Mc­Don­ald re­calls be­ing top pick

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - ORI­OLES -

This week, Mc­Don­ald re­flected on his ex­pe­ri­ence as base­ball’s top ama­teur. He sees sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween his path and Rutschman’s, with pro­jec­tions of be­ing the first pick hov­er­ing through­out their re­spec­tive ju­nior sea­sons af­ter pro­duc­tive sum­mers with Team USA.

Al­though the honor of be­ing the first over­all pick was “a dream come true,” the sea­son of buildup over­whelmed Mc­Don­ald at times. He re­turned to LSU for his ju­nior year af­ter pitch­ing the United States Olympic team to a gold medal. That sea­son, he went 14-4 with a 3.49 ERA in guid­ing the Tigers back to the Col­lege World Se­ries, earn­ing the Golden Spikes Award as the na­tion’s best ama­teur, but the noise of his fu­ture sur­rounded him.

“The buildup and the hype and an­swer­ing the ques­tions af­ter ev­ery start about be­ing No. 1 was dif­fi­cult for a while,” Mc­Don­ald said. “I think Ad­ley’s go­ing to be a lot like me, or who­ever is taken No. 1. A lot of these kids are just kind of ready to get it over with. It’s more of a re­lief than any­thing once it fi­nally gets there.”

The se­lec­tion came dur­ing the Col­lege World Se­ries. While in Omaha, Neb., for the tour­na­ment, Mc­Don­ald re­ceived a call from an Ori­oles rep­re­sen­ta­tive in­form­ing him they had taken him first over­all. Then he did a news con­fer­ence, where the ques­tions kept com­ing.

“And it seemed like three hours later, I was pitch­ing for LSU in Omaha,” Mc­Don­ald said.

Once he be­came a pro­fes­sional, the hype Mc­Don­ald en­dured in col­lege molded into pres­sure and ex­pec­ta­tions. By Septem­ber 1989, three months af­ter he was drafted, he was in the ma­jors. He spent the start of the 1990 sea­son in the mi­nors, joined the Ori­oles bullpen in July, and by the end of that month made his first ma­jor-league start, pitch­ing a shutout.

Mc­Don­ald won each of his first five starts, post­ing a 1.72 ERA. De­spite the oc­ca­sional rough out­ing there­after, he fin­ished the year with a 2.43 ERA in 21 games (15 starts).

But Mc­Don­ald had an ERA above 4.00 in four of the next five sea­sons, and right shoul­der ten­dini­tis caused him to miss two months in the mid­dle of his 1995 cam­paign, his last as an Ori­ole. He signed a two-year con­tract with the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers, and when shoul­der in­juries flared up again in the form of a torn ro­ta­tor cuff, he was forced to re­tire at 30.

Mc­Don­ald fin­ished his ca­reer with a 3.91 ERA in 211 ap­pear­ances (198 starts).

“There was a lot of suc­cess in there,” he said, “but there was also a lot of days where I went home at night and just banged my head against the wall won­der­ing why I couldn’t con­sis­tently get big-league hit­ters out. It’s a game that’s built for fail­ure, and I failed a lot.”

Much of that sense of fail­ure stemmed from the ex­pec­ta­tions and pres­sure of be­ing the first over­all pick. Man­ager Frank Robin­son no­tably told Mc­Don­ald in spring train­ing be­fore the 1991 sea­son that he’d have to win 20 games for the Ori­oles to be suc­cess­ful.

In­creas­ing the dif­fi­culty was learn­ing how to pitch in the ma­jors rather than the mi­nors. At LSU, Mc­Don­ald’s pitch­ing coach called his pitches; he sim­ply threw what he was told to throw. But be­ing a ma­jor-league pitcher re­quired more in­volve­ment on his part as a 21-year-old.

In Rip­ken and Rick Sutcliffe, Mc­Don­ald found vet­er­ans on whom to rely. As he ap­proached the 200-in­ning mark with the Ori­oles, he de­vel­oped a greater un­der­stand­ing of what it meant to be a big-league pitcher. Even if the re­sults didn’t al­ways align with ex­pec­ta­tions placed upon a No. 1 over­all pick, Mc­Don­ald said he ended his ca­reer be­liev­ing he took on the men­tal chal­lenges of such a role head-on.

“It was some rough patches and some dis­ap­point­ments and some de­pres­sion in there,” he said. “At the end of the day, I felt like men­tally I could han­dle the ups and downs of it.”

Mc­Don­ald didn’t re­al­ize it had been 30 years since he was drafted un­til he was at a Van­der­bilt game last month as part of his broad­cast­ing re­spon­si­bil­i­ties for ESPN and the SEC Net­work. Ori­oles ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent/gen­eral man­ager Mike Elias, who was there scout­ing Com­modores out­fielder J.J. Ble­day to be a po­ten­tial top pick, ap­proached Mc­Don­ald and asked if he would be in­ter­ested in rep­re­sent­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion at this year’s draft in Se­cau­cus, N.J., men­tion­ing this was the three-decade an­niver­sary of Mc­Don­ald’s se­lec­tion.

“I went, ‘Wow. It has been 30 years,’ ” Mc­Don­ald said. “Where has time gone?”

Mc­Don­ald had to pass on the op­por­tu­nity be­cause he’ll be broad­cast­ing the NCAA base­ball tour­na­ment’s Ba­ton Rouge Re­gional for ESPN. He fig­ures he could’ve been able to get out of the assignment had the draft been dur­ing Su­per Re­gional week­end, when there won’t be 16 sites to cover.

In­stead, once the Col­lege World Se­ries is over in late June, he’ll join MASN’s Ori­oles broad­casts on oc­ca­sion over the fi­nal months for the fourth straight sea­son. Mc­Don­ald al­ways en­joys re­turn­ing to Bal­ti­more, a place where he has sev­eral fond mem­o­ries de­spite the weight of ex­pec­ta­tions he car­ried in his time there.

“The fans, I think they re­al­ize it’s where a young man be­came a man,” Mc­Don­ald said. “I was in Bal­ti­more, 21 years old, and I ba­si­cally grew up, and I tell peo­ple all the time, ‘It’s my home. It’s my home away from home.’

“Who­ever it is, whether it’s Ad­ley or Bobby Witt [Jr.] or Ble­day or the Vaughn kid out of Cal ... if you bust your butt ev­ery day, the folks in Bal­ti­more will fall in love with you.”

TIM BOYLE/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

As base­ball’s No. 1 draft pick in 1989, Ben Mc­Don­ald didn’t en­joy the level of ca­reer suc­cess in Bal­ti­more that he’d hoped for, but he still refers to the city as “my home away from home.”

CAR­LOS OS­O­RIO/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Cal Rip­ken Jr., left, once gave Ben Mc­Don­ald ad­vice about how to win over Ori­oles fans.

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