McDonald's youth statement holds message for Orioles

March 05, 1998|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's not hard to pick out Darnell McDonald in the Orioles' clubhouse.

At 19 years old, he is the delegate from the next century amid the graying temples of the Sunshine Boys.

A handful of the organization's other top prospects also are in camp for a whiff of the big time, but none can come close to matching McDonald for a youthful presence.

"My prom? Last May," he said with a grin, responding to the inevitable question about the end of his high school days in Cherry Creek, Colo.

Just nine months after that last waltz, he is running wind sprints in the outfield with Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson and bumping elbows with Eric Davis and Joe Carter at the clubhouse food spread.

"I'm like a kid in a candy store," said McDonald, who went 3-for-3 yesterday in a split-squad game with the Mexico City Reds. "I'm in the same clubhouse with guys I grew up watching. I collected their baseball cards. Now, we're on the same field. It's an unreal opportunity."

Not that McDonald is just a guileless innocent in this kingdom of big money and jaded attitudes; he gives a calm and professional interview, as if he is accustomed to the spotlight, and he is already a veteran of hardball contract negotiations, having parlayed his two-sport skills into the largest signing bonus ever given an Orioles draft pick.

He had already accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Texas when the Orioles picked him late in the first round of last June's draft, and he used that option as leverage when the Orioles tried to sign him at a bargain rate. He had led Cherry Creek High School to three straight state titles in football and baseball.

In the end, McDonald got what he wanted -- a $1.93 million signing bonus -- and the Orioles got what they wanted: an outfield prospect so promising he probably would have gone in the top five of the draft had his interest in football not scared off so many teams.

Baseball America has already named him the Orioles' second-best prospect after Ryan Minor, even though his only pro experience so far came in the Florida Instructional League last fall.

"He's just a gifted athlete," Orioles farm director Syd Thrift said. "You could see it in Florida [during the instructional league]. He was still adjusting from aluminum to wooden bats and from playing twice a week to playing every day. But he still hit line drives. He's so quick for his size. He's fast. He has a great attitude. You're looking for the athlete and the aptitude at this point, and he's all pluses."

McDonald said it felt "weird" to play baseball instead of football in the fall, driving home the reality of the hard choice he had made.

"I watched a lot of football games on TV," he said. "I tried to watch Texas. They could have used me, I think." The Longhorns went 4-7, and coach John Mackovic was fired.

"I love football. If the Orioles hadn't worked out, I would have gone to Texas and played two sports, and that would have been great. But I'm happy with the choice I made. My dream all along was to play big-league baseball."

His presence in the Orioles' camp is his first real step toward that goal. The Orioles could have assigned him to their minor-league camp at Sarasota -- he is scheduled to play at Single-A Delmarva this season -- but they wanted him to start off by learning from the examples of Ripken, Anderson, Carter and the other stars on a $70 million team.

"They told me to watch the outfielders like Brady and [Jeffrey] Hammonds," McDonald said, "and see how they go about their business."

What has he learned? He laughed, as if to say he had learned a lot.

"I see why they're as good as they are," McDonald said. "They do everything to perfection. They do drills over and over until they get it right. That's why they're here."

He has spent most of his time sitting by his corner locker watching the daily routine of the clubhouse unfold. The plan is to send him to Sarasota later this week, Thrift said.

"I've stayed right over here in my corner," McDonald said. "I've talked to Jeffrey a lot. But basically I just sit and watch."

Has he sought Ripken's counsel?

"I haven't talked to Cal much," he said with a smile.

Don't let that low clubhouse profile fool you. He is highly important to the Orioles as a symbol of their attempt to rebuild their farm system.

"We need to make sure he gets 400 at-bats and all the teaching he can handle this year," Thrift said. "It would be a mistake to focus on 1998 and where he goes and how he does. What matters is three years from now."

McDonald agreed.

"My goal? I'd like to be in Baltimore by 2000," he said. "If it happens, great, and if it doesn't, it doesn't. But when I get there, I want to stay there and be an impact player. I want to make sure I'm ready."

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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