Ben the Brewer 'feels strange' but healthy

March 17, 1996|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHANDLER, Ariz. - His Cactus League earned run average is 10.50, higher than the blue desert sky above his new spring training digs.

Ben McDonald broke the numbers down simply yesterday after a morning workout.

"Three outings, two bad, one good," he said.

But another number is all that concerns him as he begins a new baseball life with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Zero.

As in zero pain in the right shoulder that precipitated his divorce from the Orioles after seven seasons.

"My shoulder is healthy again," he said. "No pain, no nothing. The tendinitis is gone. I'm ready to go."

The Brewers certainly hope so. They signed him to a two-year, $5.9 million contract in January and penciled him in as the ace of their rebuilding club.

As flattering as that was, McDonald, 28, still can't believe his Orioles days are over.

"It feels strange," he said. "I thought I would be back. I really thought it would work out in the end."

It didn't, not nearly. McDonald joined baseball's salary kings last year when an arbitrator awarded him $4.5 million for the '95 season, but new GM Pat Gillick balked at committing in that range to a pitcher who, Gillick felt, might not hold up.

"We can't afford to spend that kind of money on a guy who might only pitch 100 innings," Gillick said.

McDonald could have stayed in Baltimore had he agreed to a larger pay cut than he got from Milwaukee. He said yesterday that the Orioles never made a firm offer.

"Mr. Gillick thought I was injured, and I respect that," he said. "I'm not sad about it and I'm not bitter about it. Situations like this are just part of baseball. New management likes to bring in new people. It worked out fine for me. I got the long-term contract that the Orioles never gave me."

Obviously, the Orioles and Brewers read different medical reports.

"All I know," McDonald said, "is I saw the same doctor when I started and ended my rehab program, and there was 100 percent improvement. The muscles got worn down in the back of my shoulder last year. But they're built back up again."

McDonald believes his problems began with the shortened spring training that preceded last season. Due to the strike, players had only three weeks to prepare for the season instead of the usual six.

"Look at all the guys who had arm trouble," McDonald said. "Myself, Roger Clemens, Aaron Sele. I was sore right out of spring training. I pitched with it for six weeks before I finally went to see someone who told me I needed to take four to six weeks off. Being hardheaded, I was back in two. I really aggravated it."

When he returned in September, he had a blowup with manager Phil Regan, who wanted to use him out of the bullpen. McDonald balked, then went reluctantly.

"It was just a misunderstanding," McDonald said. "People thought I felt I was too good to go to the bullpen. That wasn't it. I started out there and I'll probably end up there. The problem was my shoulder was just coming back and the doctor said I had to warm up and pitch right away, without hesitating. That was going to be hard out of the bullpen."

He spent the off-season shuttling between doctors. For four months he spent three hours a day lifting weights to strengthen his shoulder. He would have returned to this year's talented Orioles if the world were perfect. After throwing almost a thousand innings through some dark days from 1989-95, he deserves to enjoy the contender's life more than a David Wells or Kent Mercker.

Yesterday, he smiled as he recalled his Orioles career, which, though solid, never reached the greatness foretold when the club made him the No. 1 pick in the draft. His record was 58-53, with a 3.89 ERA.

"I was rushed to the majors when I was 21," he said. "I didn't know anything about pro ball. I didn't know how to pitch. People ask if it hurt to have to learn at the big-league level. Sure, I got frustrated. But I would do it all the same way again. I learned how to be a pro ballplayer in Baltimore. I learned how to handle the ups and downs that everyone experiences in baseball."

He still follows the Orioles in the box scores and talks to Chris Hoiles on the phone.

"I'll pull for them except when they play us," he said. "They've got a great team. I'm excited for them. I think Cal, Brady and Hoiles are the only guys left from when I broke in, but I spent a lot of time there."

Meanwhile, he is struggling to regain his stuff pitching for a small-market also-ran. He has allowed eight hits and eight walks in six innings.

"I was too nervous in my first outing, pitching for a new club and all," he said. "The second outing was better. The last one was bad. But it's just spring training. I'm working on my mechanics. I didn't pitch much last year. The important thing is that I'm healthy again. I feel great about that."

Pub Date: 3/17/96

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