The M&M Boys: Plain and Peanut

July 18, 1994
July 18, 1994

Table of Contents
July 18, 1994

Oriole Pitchers
World Cup Soccer
Track And Field
Laura Davies
SI 40th Anniversary
The Cheese League
  • The heart of dairyland revealed itself to the author during his tour last summer of the NFL's five north woods training camps

Point After

The M&M Boys: Plain and Peanut

Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, a pair of young aces, deal for the Orioles in different ways

Mike Mussina likes to feed deer. Ben McDonald likes to kill them. "I've already told him, 'Keep it up and you're going to have an animal population problem on your hands,' " McDonald says. His large, round eyes grow even bigger at the thought of all those plump, trusting bucks bouncing happily across Mussina's property in suburban Pennsylvania. "I said, 'All it takes is one phone call, and I'll take care of it.' "

This is an article from the July 18, 1994 issue Original Layout

Mussina is a big Star Trek fan. McDonald is a Fox kind of a guy who thinks it doesn't get any better than Married...With Children. "I wouldn't watch Star Trek if it was the last show on TV," McDonald says.

Mussina is rock-and-roll, crossword puzzles, Stephen King, subtle humor and, thanks to taking summer classes, a Stanford graduate who needed less than four years to earn his economics degree. McDonald is country, Supersoakers, Field & Stream, slapstick and one of the most legendary college baseball players ever. "One summer I played in the Alaska summer league, and another summer I played on the Olympic team," says McDonald, who left LSU after three years. "See, that was summer school for me. This is my life. I can always go back to college."

Both of them were high school punters. Mussina was the only one who kicked with his shoe on.

In the elongated vastness of the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse at Camden Yards, you will find the lockers of Mussina and McDonald at opposite ends, like just about everything else concerning them. Never the twain shall meet. Certainly not on one of the lakes on the 750-acre fishing and hunting playground that McDonald owns in Mississippi. "We have nothing in common," says Mussina, who nevertheless enjoys the company of his outgoing teammate. "He likes fishing. If the fish aren't biting, that ain't fishing. That's sitting on your butt with a string in the water. How exciting is that?"

This much they share: They are homebodies who until last October, when Mussina bought a house in his hometown of Montoursville, Pa., still lived during the off-season in the same bedrooms in which they grew up. In 1992, at the age of 23, Mussina won 18 games and had a 2.54 earned run average—the lowest ERA for an American Leaguer that young since 22-year-old Mark Fidrych (2.34) and 23-year-old Frank Tanana (2.44) in 1976—and then he promptly returned home to the same pictures, clippings and posters that have been pinned to the corkboard-covered wall of his room since he was a kid. McDonald, 26, has remained in his Denham Springs, La., bedroom too. The posters of Julius Erving, Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan still hang there. He plans to move out after his wedding in November, but like Mussina, he will not stray far. He is having a house built, as he says, "within hollerin' distance" of his parents'.

The two righthanders share in this, too: They are the majors' winningest pair of pitchers this season, helping the Orioles (50-36) get to within a half game of the New York Yankees in the American League East at the All-Star break. Mussina (13-4 at the break) and McDonald (10-6) are at least halfway home to becoming Baltimore's first 20-game winners since Mike Boddicker in 1984. Typically, they have not exactly arrived at this threshold like Birds of a feather.

McDonald was the obvious first pick of the 1989 free-agent amateur draft after the Major League Scouting Bureau gave him its highest rating ever. A year later 19 teams passed on Mussina before the Orioles made him their first-round pick. So how can it be that Mussina now is the complete package and that McDonald, even in these best of times, can still be described by the three words that are the most frightening to a parent on Christmas Eve: Some assembly required.

Mussina found himself in a jam during a game two years ago when he decided on his own that the hitter (he can't remember who) was vulnerable to a cut fastball, a pitch that breaks like a slider. Mussina had no such pitch in his repertoire. Of course, the best ones find a way. Mussina fiddled with his fingers on the baseball and broke off a nasty cutter. He escaped.

No one had seen the pitch from him before, including his unsuspecting catcher, Chris Hoiles. After the inning Hoiles sidled up to Mussina in the dugout and said, "Well, I guess if you're going to use that pitch, we ought to have a sign for it."

It was not an isolated incident. "Mike is inventing things out there in the middle of the game," Hoiles says. "He'll come up with something for every situation."

Mussina has such an intuitive understanding of the complexities of pitching that he taught himself the knuckle curve. In high school. "I took a regular curve and enhanced it," he says flatly. Oh.

