ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Ben McDonald did not come to training camp with an alligator under his arm this spring, which probably will be viewed as progress by those who have questioned his maturity over the past couple of years.
The fact is, he doesn't need a reptile to go with his pitching repertoire anymore. He finally has a full season behind him and a chance to come into his own without the need for any of the unusual trappings of his laid-back Louisiana lifestyle.
Perhaps too much had been made of his backwoods background anyway. McDonald may have been born on the bayou, but he was not born yesterday. He probably knew all along that a live alligator comes in pretty handy when you don't want anyone to notice the albatross around your neck.
The unrealistic expectations that followed him out of college created a professional undertow that only now is beginning to recede. McDonald, 25, once one of the most highly rated pitching prospects in baseball history, finally is in a position to fulfill some of his vast potential, but only because he has escaped the center of attention.
"That was my ultimate goal," he said. "I was hoping that that would wear off and it finally is. I don't feel people are looking at me like they used to. I never wanted to be the guy in the limelight. I'm just a good old country boy who likes to play baseball."
The spotlight has found some other targets. The Orioles shipped in veteran Rick Sutcliffe last year to take the pressure off the younger pitchers. He did that and more. Right-hander Mike Mussina helped, too, with a performance that altered the pecking order in the Orioles' youth movement.
"In '91, I was the only guy here," McDonald said. "Jeff Ballard and [Bob] Milacki were coming off poor years. I was the only guy they could put any pressure on. Last year, when Mussina was ready and they got Sutcliffe, I was no longer the guy who had to win 20 games. It became a team effort."
Mussina won 18 games to emerge as one of the premier pitchers in the league. Sutcliffe came back from two years of arm problems to win 16. McDonald faded after a fast start to win just 13, but his success was measured more in games started than games won. He did not miss an assignment all year and was healthy from wire to wire for the first time in his professional career.
"I think I had a better year than most people give me credit for," McDonald said. "My ERA in 28 starts was about 2.80. Any time you go out 28 times and give your club a chance to win, you're doing all right."
First full season
It isn't easy to look past the 32 home runs and the 4.24 ERA, but Orioles manager Johnny Oates viewed McDonald's 1992 season an unqualified success. The reason: McDonald pitched 227 ** innings and showed up healthy for each of his 35 scheduled starts.
He was expected to do that in 1990, but a muscle strain in his side forced him to start the season in the minors and a blister problem kept him there until July. When he finally arrived, he won his first five major-league starts, which only served to raise expectations even higher.
The 1991 season was a major disappointment. McDonald started the season on the disabled list with an elbow strain and lost time to injury two more times on the way to a 6-8 record and a 4.84 ERA. Frustration was building, within himself and within the organization that had made him the first amateur pitcher to receive a multi-year contract.
"Obviously, it has been frustrating, getting hurt all those years," he said, "but I think that is all behind me now. I want to be a great pitcher, but I want to be one of those consistent guys who makes 30-35 starts a year. If I do that, hopefully the wins will come."
Mussina's sudden success has raised questions about McDonald's rate of development, but the Orioles cannot complain about that kind of controversy. The youthful nucleus of the starting rotation -- which includes promising left-hander Arthur Rhodes -- is the envy of the league, and everyone progressed last year.
McDonald does not shy away from the comparison, even though his 1992 statistics pale next to the 18-5, 2.54 performance that made Mussina a solid Cy Young candidate.
"I think he [Mussina] is further along than I am as far as setting up hitters and knowing how to pitch," McDonald said. "If you look at it, he's got almost as many pro starts as I do, because I was hurt my first two years. Every pitcher is a little bit different. It takes some longer."
Maybe the reason that it has taken McDonald longer is because everything came so easy to him early. He could overpower college hitters without even putting on his game face, so he never really had to work at the finer points of the game until he arrived in the major leagues.
Pitching coach Dick Bosman has been working with him ever since. The physical ability has always been there, but the level of concentration required to stay consistent throughout a season is another story.
