Ben McDonald, man who couldn't miss, knows things are different

February 24, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

SARASOTA, Fla. -- This time a year ago Ben McDonald was well on his way to becoming something of a cult hero. The fact that he had pitched fewer than 120 innings in the big leagues and had more alligator stories than victories was dismissed as a temporary condition.

He was the acknowledged ace of the Orioles' staff, conceded the No. 1 spot in the starting rotation, and announced as the Opening Day pitcher before the first blister developed in spring training.

It was even projected that he would start six of the first 20 games, virtually assuring the Orioles of a decent start.

It didn't quite work out that way. McDonald was on the disabled list twice because of a tender elbow and then was shut down for the last month of the season because of stiffness in the shoulder.

McDonald made two appearances in those first 20 games -- a 2-1 loss to the Chicago White Sox and a 2-0 win over the California Angels. After that it was all downhill to a disappointing 6-8 record and a 4.84 earned run average -- a far cry from his 8-5 (2.43 ERA) rookie year in 1990.

What went wrong for the big boy from the Bayou? The prevailing theory is that too much was expected too soon from the first player picked in the 1989 draft. McDonald dismisses it as an excuse.

"I've been hearing things like that my whole career," said McDonald. "When I was in college, people were saying things like, 'He could pitch on any staff right now; he could be a No. 1 pitcher; he'll be the opening day pitcher.'

"I don't think it bothered me. I expect a lot out of myself. What I found out was that you can't do much if you're not healthy. It's tough enough to get guys out when you are.

"Maybe it [the expectations] influenced me to come back too soon -- it was three weeks, rather than the seven they said -- but it wasn't the reason for the season I had. The team was struggling and I was anxious to get back, I tried to pitch through it."

Now, McDonald finds himself in spring training as just one of five guys competing for a slot in the rotation. He is aware that the perception of him is different than a year ago.

But if other expectations are no longer as lofty as they once were, the same is not true for the 6-foot-7 righthander. Will he be able to do the things this year that were expected last season?

"Sure I can," McDonald said without hesitation. "But I know the success of the Orioles isn't going to depend on one pitcher. We only had one guy [Bob Milacki] win 10 games last year.

"We've all got to pull our load. We need to have 10 wins from our fifth starter -- and have everybody else build on that."

The Orioles seem to be comfortable downplaying McDonald's importance, but that doesn't mean the expectations aren't there.

"I wasn't embarrassed by the way I pitched last year," McDonald said. "I just wasn't able to go out there enough."

Orioles manager John Oates concurs. "The biggest reason he hasn't put numbers on the board is because he hasn't been on the mound enough," said Oates. "The only reason he hasn't been on the mound is because he hasn't been healthy.

"Whether that's because so much was expected of him, or just a freak thing I don't know. We're just going to do everything we can to make sure we get him out there as much as possible."

Said McDonald: "My goal is to take the ball every fifth day and get 30-to-35 starts. It seems like young pitchers have to get to a certain level of innings pitched before everything starts to click. Whether it's 250 or 300, I don't know, but it's probably somewhere around there."

He uses a couple of former Olympic teammates as prime examples. "Jim Abbott [California lefthander] gave up more hits [246] than any pitcher in the league two years ago," said McDonald. "But look what he did last year [18-11]. Andy Benes [San Diego righthander] was the same way."

McDonald thinks he's at the stage that Abbott and Benes, drafted one year earlier, were last season. "I think I'm getting close, and by the All-Star Game, or maybe a little earlier, I'll be at that level."

On the team that included Abbott and Benes, McDonald was considered the No. 1 pitcher.

"When you've played with guys and see what they accomplish at certain levels, it gives you confidence that you can succeed, too," said McDonald.

McDonald's self-comparison to the progress of his two ex-teammates is interesting.

Before challenging for the Cy Young Award last year, Abbott had pitched 393 innings in two full seasons, had a 22-26 record and a 4.24 ERA. Benes had pitched 259 innings in a little more than a year, with a 16-14 record and 3.58 ERA. Last year he was 15-11 (3.03).

Going into this year, McDonald would appear to be on the same pace as Abbott and Benes. He has pitched 245 innings in the equivalent of two half-seasons, with a 15-13 record and a 3.67 ERA.

"Ted Williams used to say it took 1,400-to-1,500 at-bats for a hitter to mature," said pitching coach Dick Bosman. "The same is true for pitchers. They need 300-to-400 innings."

As was the case with Abbott and Benes, the problem for McDonald is that a majority of those innings have come at the major-league level, where expectations are always high.

McDonald will leave the theorizing to others. If some want to minimize the expectations, that's fine.

And if others continue to set lofty goals, that's OK, too.

It might be to his benefit that nobody is expecting as much this time around -- but Ben McDonald doesn't include himself in that group.

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