Just this once, Orioles' O'Donoghue was happy to pass on a draft

KEN ROSENTHAL

November 22, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

If John O'Donoghue had been of age during the Vietnam War, the Selective Service would have lost his address.

O'Donoghue, the top left-handed starter in the Orioles' farm system, is The Man Who Can't Get Drafted.

Not out of Elkton High School.

Not as a junior at LSU.

Not by an expansion club.

Indeed, it was only fitting that the 6-foot-6 O'Donoghue was bypassed by Florida and Colorado in the first round of Tuesday's draft. Scouts still gag at the sight of his 82-mph fastball, ignoring the fact that he's on the verge of a remarkable major-league breakthrough.

Remarkable, because O'Donoghue wasn't one of the 1,487 players drafted in 1990, coming off a 12-2 season at LSU. Remarkable, because he signed with the Orioles only after the intervention of the club's former traveling secretary and public relations director, Bob Brown.

"I was pretty shocked when I wasn't drafted. I was frustrated. I was mad," O'Donoghue says. "I told my dad, 'I don't want to go back to school. I might as well go ahead and see if anybody wants me.' "

Brown vividly recalls that Sunday morning when O'Donoghue and his father entered his Memorial Stadium office in the summer of '90. John Sr. pitched for the Orioles in 1968. Brown was the only remaining link to that era. Maybe he could do the kid a favor.

With nothing to lose, Brown strolled upstairs to the office of John Barr, then the club's scouting director. The year before, Barr had made another LSU pitcher, Ben McDonald, the No. 1 pick in the draft.

O'Donoghue, of course, wasn't even No. 1,487.

"John [Barr] felt a little awkward," recalls Brown, who left the club after 35 years last season to become editor of Orioles Gazette. "I said, 'I'm not asking you to sign him, I'm just asking you to talk to him.' "

"Did you say he was a left-hander?" Barr asked.

O'Donoghue could have been a devil worshiper. He could have been a convicted felon. But he was a left-hander.

Barr agreed to watch him throw in the Orioles bullpen. Former pitching coach Al Jackson joined him. "I was going to give an honest opinion," says Barr, now the assistant general manager in San Diego. "But when I saw him throw, I said, 'Hmmm, I want to see him pitch in a game.' "

And so it was arranged. O'Donoghue contacted Leroy Hill, a friend of the family who coached a semipro team in Wilmington, Del. Hill agreed to have him pitch five innings on the appointed date. Barr drove the 70 miles to Wilmington. A Pittsburgh scout also was present.

Once again, O'Donoghue was impressive. Afterward, Barr and the O'Donoghues retreated to the family's home in Elkton. As Barr recalls, John Jr. signed his first professional contract over iced teas.

His father, a nine-year major-league veteran, was in private business at the time. The next year he became pitching coach at Single-A Frederick. John Jr. spent one season at Bluefield in the Rookie League, one at Frederick. This past season, he started in Double-A, at Hagerstown.

Pitching with one of his father's old baseball cards in his back pocket, he went a combined 12-8 with a 2.62 ERA at Hagerstown and Rochester. Now he's in the Arizona Fall League, and the extra work might help him join the Orioles sooner.

So how is it that he wasn't drafted? LSU isn't an obscure baseball school, it's a pitching factory. Nine LSU pitchers have been selected in the past four drafts. Minnesota's Mark Guthrie and former major-leaguers Eric Hetzel and Clay Parker were Tigers in the mid-1980s.

Maybe O'Donoghue got overshadowed. Maybe his fastball wasn't lively enough. Maybe scouts feared he wouldn't sign. Still, McDonald says, "I was real surprised he didn't get drafted. I couldn't believe it."

O'Donoghue expected to be picked in the first 10 rounds, but the only LSU lefty taken was Jason Wall -- by Houston, in the 37th round. According to LSU coach Skip Bertman, Wall was a reliever who pitched "something like 17 innings" that season. He is now out of baseball.

O'Donoghue, meanwhile, heard his name mentioned by ESPN all last week as a pitcher who might be drafted. The Orioles were terrified by the prospect, and no doubt protected him after losing right-hander Kip Yaughn in the first round.

"Just to finally get drafted would have been different for me," O'Donoghue says. "But I wasn't disappointed at all. I love being with the Orioles. It would be great to play near my hometown. It would be a dream come true."

Take it from a real dreamer.

The Man Who Can't Get Drafted.

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