioles last year.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "The way salaries are going up, who knows what the market values will be when I reach that point? When my agent came to me and said what we were going to ask for after I got drafted, I thought he was crazy. But I've been lucky. Growing up, I've always had what I needed. I'm not that obsessed with money."

Orioles president Larry Lucchino might want to clip out the preceding paragraph and save it, because Boros will be coming around to talk again soon.

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