HAINES CITY, Fla. -- Ben McDonald is trying hard to fade into the background. After spending three years as the Orioles' superstar in waiting, he just wants to be one of the boys. But it isn't that simple.
Take yesterday, for instance. McDonald made his first exhibition appearance of 1992 and pitched two perfect innings in his club's 10-4 victory over the Kansas City Royals at the Baseball City Sports Complex. Can another set of great expectations be far behind?
McDonald hopes not. He hopes to be no more -- and no less -- than one of the five members of a restructured Orioles starting rotation. So far, so good.
"I feel no pressure," he said. "Last year, I felt a lot of pressure. [Bob] Milacki was coming off an injury. [Mike] Mussina was going to start in Triple-A. Jeff Ballard and Dave Johnson were question marks. So, basically, all the weight was on my shoulders from the beginning.
"This year, Milacki is back, Mussina is in the rotation, and we've added Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis. That takes all the pressure off of me."
Well, not quite all of it. He's still the club's most-promising young pitcher, and he represents a substantial investment. That's why he was so anxious to prove himself last year, and that may be why he didn't succeed.
He injured his elbow during the 1991 exhibition season and spent most of the year struggling with the pain and the poor performances that came with it. He now says he tried to come back too soon, though he isn't blaming anyone but himself for a lapse in judgment that could have endangered his career.
"Instead of taking seven weeks off, I came back in three weeks," McDonald said. "It was the first time I'd ever had an arm injury. You live and learn."
What role the Orioles played in all this McDonald isn't saying, but at one point he pitched eight innings a couple of days after he told a reporter that his arm was sore.
"I don't want to get into that," he said. "All I'm saying is that I came back too early."
McDonald started the season on the disabled list each of the past two seasons. The Orioles set out early in the off-season to make sure there would be no three-peat. His winter workout regimen was closely monitored, and he came to spring training intent on making 1992 a fresh start.
Manager John Oates wasn't taking any chances yesterday, especially after a sudden rainstorm kept McDonald from taking the mound after his pre-game warm-up. The game was delayed more than an hour, prompting Oates to consider a substitute starter.
"I was a little nervous," Oates said. "I remembered last year, when he pitched on a day like this at Port Charlotte. We talked. I told him if he had any stiffness or anything, we had [Amalio] Carreno ready. We took every precaution, but he said he felt great and he threw the ball great."
McDonald has always stood out -- one way or another -- and he has grown weary of the pressure that came with his can't-miss label.
"When I first signed, I just wanted to be one of the guys," he said. "This year, I'm closer to that than ever and I'm very relaxed. It makes a difference to be accepted as just one of the guys by your teammates."
Make no mistake. The Orioles still have high expectations, and McDonald does, too. He just hopes that the emergence of Mussina and the arrival of Sutcliffe and Davis deflect some of the attention from him.
"I'm very excited about this team," McDonald said. "I'm glad I don't have to be the one to choose the top 10 pitchers. We've got a lot of guys on this team who can pitch."
One in particular. McDonald has returned for 1992 with an expanded pitching repertoire. He is using his changeup more, and he expects to add a forkball before the Orioles head to Baltimore for Opening Day.
His first time out, he used the changeup effectively on a couple of occasions and cruised through his two-inning stint. He might have gone three innings but for the sudden rainstorm that forced him to wait more an hour between his pre-game warm-up and his first trip to the mound.
"I was pleased with my location this early," McDonald said. "I was happy with the way I was able to keep the ball down in the strike zone."
No elbow pain. No extra pressure. No problems.
"Right now, things are going real smoothly," he said. "It's a different ballgame."