"Some guys have it and some guys have to develop it," Bosman said. "I think he's developing it. As time goes on, you'll see him get better at it. He sees Mussina and the way he changes on game days. He sees the way Sutcliffe comes to the ballpark when he's going to pitch. 'Sutt' may listen to that country-western stuff, but that's just to block everything else out. I don't know if that [a lack of concentration] was a problem for Ben, but if you never had to do it, it might take awhile to realize that there are things you can do to help you be successful at this level."
Don't look for a complete personality transplant any time soon. McDonald hasn't lost his sense of humor and he says he never will.
"I like being loose," he said. "The day I pitch, I don't joke around. I don't laugh. I'm not as serious as Sutcliffe, but everyone can tell that I'm going to pitch. The other four days, I'm going to have a good time. When you stop wanting to have a good time, when you get bored, I think it's time to do something else."
In the winter, McDonald splits time between the family home in Denham Springs, La., and the 360-acre hunting preserve that he bought recently in Mississippi. He is an avid hunter who is equally proficient with rifle and bow, and he used both skills to down six deer during the off-season.
It is a hobby that is not at all politically correct, but he does not apologize for it.
"I'm NRA and proud of it," he says. "I love animals as much as any of those animal rights nuts. I just like to harvest them once in a while."
That philosophy has cost him a few fans. He recounted recently how a friendly conversation on the flight to spring training turned into an angry exchange when he revealed to the woman sitting next to him that he enjoyed the thrill of the hunt.
"I got a letter recently from a guy who said, 'I hope you never win another major-league game until you stop shooting animals,' " McDonald said. "People can write and say what they want. I'm all for that. There's a lot more of that up north. It's a way of life back home."
Under the gun
Everybody's got an opinion on Ben McDonald, and that hasn't been so good. He arrived in the Orioles' organization saddled with a ton of unrealistic expectations four years ago and is only now digging himself out from under them.
He was sold to the Orioles as a guy who already had one foot in the major leagues when he came out of Louisiana State University as one of the most highly touted college pitchers in history. He even believed that himself. But a long contract dispute with the club delayed his arrival until late in the 1989 season and left him with more to live up to than a few glowing college press clips.
"I think there was a lot of pressure placed on him by the fans, the club, his agent and his fellow players," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said. "There were great expectations, but I think they were performance-based. I don't think that they were as much salary-driven as they were created by his terrific college performance."
That may be true, but it couldn't have been easy walking into the Orioles' clubhouse already making more money than a lot of his established teammates.
McDonald recognized the difficult position he was in and did everything he could to defuse a potentially divisive situation. He may not be blessed with the natural intensity of a Mike Mussina, but he was blessed with a boyish, outgoing personality that jTC eventually made him one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse.
There is room to wonder if he would be a better pitcher today if he had not been pushed into the big leagues so soon. The Orioles' front-office types have been known to wonder aloud about that among themselves, but it is too late to turn back now.
"It was just that our reports and expectations were that he was the kind of young pitcher who could contribute almost immediately," Lucchino said. "That's why he got the contract he did, that and the impact of being such a celebrated player. But it's all ancient history now. The important thing is that he's an important member of this team, both as a pitcher and as a personality.
"We have a lot of faith in Ben McDonald. Ben is going to have a long and productive career, and he's really in the very early stages of it."
What you see is what you get
If the Orioles have been waiting for McDonald to mature, they may be in for a long wait. He has gotten older, but he steadfastly refuses to grow up.
The other day, he stopped into the manager's office with a five-foot python draped around his neck, just to see what kind of reaction he could get from the assembled media and coaches. It was nothing compared with the stir he created two years ago when he waltzed into the clubhouse with that three-foot alligator in tow. Not even in the same league.
"I've been looking for another one [alligator] this year," he said. "I'm going to catch one and bring it in. We've got to liven things up around here, but these Florida gators, they know I'm around. They're hiding."
Of course, it's all just talk now. There will be no reprise of the old alligator-in-the-gym-bag trick. McDonald doesn't need any diversionary tactics anymore. It looks like he might be ready to
go it alone.