With McDonald, doubt strikes out

MIKE LITTWIN

March 05, 1992|By MIKE LITTWIN

SARASOTA, Fla. -- So you think Ben McDonald is at a crossroads.

You think this is a critical season in the life of a young pitcher. You wonder how he'll deal with this new and different pressure.

You come to spring training hoping to find some answers.

I found Ben McDonald yesterday.

I found him brandishing what would be the squirt-gun equivalent of an AK-47 and firing a volley of water directly into the ear of teammate Anthony Telford, who threw a water bottle at McDonald in retaliation and later chased him around the clubhouse with a bucket of ice in tow.

This, friends, is spring training.

And, no, Ben McDonald is not uptight. He's not worried. He's 24, he's rich, he's in the big leagues and he's having fun.

"I'm happy, I'm healthy, I'm feeling good and I'm ready to go," McDonald proclaimed.

If only it were that easy. Or maybe it is.

It always looked as if it would be easy for McDonald, but it hasn't been yet. Instead, beginning with the infamous holdout, nothing has been easy. He has been injured in each of his two seasons. He has been burdened with outsized expectations, including his own. He has been deluged with advice.

In short, he has struggled, although some of that struggle has come when wrestling alligators.

"All that is in the past," said McDonald, although not necessarily about the gators. "Last year was a struggle. I was hurt, and I didn't know how to deal with it. I came back too soon and tried to do more than I could. I made the game hard. It isn't that hard a game."

When you can throw 95, it isn't that hard a game. You move the ball in and out, you throw the odd curveball and you blow hitters away. McDonald has the stuff to do it. But does he have the inner stuff -- call it confidence -- to make it work?

Dick Bosman, the new pitching coach, visited McDonald in the off-season. He gave him a new exercise regimen, which McDonald used so well that he knocked two points off his percentage of body fat. But, more important, Bosman left with him a book called "The Magic of Thinking Big," one volume in a Bosman library of positive-think literature.

McDonald compares Bosman to Dale Brown, his old LSU basketball coach and a big believer in big thinking. For his part, Bosman says he understands what McDonald has been through and what he has to overcome.

"Ben had a wonderful college career," Bosman said. "He was the highest-rated kid in the history of the scouting bureau. He signed for a lot of money. Then there were the long negotiations. From the beginning, the expectations were so high.

"But he's still entitled to the same adversity as every other kid who came up with less fanfare. He's still entitled to get his brains beaten in occasionally. He's still entitled to have some arm miseries. Most kids do that in Class A ball with 500 people in the stands. Ben has had to do in the big leagues in front of 50,000."

And so, the Orioles want to reduce the load of expectation. You can bet he won't be the Opening Day pitcher. What the Orioles want is for McDonald to think of himself as one of five, and, as it happens, that's how he says he thinks of himself.

"Last year, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me," he said. "[Jeff] Ballard and [Bob] Milacki were both coming off injuries. It seemed like most of the pressure was on me.

"This year, I feel much more comfortable, much more relaxed. I want to be one of the five guys who takes the ball. Last year, Milacki led the team with 10 wins. If we're going to compete with the Torontos and Oaklands, we have to have our fifth guy win 10 games."

There's some spring-think at work, obviously, but the Orioles staff is intriguing. Of the five prospective starters, none is a sure thing, and yet there is real promise attached to each of them. Rick Sutcliffe is coming off an injury. Mike Mussina is still very young. Storm Davis is attempting to reclaim a career. Milacki is trying to take his game to the next level. And then there is McDonald.

"Nothing is wrong with Ben," Frank Robinson says. "Nothing is wrong with him at all. He has never had a full spring training. And, last year, he was never completely healthy.

"If he's healthy and he comes out throwing, he'll be fine."

That's the hope, and it's hardly unreasonable. From the moment McDonald was drafted, he has been central to the rebuilding plan. In the second half of 1990, he seemed ready to make good. And then there was the 6-8 season of 1991, but everyone is willing to write it off to injury. Or write it off to youth. The hope is that only these two stats count on McDonald: He's only 24, and he throws 95.

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