I can't explain how I felt. Dead, I guess.
JUNE 5, 1987
There is a tendency in youth to view everything in apocalyptic terms. So it was with Ben McDonald when, as a freshman at LSU, he was called in to close out an elimination game against Stanford in the 1987 College World Series, in Omaha. It was the bottom of the 10th, and the Tigers had a comfortable 5-2 lead. With the bases loaded and one out, McDonald delivered a fastball up and away to Stanford's Paul Carey, and watched him drive it over the leftfield fence. As Carey rounded the bases in triumph, McDonald sank to his haunches in shock.
Minutes passed. McDonald walked in circles on the infield grass and absently pulled off his purple-and-gold cap. A teammate steered him into the dugout, where he sat, wringing his cap and then burying his face in the crook of his left elbow to hide the tears. Finally, he got up and called his parents back home in Denham Springs, La.
His dad, Larry, tried to console Ben by saying that it was the best thing that could have happened, because adversity would make him stronger. To which Ben replied, "How can you say that?"
"At that point," recalls Ben's mother, Rebecca, "I didn't know whether it would make him a better baseball player or a weaker one."
Fortunately for McDonald, his folks—along with a 95-mph fastball and a strange affection for mustard sardines—have helped him to overcome the lonely feeling he had that day in Omaha. Now 21, the righthanded McDonald is a 6'7", 212-pound junior and a playful down-homebody with an athlete's self-assurance and a hunter's instinct for the kill. Anyone with lingering doubts about McDonald's pulse these days is advised to contact the Baltimore Orioles before June 5, when they are expected to select him as the No. 1 pick in the free-agent draft. If the Orioles make him a good offer, he will probably skip his senior year at LSU and turn pro.
With a 13-2 record and a 2.35 ERA, McDonald leads the 13th-ranked Tigers as they head into the preliminary rounds of the College World Series this week. The Major League Scouting Bureau gave him its highest rating ever for a pitcher, and opposing coaches have compared him favorably with the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens and the Cleveland Indians' Greg Swindell during their college years. Oriole scout Ray Crone, who has watched McDonald pitch eight times, says, "There are so many things he does that you want to see as a scout: He throws strikes; he has good command of all his pitches; he uses his fastball well; he has a smooth delivery; and he explodes well. You don't have to say, If he did this and this, he might be this. He already is."
McDonald set out to dazzle the scouts early this season, and in his first eight appearances he put together a streak of 44⅖ scoreless innings, a Southeastern Conference record. Particularly impressive was a 6-0 win over power-hitting Oklahoma State on Feb. 24. He fanned 14 and gave up no walks and only four hits. His curveball bit, his changeup baffled, and his first and last fastballs reached 98 mph on the JUGS gun. "The best-pitched college game I've ever seen," Kansas City Royals scout Glenn Balsamo called it. Scouts from teams with late picks looked on forlornly. "They just closed their books right there," says LSU coach Skip Bertman.
The way McDonald tells it. in his unhurried, thick-as-gumbo drawl, if it hadn't been for Carey's grand slam in '87, the books might never have been opened. "Now that I look back on it," he says, "it was the best thing." That moment was the darkest blot on an otherwise unblemished tale of success that had begun at Denham Springs High, where McDonald was selected to six all-state teams, twice each in baseball, basketball and football. He went to LSU on a basketball scholarship, passing up a $67,000 bonus offer from the Atlanta Braves as their 20th pick.
His skill also earned him a free ride of a different sort—in a burgundy Trans Am. When Ben was in the seventh grade, his father promised to give him a new car if he earned a college scholarship. The son remembered, and cashed in after signing his letter of intent. "Thank god he wouldn't fit into a Porsche," says Larry, an operations supervisor at Exxon Chemical in Baton Rouge.
McDonald joined the LSU baseball team in mid-April of his freshman year, after helping Tigers of a different stripe reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA basketball championships. He pitched well in spots during the regular season, but in his first relief appearance in the World Series, he gave up a game-deciding solo homer in an 8-7 loss to Oklahoma State. Three days later, in the fateful game against Stanford, Bertman called on McDonald again, with two on and one out in the bottom of the 10th. McDonald promptly lost control of a curveball and hit the first batter, Ed Sprague. It was, perhaps, an omen.
When Ben was five, Larry taught him the mechanics of pitching in the backyard: the overhand delivery, the high kick, the balanced point of release. Control was the main aim. "I'm a firm believer that if you've got speed in you, it's going to come out," says Larry, who played softball as a kid. Ben absorbed his lessons well. On rainy days the pitchers on his high school team practiced throwing into a roped-off box attached to the padding on the gym wall. But McDonald was so good he had to divide the box into quadrants to make the exercise more challenging. Even now he has trouble keeping the ball away from the heart of the plate. "I get ahead oh and 2 and try to throw the ball outside, and it still ends up going over," Ben says. "I get more of the plate than I want to, but I'm getting better at it."