Were he a musician, he would be one of those virtuosos who can play music before they can read it. Naturally Mussina was born in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He began honing his mechanics at age four. He would throw a red rubber ball against his basement wall, over the years imitating the form of the pitcher he had seen most recently on television. He might be Tom Seaver one day, Catfish Hunter the next, Jim Palmer after that. By the time he was 15, one of the basement's tin radiator covers was pocked with dents and his motion had been finely sculpted into something very much his own.

The result is a compact, smooth delivery in which Mussina never brings his hands over his head. McDonald, on the other hand, doesn't so much wind up as unfolds, one section after another, like a road map being opened. Having so many moving parts compounds the chance of something going awry before the ball has left his hand, but that is the curse of being 6'7" with size-14 feet and hands that can hold seven baseballs each.

Mussina (6'2", 185 pounds) is cut from an assembly-line mold of Hall of Fame righthanders, with Seaver (6'1", 195), Palmer (6'3", 190), Hunter (6 feet, 190), Bob Feller (6 feet, 185) and Bob Gibson (6'1", 189) among them. He has their regal bearing on the mound, too. He chose to be a pitcher, he says, because "on that given night you can control the outcome of the game more than anyone else on that field." And he has won throughout his life: a 24-4 record in high school, 25-12 at Stanford, 14-4 in the minors and 49-20 in the majors, the latter figure translating to the highest winning percentage in Oriole history (.710) and the best among all active pitchers with at least 50 decisions. He has never had a three-game losing streak in his 88-game major league career.

"The thing about Mike is, he has an uncanny ability to repeat his mechanics time in and time out in any given situation," says Ed Sprague Sr., the Oriole scout who signed Mussina. "That's why he can put the ball wherever he wants it. That's why he's so consistent."

Mussina's control is so good that Oriole pitching coach Dick Bosman has been known to sit on a stool while catching him in the bullpen between starts. Mussina's career rate of 2.04 walks per nine innings is better than those of Seaver, Hunter, Palmer or Don Drysdale. His ratio of 2.65 strikeouts to every walk is virtually the same figure Seaver took to Cooperstown.

What's most impressive is that from 60 feet, six inches, Mussina can dot the i in his autograph with any one of six pitches. He has three fastballs (a cutter, a sinker and a riser), two curveballs (a slow curve and the knuckle curve) and an astonishingly deceptive changeup that is his best pitch. The rest of the pitching population is usually content to throw all changeups on the outer third of the plate. But Mussina is so adept at spotting his changeup that Hoiles often gives a location sign when calling for the pitch, a rare practice.

"Because he's so smart, he can process information so quickly," Bosman says. "You can almost see him thinking out on the mound. It was apparent when I first saw him in Triple A [in 1990] that he was special. There was very little I needed to say to him."

On the other hand McDonald is the engine that's always in the shop. He may have come out of LSU with that great Scouting Bureau report card, but he was like the straight-A student who had learned nothing. All of his pitches in college were called from the bench. He threw 95 mph, "but you couldn't have rolled it down a pipe any straighter," Bosman says.

McDonald pitched in only two minor league games before being called up to the majors the first time. Former Oriole pitching coach Al Jackson took away McDonald's forkball, fearful it would damage the 21-year-old's arm. McDonald was less than a year out of college and had never started a game in the big leagues when Johnny Oates, then a Baltimore coach and now the Oriole manager, gushed in spring training of 1990, "He's going to be our Dwight Gooden, our Roger Clemens." The next spring, manager Frank Robinson named him the Opening Day starter, an assignment McDonald, then with only 15 major league starts to his credit, missed with an elbow injury.

Says Baltimore assistant general manager Doug Melvin, "If we had to do it again, I'm sure we'd go slower with him. But when you have the top pick in the country, you have a tendency to want to show him off."

McDonald learned slowly. He added a changeup in 1991 and a cut fastball in '92, and he revived his forkball in '93. When the Orioles brought in veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe in '92, one of his tasks was to tutor McDonald. It was Sutcliffe who told McDonald to stop punishing himself after bad games: McDonald frequently would trash the clubhouse and extend his usual 20-minute run the next day to an hour. It was Sutcliffe who would sit next to McDonald on the bench and ask, "What are you thinking in this situation if that's you out there?"

"Ben's desire to do well probably hurt him," says Sutcliffe, who signed as a free agent last winter with the St. Louis Cardinals. "If he didn't throw a shutout, he felt like he let the team down. This is a kid who really cares. Now there's not a lot of work to be done. Just give him the ball every fifth day and sit back and watch."

