Time now for Big Ben Out of excuses, McDonald knows only he can silence critics

Ken Rosenthal

January 07, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Ben McDonald surfaced at Memorial Stadium yesterday, his foot bone connected to his ankle bone, his right arm connected to his right shoulder.

With McDonald, it's always a good idea to make sure every body part is in place. The question now -- the far bigger question -- is what's inside.

A big heart or little?

Ample guts or not?

The debate, quite literally, gets under McDonald's skin. But he understands its origin. And he understands that only he can put the matter to rest.

A big season from Ben, and the Orioles maybe contend. A big season from Ben, and the critics surely disappear. In body and soul, he's at the crossroads. No more excuses. No more delays.

McDonald, 24, is as tired of his saga as everyone else, which is why he's working out with other Orioles pitchers this week under the tutelage of new pitching coach Dick Bosman.

"I'd like nothing better than to go out, have a great year and stop all this talk," McDonald says. "It kind of hurts, because people really don't know me, how many times I took the ball at LSU, how many innings I threw.

"I would never come out of a ballgame. That's how I always was -- real competitive. But in any profession, if a guy gets hurt or does something wrong, people are going to get down on him.

"That's just the way it is. With salaries the way they are today, people are going to say things. You come to realize it goes along with the job."

McDonald remembers the criticism teammate Cal Ripkeendured in 1990, and he calls it "a big learning step." As with Ripken, the burden is his, and his alone. Change the results, and the perceptions will follow.

So there he was, throwing off an indoor mound for about 1minutes yesterday, following the same routine as Jim Poole and Gregg Olson. He's healthy, completely healthy. The trick, of course, is to stay that way.

Bosman visited the McDonald home in Denham Springs, La., lasweek for a "meeting of the minds" with McDonald and his father Larry. Ben will spend next week at home, then return Jan. 20 for an extended stay.

"He's excited, excited about making amends," Bosman says. "don't know if that's the right term, but he wants to set the record straight, prove he's a good pitcher. He's feeling good. It's a fresh slate."

McDonald opened each of the past two seasons on the disablelist, but says his activity this winter has consisted solely of "working out and hunting, hunting and working out."

His workout sessions include lifting weights as well as playin"long-toss" with his hunting buddies every other day. He jokes, ,, "They all go home holding their arms from being worn out."

But McDonald is serious about his conditioning. In fact, he got "upset" last season when manager John Oates said his off-season should consist of more than "hunting, fishing and eating gumbo." Oates later told him he was joking.

"I know how hard I work in the off-season," McDonald says. "People imply I wasn't in shape coming to spring training. But I finished first in the 12-minute run [last year], first in the vertical leap . . ."

No matter. McDonald pulled a rib cage muscle fielding a grounder near the end of his first spring training. And he strained his pitching elbow in the Orioles' second exhibition start last year.

"A case of throwing too many pitches," he says now, estimating the number at 97 and pointing the finger, however unwittingly, at former pitching coach Al Jackson and manager Frank Robinson.

Maybe those two blew it, for McDonald never quite recovered. Still, the Orioles often are guilty of just the opposite crime, "babying" their prized righthander rather than subjecting him to undue strain.

Their caution is understandable, given the financial and emotional investment in a pitcher they chose with the first pick of the '89 draft. But with all the fuss, perhaps McDonald becomes overly careful as well.

A case in point occurred last Sept. 3 in Toronto. McDonald worked six strong innings, then pleaded to be removed after giving up a John Olerud homer that trimmed his lead to one run. He saidit was his shoulder. After that, he made only one more start.

What makes Big Ben tick? Club officials and even some of his teammates wonder. But the question was never posed during McDonald's celebrated amateur career, and it's not fair posing it now. He deserves the benefit of the doubt.

McDonald attributes his injuries to a "string of bad luck," pointing out he has yet to suffer the same problem twice. Bosman, for one, does not question his courage. "It's just a matter of bringing it out, and bringing it out tactfully," he says.

The last thing the Orioles need is for McDonald to become the next Storm Davis or Dennis Martinez, unable to meet lofty expectations in Baltimore. As one club official says, "He's too much of a talent to start burying."

If you're the Orioles, you let him breathe.

And if you're McDonald, you suck it up.

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