McDonald: SI cover boy, same Ben


ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Anyone worried that fame might change Ben McDonald for the worse ought to worry about something that has a better chance of happening, such as a blizzard in the Sahara.

The Sports Illustrated cover featuring a picture of him with a baseball in his mouth and a serious-looking Mike Mussina at his ** side had just hit the newsstands, then he won his 11th game Thursday night to stay on a pace to win 20 games.

Yet, there he stood after the game, making plans to ride in the back of a pickup truck after the game with some guy sporting a handle-bar mustache and cap advertising a boot and saddlery shop.

In the shadow of Hollywood, no less.

Same young Ben.

McDonald started the season with seven victories in seven starts and started the second half of the season with a start as impressive as any one of those seven.

But with California Angels left-hander Mark Langston pitching for the other side, it almost wasn't good enough until the Orioles rallied in the eighth inning for a 3-2 victory Thursday night.

McDonald, who lost a 1-0 game to Langston on July 2 at Camden Yards, was trailing by the same score until Chris Sabo and Rafael Palmeiro opened the eighth with back-to-back home runs.

McDonald (11-6, 4.26) had a 3-1 lead when he threw the last of his 123 pitches and Chili Davis almost drove the fastball far enough to tie the game. Not quite, though, as it died in the glove of left fielder Jack Voigt.

"If we were playing in Camden Yards, that was out and it's 3-3," McDonald said.

Instead, it was Anaheim Stadium and the Orioles won by a run after Lee Smith allowed a run in the ninth en route to his 30th save.

In earning his first victory since June 17, McDonald allowed one run on five hits and three walks. He struck out five. Even if his pitch count had not reached the alert zone, McDonald's pitch to Davis would have been his last.

Warning signs of a blister began to appear on his right middle finger.

"It's not a blister," McDonald said. "It's real close to a blister, but it's not a blister. I just lost a layer of skin, and it started burning. It'll be fine when I go back out there in five days. It was time for me to come out, anyway."

During the first half, McDonald's ERA grew higher by the month: 2.65 in April; 5.40 in May; 7.45 in June.

After Thursday night, McDonald appeared convinced that he had regained his early form. He has allowed one earned run in each of his past three starts.

"I went through a rough period in June, but my stuff is back, my command is back. I'm back where I want to be," McDonald said.

On the cover of Sports Illustrated is where just about all professional athletes yearn to be. McDonald made it and made it with a baseball in his mouth. Teammates kidded him that he failed to make the most of his one chance to make the cover of SI.

"That's all right," McDonald said. "I'll get a chance to be on it again."

He'll settle for warding off the SI jinx.

"There hasn't been a Sports Illustrated jinx this year," Mussina was quick to point out. "It's been a Baseball America jinx this season."

McDonald was a favorite of that publication, which mostly covers prospects, early in his career. He has graduated to SI.

Might going Hollywood be next?

Not a chance.

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