Says McDonald, "Sut probably was and still is the closest friend I've ever had in baseball. I'm out on my own now."

McDonald has begun to occasionally vary the arm angle of his delivery—a trademark of Sutcliffe's career. "There was a game this year where all of a sudden he tried a three-quarters curveball," Bosman says. "I said to myself, Wow. That's something we haven't seen too much. He's thinking on his feet now. He never did that before."

"I never had to learn about pitching before," McDonald says. "I always had natural ability. Mike told me he got hit a little bit in college and learned how to pitch there. He called his own pitches [his third year]. He said to me, 'You've had it much tougher. You've had to learn up here.' I fought it. By the second half of '92, I felt like a pitcher. It was like a light went on."

His statistics, in part because of spotty run support, reveal little of that illumination. After a start on July 2, McDonald had pitched in exactly the same number of games (67) before the 1992 All-Star break as he had since then. His records in those halves to his career were similar: 22-19 before and 28-27 after, though his ERA did improve from 4.11 to 3.69. And while he should win 13 or more games this season for the first time in his career, he remains a work in progress. After he became the first Oriole to open a season with wins in his first seven starts, he was, through Sunday, 3-6 since then.

Intellect tends to be muted in the macho world of baseball clubhouses. "We're not discussing foreign affairs in here," says Mussina, who nonetheless stands out on reputation alone. He is, by his peers' mandate, the Orioles' union representative. "He buys books I'd never be interested in," Hoiles says. "If I went to a bookstore." In truth, though, Mussina's tastes are not so highbrow: He devoured the Sydney Sheldon oeuvre and is making headway on Stephen King's. His senior thesis at Stanford was entitled The Economics of Signing out of High School as Opposed to College. He wrote it in one night and received a B+.

He is one of the few major leaguers who has been insulted for being too smart. That dagger came from Toronto Blue Jay manager Cito Gaston, who thought Mussina showed him up at the All-Star Game in Baltimore last year by throwing in the bullpen when Gaston had no plans to use him. Mussina planned to apologize for any misunderstanding—he had merely wanted to get in some between-starts throws—when the Orioles visited Toronto two weeks later but decided against it after Gaston ripped him for showing "very little class." Says Mussina, who was back on Gaston's team for the All-Star Game this week, "He thought I was some sort of scheming, egocentric, overeducated jerk."

McDonald is frequently accused of more lighthearted mischief. While in the Florida Instructional League, he once caught an alligator, taped its mouth shut and placed it in the bathtub of the hotel room shared by two of his teammates. "About three minutes later I heard a high-pitched scream," he says. "One guy had pulled back the curtain and stepped on it as he got in. The next thing I knew he was standing buck naked in the parking lot, still screaming."

McDonald has sworn off reptilian pranks, though his locker still looks like a Toys R Us outlet. It's the one with the oversized water gun on top. It also houses a line of novelty T-shirts, including one with the rebel flag, one with the hunter's camouflage pattern and another with a wide-eyed deer grazing near a stream over the inscription FIELD OF DREAMS.

On this day in June, 60 minutes before someone else will pitch for the Orioles, McDonald reaches into his locker and pulls out a Little League-sized bat. He stands beside a folding chair that will serve as the strike zone and challenges shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. to a game of tape ball. Ripken happily obliges, firing wicked breaking pitches with a clump of paper wrapped in tape. McDonald can't touch his stuff.

"Be a man! Challenge me! Afraid to throw a fastball?" McDonald says in the mock baritone of a frustrated hitter. He puts away the tiny wood bat and reaches into his locker for a Wiffle bat. With that he manages a foul ball but not much more. Here is the highest-rated amateur pitcher ever, standing in just his drawers and a camouflage T-shirt, waving a child's plastic bat at a wad of paper wrapped in tape.

Mussina is seated in a black leather chair by his locker in the clubhouse's other hemisphere. "One other thing," he says to a visitor. "I don't play tape ball, either."

PHOTOAL TIELEMANSMussina, who likes rock-and-roll and Stephen King, is a model of consistency...PHOTOAL TIELEMANS...while McDonald, who likes country music and "Field & Stream," is a work in progress.PHOTOWALTER IOOSS JR.The more scholarly Mussina has his excitable side (below) but is no match for McDonald when it comes to serious goofing around.PHOTOJERRY WACHTER[See caption above.]PHOTOSCOTT WACHTER/SWP[See caption above.]TWO PHOTOSJERRY WACHTERTrue to form, Mussina and friend Jana McKissick go the salad route, while McDonald and fiancèe Nicole Smith prefer Cajun critters.