Orioles see Mussina, reset Big Ben's clock

JOHN EISENBERG

March 25, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- During batting practice on a warm, sunny morning, Mike Mussina stands behind a safety net in short center field, helping collect balls. Watching from foul territory, Roland Hemond mumbles to himself.

"Stand a little closer to the net, Mike, will you?" says the Orioles' general manager, and when that elicits a laugh from a couple of reporters standing nearby, Hemond turns red-faced and laughs with them, caught doting on his young pitcher emerging so suddenly as a top gun.

The Orioles used to dote on Ben McDonald the same way, of course. Still do. But it's not the same now, not nearly. Mussina is a better pitcher than McDonald this spring. Mussina is the club's best pitcher this spring. Mussina is the one they want standing close to the net during batting practice. And you can't help noticing.

You can't help noticing the unflattering light that Mussina's example shines on the Orioles' handling -- actually, their mishandling -- of McDonald.

Strange, huh, how a player can make a team look so good and so bad.

Mussina makes the Orioles look smart for taking him with the 10th pick of the first round of the 1990 draft. Less than two years removed from Stanford, he is throwing a 92-mph fastball, a changeup, a sinker and two curveballs. Nasty.

But Mussina, 23, also makes the Orioles look bad because they were patient with him, letting him develop in the minors without feeling pressure before he was ready for it. The same can't be said for McDonald.

Mussina knows it. "I just kind of slipped in under the door here," he said. "Ben's situation was entirely different. There was so much expected of him, so much pressure on him to produce. I'm just glad I got a chance to play in the minors."

It is the chance McDonald virtually never got. He made 12 minor-league starts before coming to Baltimore as part of the TC rotation. Mussina had 28. He threw more than twice as many innings in the minors as McDonald. They were essential.

See, Mussina was throwing three pitches when the Orioles drafted him, relying on his fastball to get him out of trouble. But he learned to throw a sinker and a second curveball in Rochester, working with catcher Jeff Tackett and coach Dick Bosman.

"Tackett deserves so much credit," Mussina said. "He told me my fastball was good enough to get people out in Triple-A, but that I needed more to win in the majors. So I worked on the other pitches a lot there. There were games when I didn't have good stuff, but he kept me throwing the different pitches. The minors were great for me that way. They helped my confidence so much."

Said Tackett: "Mike can now throw any of those five pitches for strikes at any point in the count. There's no doubt he benefited from the minors. Every pitcher needs that. You learn about road trips, keeping mentally tough. It's like a rock-and-roll band. You always want to try out your new stuff on the road before you go into the studio for the album."

McDonald never got that chance. He threw his first major-league pitch 19 days after signing. A rib injury was all that kept him from the Orioles' rotation in the spring of 1990, when he'd thrown just 16 pro innings. He was back for good that July -- pitching well, but mostly with fastballs.

Last spring, Frank Robinson named him the Opening Day starter at the beginning of camp. He was the big man. The savior. But he just wasn't ready for it. He hadn't spent enough time in the minors. He needed the variety of pitches, control and confidence that Mussina developed in the minors -- and McDonald is still developing.

The Orioles will now admit they erred in rushing McDonald.

"From Day 1, one of my goals was to make Ben a less important figure on this team," John Oates said. "You look back, and he'd pitched in the College World Series in June [1989] and we couldn't wait to get him in a uniform that year. The message was that it was all on his shoulders. I want him knowing it's not."

The irony is that it's not now in part because Mussina came along and the Orioles learned from their mistakes, and now they have another top-shelf pitcher. McDonald does seem the better for it this spring. Who knows, he could still become the star he was expected to be.

But you wonder what he thinks when he looks across the clubhouse at Mussina, small-shouldered, not particularly strong, not able to hold seven balls in his hand -- not the kind of obvious talent that blinds you, as McDonald blinded the Orioles. Not the kind of talent that makes you do crazy things like plant a kid in the majors before his time. You wonder if McDonald looks at Mussina and wishes he'd had it that way. The slow way. The right way.

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