McDonald weathering fears

March 12, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It had poured for much of the previous night and Ben McDonald could not help but wonder if that rainy day feeling would be coming again.

It also had rained heavily the day he made his 1992 exhibition debut against the Kansas City Royals, but that was just a warm spring cloudburst. This time, the temperature was dropping and the game was scheduled for Charlotte County Stadium and Bobby Witt was going to be the pitcher for the Texas Rangers. This was all too familiar.

"It seemed like deja vu," McDonald said.

You could almost feel it, too.

This is where McDonald injured his elbow last spring, pushing himself too far on an unseasonably cold March afternoon. The rain was falling. The wind was blowing. Bobby Witt was pitching, though perhaps not as well as he did in the Rangers' 2-1 victory yesterday afternoon. The string of coincidences was not lost on anyone, least of all the promising Orioles right-hander whose equally promising 1991 season came apart right here in Ranger city.

"It was my second outing last year and it was my second outing this year," McDonald said. "It was bad weather then and it looked like bad weather today. Bobby Witt was their starter both times. It's a different year, though."

That's where the similarities end. The inclement weather had subsided by daybreak yesterday. McDonald pitched three scoreless innings, giving up just one hit and getting away with his arm -- and his prospects for a successful 1992 season -- still very much alive.

The Orioles have him on a tighter leash this year. He threw about 40 pitches on the way to his second scoreless outing. He allowed a hit, but has pitched to the minimum 15 batters in his first five innings of exhibition work.

"My changeup could have been a little better," McDonald said. "I got it up a few times, but my curveball came around at the end and my fastball was good."

If that account leans toward the mundane, consider the alternative. McDonald came away from last year's appearance here with a very sore right elbow. He pitched a couple more times in Grapefruit League action before scratching himself from a start against the Montreal Expos and opening the regular season on the disabled list for the second year in a row.

The rest of the story is well known. He came back too soon. He complained of arm soreness. He pitched anyway and was back on the disabled list by late May. In his haste to build on an impressive performance over the final months of the 1990 season, he almost tore up one of the most heralded young arms in baseball history.

The numbers don't lie. He was 6-8 with a 4.84 ERA in 21 starts. The season ended with him on the sidelines again, this time with a sore shoulder. Live and learn.

"It goes back to experience," McDonald said. "If I wake up with a sore arm like that tomorrow, I'll go in and say 'Hey, there's something wrong with my arm.' But when you hurt your arm for the first time, you really can't tell the difference between normal soreness and pain.

"I never had a bad arm. I threw a lot of innings in amateur ball and I never had a problem."

So, McDonald tried to pitch through the pain. Perhaps the Orioles should have stopped him. Perhaps they should have read his newspaper quotes in May -- he said his arm was very sore one day and pitched eight innings the next. Perhaps they should have shut him down for his own good and for the good of the organization. It's easy to second-guess now.

"It was just as much my fault as anybody's," McDonald said.

This year, everybody is taking an interest in making sure there are no such misunderstandings. McDonald went out to throw five innings in his second start of spring training last year. He has pitched just five innings total in his first two spring starts of 1992.

The pain is gone but the bad memories are not. They bubbled right up when his first spring start was delayed for nearly two hours because of rain on Saturday.

"When we were in Haines City, he looked out there and said, 'Why does it always have to rain when I pitch?' " Oates said. "I'll tell you what. The sooner he quits trying to be a weatherman, the better off he's going to be.

"He isn't the first pitcher who ever had to pitch in bad weather. We've got to get positive about it. There are going to be times when you have to pitch in inclement weather."

Still in all, you can't blame McDonald for hoping that he never gets that rainy day feeling again.

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