ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ben McDonald did not come to training camp with an alligator under his arm this spring, which probably will be viewed as progress by those who have questioned his maturity over the past couple of years.
The fact is, he doesn't need a reptile to go with his pitching repertoire anymore. He finally has a full season behind him and a chance to come into his own without the need for any of the unusual trappings of his laid-back Louisiana lifestyle.
Perhaps too much had been made of his backwoods background anyway. McDonald may have been born on the bayou, but he was not born yesterday. He probably knew all along that a live alligator comes in pretty handy when you don't want anyone to notice the albatross around your neck.
The unrealistic expectations that followed him out of college created a professional undertow that only now is beginning to recede. McDonald, 25, once one of the most highly rated pitching prospects in baseball history, finally is in a position to fulfill some of his vast potential, but only because he has escaped the center of attention.
"That was my ultimate goal," he said. "I was hoping that that would wear off and it finally is. I don't feel people are looking at me like they used to. I never wanted to be the guy in the limelight. I'm just a good old country boy who likes to play baseball."
The spotlight has found some other targets. The Orioles shipped in veteran Rick Sutcliffe last year to take the pressure off the younger pitchers. He did that and more. Right-hander Mike Mussina helped, too, with a performance that altered the pecking order in the Orioles' youth movement.
"In '91, I was the only guy here," McDonald said. "Jeff Ballard and [Bob] Milacki were coming off poor years. I was the only guy they could put any pressure on. Last year, when Mussina was ready and they got Sutcliffe, I was no longer the guy who had to win 20 games. It became a team effort."
Mussina won 18 games to emerge as one of the premier pitchers in the league. Sutcliffe came back from two years of arm problems to win 16. McDonald faded after a fast start to win just 13, but his success was measured more in games started than games won. He did not miss an assignment all year and was healthy from wire to wire for the first time in his professional career.
"I think I had a better year than most people give me credit for," McDonald said. "My ERA in 28 starts was about 2.80. Any time you go out 28 times and give your club a chance to win, you're doing all right."
First full season
It isn't easy to look past the 32 home runs and the 4.24 ERA, but Orioles manager Johnny Oates viewed McDonald's 1992 season an unqualified success. The reason: McDonald pitched 227 ** innings and showed up healthy for each of his 35 scheduled starts.
He was expected to do that in 1990, but a muscle strain in his side forced him to start the season in the minors and a blister problem kept him there until July. When he finally arrived, he won his first five major-league starts, which only served to raise expectations even higher.
The 1991 season was a major disappointment. McDonald started the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain and lost time to injury two more times on the way to a 6-8 record and a 4.84 ERA. Frustration was building, within himself and within the organization that had made him the first amateur pitcher to receive a multi-year contract.
"Obviously, it has been frustrating, getting hurt all those years," he said, "but I think that is all behind me now. I want to be a great pitcher, but I want to be one of those consistent guys who makes 30-35 starts a year. If I do that, hopefully the wins will come."
Mussina's sudden success has raised questions about McDonald's rate of development, but the Orioles cannot complain about that kind of controversy. The youthful nucleus of the starting rotation -- which includes promising left-hander Arthur Rhodes -- is the envy of the league, and everyone progressed last year.
McDonald does not shy away from the comparison, even though his 1992 statistics pale next to the 18-5, 2.54 performance that made Mussina a solid Cy Young candidate.
"I think he [Mussina] is further along than I am as far as setting up hitters and knowing how to pitch," McDonald said. "If you look at it, he's got almost as many pro starts as I do, because I was hurt my first two years. Every pitcher is a little bit different. It takes some longer."
Maybe the reason that it has taken McDonald longer is because everything came so easy to him early. He could overpower college hitters without even putting on his game face, so he never really had to work at the finer points of the game until he arrived in the major leagues.
Pitching coach Dick Bosman has been working with him ever since. The physical ability has always been there, but the level of concentration required to stay consistent throughout a season is another story.