It's tough to expect less from McDonald

MIKE LITTWIN

July 05, 1991|By MIKE LITTWIN

Everyone says to slow down, to calm down, to let Ben be Ben. To give the kid some room. And it all makes perfect sense.

Until he pitches.

That's when you realize perspective has his limits. You tell me what you do with perspective when this kid -- and he's just a kid -- comes back from 40 days of doubt and fear and injury to pitch eight innings of two-hit shutout ball against the explosive Tigers.

He retired 23 of his first 24 batters. He looked almost exactly like Walter Johnson, only taller. With everyone watching him as if he were 6 feet, 7 inches of Waterford crystal, McDonald was that gator-wrestling phenom all the poets keep wanting to write about.

And so it starts all over again.

When he pitches tomorrow, the expectations will be what they've always been. Starting, to tell you the truth, with Big Ben himself.

John Oates says McDonald can't win the pennant alone, and McDonald listens and even says he agrees. And then in the next breath says he can be the dominant pitcher every team needs. He says it just this way: "I think I can go out and dominate a ballgame. Every team needs someone like that, and, if I'm throwing right, I can be that pitcher for the Orioles."

This is the curse and blessing of Ben McDonald. He has the talent and he knows he has the talent. He speaks of his ability so naturally, as if it were his best friend, but will results ever match the promise? After two years, the questions come a little more often and are spoken a little more loudly. Is he injury-prone? Can someone his size be fragile at the same time?

"I've never been hurt before," he says. "I played three sports in high school and two sports in college, and I was never hurt.

"When I got hurt, I think the problem was I didn't really know my arm. I couldn't distinguish between soreness and pain. And when there was real pain, I tried to pitch through it. Now, I know myself better. I know what natural soreness is. When I pitched before, I never had any."

He had it this spring, and he had it so bad that it completely confused him. You saw him pitch. Let's say he looked human. You could also say that he looked pretty awful, with an ERA -- 7.03 -- the size of the national debt. Flashes of brilliance were mixed with full innings of baseball horror. Yes, he was confused.

It began when he was hurt in spring training. And, a month into the season, he was on the disabled list.

"I was scared," he says. "The first time they put you in that MRI tube, your hands up in the air for 45 minutes, it scares you all right. I had the MRI and all the X-rays. I thought I was really hurt. But then it turned out to be a strained muscle. I've got a feeling all the bad luck's over. Maybe I won't get hurt for another five or six years."

Now, he hopes he has lived through all the injuries, leaving him free simply to pitch. It's never been quite that easy. There was the holdout after he was drafted. There was the quick trip to the minors, lasting all of two weeks. There were the early victories. There have been the constant injuries. There have been the moments when he threw his 95-mile-an-hour fastball and couldn't get anyone out. And all anyone wanted from his was to be the best pitcher since the original Jim Palmer.

"This spring, they said I was the Opening Day starter before we'd ever played an exhibition game," he said. "Then I get hurt again. It's tough. I've struggled. I've been hurt. I've been lit up. I've pitched some great games. I think I've learned something from all that."

He's 23. He has made 27 starts. And he's still bigger than life, or trying to be. When you want to say he's human, you go back to the five straight wins last year in his first five starts in the big leagues and you think of Fernando. You look to see that the league hit only .205 against him last season. Only one pitcher did better. He was Nolan Ryan.

The certain truth about Ben McDonald is that he can go only two ways: as a great success or a failure. You watch him pitch the two-hitter,and you can't imagine anything but success.

He pitched Monday after two rehabilitative starts in the minor leagues where he was knocked around, and you had to ask yourself if the Orioles weren't rushing him again. Why weren't they giving him time and space? But the big leagues are easier for McDonald than the minors, where he never learned to pitch. He couldn't find the pump for the adrenal gland. He couldn't really let it air out.

"When you've got 30,000 fans watching you, it helps you focus," he said. "I could tell right away that I was going to pitch a good game."

He allowed two hits. He didn't walk anyone. He dominated.

Calm down? Give him room?

You watch him. Tell me how you do it.

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