McDonald awed by Strasburg's stuff
Ex-No. 1 hands over mantle as greatest pitching prospect
Ben McDonald is a hometown boy.
He lives in the quiet Baton Rouge, La., suburb of Denham Springs with his wife and two kids, across the street from his parents' house where he grew up.
He coaches his daughter's fast-pitch softball team and his son's rec league baseball team.
He does on-air color commentary for the Louisiana State University Tigers baseball team, just a few miles up the road.
He loves to hunt and fish, and gets ample opportunity to do both on the six-acre spread where he played whiffle ball as a child and later built his family home.
He's just Ben.
But 20 years ago, he was "Big Ben."
He was the best, the brightest and, at 6-foot-7 with hands that could each grasp five baseballs at once, one of the biggest prospects baseball had ever seen, with a blazing fastball and devastating offspeed stuff to match.
On Tuesday, McDonald will be the First-Year Player Draft's "celebrity dignitary" for the Baltimore Orioles, the club that took him with the first pick in 1989.
So much has changed in those 20 years.
The birth of the Internet and advances in multimedia have allowed fans to follow the amateur talent more easily.
MLB.com will offer live coverage and analysis of the entire First-Year Player Draft, beginning Tuesday at 6 p.m. ET. MLB Network will broadcast the first round on Tuesday night from its Studio 42 in Secaucus, N.J., and those 32 selections also will be simulcast live on MLB.com.
Beginning with the 33rd pick, up-to-the-minute on-air coverage from the remaining rounds will shift exclusively to MLB.com/Live, where host Vinny Micucci will be joined by MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo and Major League Scouting Bureau director Frank Marcos.
Once the first night is done, the Draft will continue with rounds 4-30, via conference call from MLB Headquarters in New York, at noon ET on Wednesday. Rounds 31-50 will be on Thursday, starting at 11:30 a.m.
And when it comes to the talent out there to be followed, even McDonald is awed by what he sees.
"It seems all the kids are throwing harder now -- I think the radar guns are broken," McDonald said jokingly. "When I was in college, 95 [mph] meant something. Now it seems like everyone is throwing 95. Every generation gets bigger and stronger and faster."
And no one has been more awe-inducing than San Diego State right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who inherits McDonald's mantle as the best prospect in baseball history.
"He's an incredible talent, just head and shoulders above everyone else out there," McDonald said. "He's really poised. He's got good mechanics, a good breaking ball, a good changeup. He's not just a thrower."
Did watching Strasburg remind him at all of a young Louisiana State flamethrower he once knew?
"In some ways he does," McDonald said. "We both had real hard fastballs. But he throws harder than I did."
In 1989, McDonald was coming off a stint as the ace of the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic team. That spring, he opened his season for LSU with a string of 44 2/3 shutout innings.
McDonald went 14-4 with a 3.49 ERA during that regular season, setting a Southeastern Conference record with 202 strikeouts, and he received the highest rating for a pitcher in the history of the Major League Scouting Bureau.
There was never a doubt that the Orioles, coming off a 54-107 season, would take him with that first pick in the Draft.
Draft Day, June 5, 1989, landed right in the middle of the College World Series, a timing issue that has since been adjusted by Major League Baseball to allow the Draft to coincide with the off-days between the final tournaments and the Series itself.
"I am so glad they've changed that for the kids now," McDonald said. "It was so much to think about the Draft while also having to get ready for a College World Series game that night."
McDonald was, as he'd always been, the Tigers' workhorse, including a regional tournament doubleheader where he started the day game and relieved that night. By postseason's end, he'd pitched 148 1/3 innings as a junior.
"People say I was overused in college, and maybe I was, but I had a lot of fun," McDonald said. "It was just how we pitched back then. Maybe I was just a product of the time."
Now, you'll rarely see a prized young arm rack up that kind of pitch count. San Diego State coach Tony Gwynn, himself a Hall of Famer, limited his ace Strasburg to just 102 1/3 innings this season.
But when McDonald's 1989 college season ended, negotiations with the Orioles finally began, with then up-and-coming agent Scott Boras in his corner. And when the negotiations with Strasburg finally begin -- presumably with the Washington Nationals, who own the first pick of this year's Draft -- it'll be Boras in his corner, too.
McDonald's unprecedented performance, potential and reputation resulted in an equally-unprecedented pursuit of a record bonus and multiyear big league contract.
"At that time, a multiyear contract had never been given to an amateur player, so we had to fight that war," McDonald said. "Now, 20 years later, it's not such a big deal anymore."
It took two months before the sides came to terms, which also guaranteed McDonald a September promotion. That hiatus also gave McDonald a chance to rest his arm.
"I'd thrown so many innings that there was going to be a 'sit-down' period no matter what happened," he said. "I needed time off. It just turned out to be a little longer than we'd planned."
Signed on Aug. 18, McDonald was in the big leagues by September, with a brighter spotlight than he might have anticipated as he went 1-0 with an 8.59 ERA in six appearances, all out of the bullpen.
McDonald benefited from the support of some wise baseball people. The late Cal Ripken Sr., then the club's third-base coach, helped him keep the game in perspective. And Cal Ripken Jr. helped him learn there was more to pitching than just throwing a 95-mph fastball.
"Thank God for Cal Senior, who took me aside early in my career and told me to not get frustrated, that it was still the same game of baseball I'd always played," McDonald said. "And Junior called a lot of my pitches at first, because I didn't know how to call a game. I had never learned how to set up hitters. "
Even after pitching in such events as the Olympics and the College World Series, the big leagues were an eye-opener.
"It was a big adjustment," McDonald said. "You can't just walk up and throw the ball by the best hitters in the world. You have to learn how to pitch."
McDonald proved a fast study, as he spent most of 1990 in the Majors, finally moving into the rotation in mid-July, posting a 2.43 ERA in 21 games and finishing eighth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
McDonald went on to post a career mark of 78-70 with a 3.91 ERA, his best season coming in 1993, when he went 13-14 with a 3.39 ERA for the Orioles, striking out a career-best 171 batters in 220 1/3 innings.
He remained with Baltimore through 1995, before signing with Milwaukee as a free agent the following winter. In 1996, he tied a career high with 35 starts for the Brewers, his 3.90 ERA ninth in the AL that summer.
That road had its detours that included six trips to the disabled list. It finally came to a premature end after nine seasons.
During his tenure with the Brewers, McDonald noticed that his arm was not bouncing back from his starts as quickly as it used to.
"I didn't feel like my stuff was worse; I was just more sore than usual," he said. "Finally, I threw one pitch and got this burning sensation, and sure enough, I got an MRI [exam] and had a torn rotator cuff."
McDonald missed much of the 1997 season battling the shoulder woes, and he retired after his third rotator cuff surgery the following winter.
"Don't feel sorry for me," McDonald said. "I had a good career. I would have liked to pitch longer, but it just wasn't in the cards. Injuries stink, but I don't regret anything. "
Whether his collegiate workload contributed to his arm trouble will remain a matter of speculation, but it has also provided a cautionary tale that current coaches such as Gwynn have taken note of and which will benefit future generations.
"He had a fine career and is a fine young man with a great family," said Roland Hemond, the Orioles' general manager in 1989 who now serves as special assistant to the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks. "I just feel sorry he encountered that situation. I was always pulling for him."
If McDonald and Strasburg's paths should cross, McDonald knows what he would say.
"I would tell him to enjoy himself, to enjoy this opportunity, to work hard, to be himself, and don't try to do more than he's capable of doing," McDonald said. "I hope he steps in there and dominates right away. But there will always be a learning process."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.