After plunking Sprague to load the bases, McDonald faced Carey, the Cardinal's lefthanded cleanup hitter. McDonald put his 1-1 pitch right where he wanted it, but Carey drove it the opposite way, 370 feet into the night. "Now Ben appears more on television around here than the damn skier who falls going down the ski jump—you know, 'the agony of defeat,' " says Bertman, referring to the famous clip of ski jumper Vinko Bogataj's crash in 1970 that appears in the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports. "But the kid turned that fertilizer into some fruit."
McDonald returned to Denham Springs after the World Series and spent hours watching a videotape of the blast, long after his parents and his older sister, Pasha, had gone to sleep. He heard ESPN announcer Jim Kaat describe the moment again and again: "There's no more empty feeling as a pitcher than that right there. You wish there was a hole behind the mound [to hide in]. But there's not."
A few days later, McDonald flew to Anchorage to pitch for the Glacier Pilots in the Alaska League. "I was devastated for about a week," McDonald recalls. "I always won through high school; I never had to struggle. I didn't know what to expect in Alaska." He received a needed, if unintended, boost before his first start when the coach of the opposing team, the Mat-Su Miners, sent over a lineup card on which every hitter listed, numbers 1 through 9, had the same name: Paul Carey. "It really got me motivated, upset, fired up," says McDonald, who pitched a one-hit shutout. "I like challenges. I imagine that coach wishes he hadn't done it now."
Ever since giving up that grand slam, McDonald has viewed pitching as the challenge of a lifetime. He gave up his first love, basketball, after playing six games as a sophomore, to dedicate himself full-time to baseball. That meant ignoring the entreaties of LSU basketball coach Dale Brown, not an easy task. "Ben doesn't know how good a basketball player he could be," says Brown, who used McDonald primarily as a center. "There's not any ego in him."
"Coach Brown kept telling me he thought I was a better basketball player," says McDonald. "I said, 'Coach, just give me a full year of baseball and I'll show you I'm not.' "
And he did. After his sophomore season (13-7, 2.65 ERA, 144 strikeouts in 118⅖ innings), McDonald made the U.S. Olympic team. He was 6-2 during the team's pre-Olympic tour, including 16 innings of shutout ball in the World Amateur Baseball Championships at Grosseto, Italy. He was second on the staff to ace Jim Abbott, now with the California Angels, and had complete-game victories in Seoul over South Korea and Puerto Rico, to help the U.S. win the gold medal. Denham Springs held a day in his honor when he returned home from South Korea last October, and 3,000 people turned out amid red-white-and-blue bunting to greet him. The town also named a street after him, a long drive that winds through North Park, where he used to pitch as a Little Leaguer.
In 130 innings for the Tigers this year, he has allowed 86 hits, struck out 175 and walked just 32, testament to his fluid pitching motion, which is rare for someone his height. The size of his hands—he can hold seven baseballs in each—aids him in throwing a curveball so biting that the Tigers call it Big Nasty. They use the moniker for McDonald, too.
McDonald is known for his idiosyncrasies: He lets one long lace dangle from his glove ("Just something I do," he says); he has a long strip carved into his flattop above his left ear (he calls it his winning streak); and the night before he pitches, he downs a tin of mustard sardines. Once, while touring Japan, he tried to substitute sushi for his regular fare and got so sick he couldn't finish his next start.
"Ben likes to joke around," says LSU catcher Mike Bianco. "And he's always the first guy out of the dugout if a teammate hits a home run, and the first to put his rally cap on. Then he gets on the mound and he's a different person. You can see it in his face, his eyes. He's his own man out there, and he knows how to win the game."
"The thing that separates Ben from other players," says Bertman, "is not only that he can throw four pitches in the strike zone, but that, because of his Olympic experience, he can handle 16 reporters at his locker after a losing game and come back and win four days later. They'll love him in Baltimore. His temperament is perfect. He's a fierce competitor on the field, but off it he's easygoing."
Had McDonald not made the trip to Seoul, he would have tried out for the LSU football team as a punter. As it was, he returned from the Games too late to enroll for the fall semester, so he passed the time hunting squirrel and duck. Larry had given Ben his first firearm—a .410-gauge shotgun—when he was six, and he once caught a six-foot alligator with his bare hands on the Amite River. "You go at night and shine a flashlight in their eyes," McDonald says. "Then you jump off the boat onto their backs and force them into the mud until you get a good grip on them." The Orioles will be pleased to know that his sole contribution to these ambushes now is holding the flashlight.
McDonald hopes to build a house sometime soon on his parents' 20-acre spread—out by the pond, away from everything. And when he does, you can be sure that he will take along the blown-up photo that hangs over his bed at home, the one that shows him sitting in the dugout and clutching his cap after the grand slam he never wants to forget. He also keeps a copy of the photo above his bed at school and in his locker in the LSU dressing room. "Whenever I get to feeling a little bigheaded or think I'm on top of the world, it brings me back down to earth," McDonald says. "I just remember where I came from and what I've been through and what it took me to get where I am now."