Sometime in the past 30 years, Ben McDonald lost track of the piece of paper, but the message Cal Ripken Jr. inscribed on it has stayed with him.
McDonald, 51, is the only player the Orioles have selected with the first overall pick of the Major League Baseball draft. That will change Monday, when they’ll likely choose from a talented crop of position players — including Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman, Texas high school shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and California first baseman Andrew Vaughn — to make the draft’s first selection for the first time since taking McDonald, a right-hander out of LSU, in 1989.
In the weeks that followed that pick, amid negotiations between the Orioles and McDonald’s agent, Scott Boras, Ripken wrote McDonald a letter. Entrenched as the face of the Orioles, Ripken grew up in nearby Aberdeen and knew what it took to be embraced in Baltimore. He passed it along to McDonald.
“Baltimore's a blue-collar city,” McDonald recalled the letter reading. “You go out and you stay out of trouble, you bust your butt every day, you work as hard as you can every day, and the people are gonna take to you.
“And boy, was he right.”
That’s the same advice McDonald has for whomever the Orioles decide to make only the second No. 1 pick in franchise history. This week, McDonald reflected on his experience as baseball’s top amateur. He sees similarities between his path and Rutschman’s, with projections of being the first pick hovering throughout their respective junior seasons after productive summers with Team USA.
Although the honor of being the first overall pick was “a dream come true,” the season of buildup overwhelmed McDonald at times. He returned to LSU for his junior year after pitching the United States Olympic team to a gold medal. That season, he went 14-4 with a 3.49 ERA in guiding the Tigers back to the College World Series, earning the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s best amateur, but the noise of his future surrounded him.
“The buildup and the hype and answering the questions after every start about being No. 1 was difficult for a while,” McDonald said. “I think Adley's gonna be a lot like me, or whoever is taken No. 1. A lot of these kids are just kind of ready to get it over with. It's more of a relief than anything once it finally gets there.”
The selection came during the College World Series. While in Omaha, Neb., for the tournament, McDonald received a call from an Orioles representative informing him they had taken him first overall. Then, he did a news conference, where the questions kept coming.
“And it seemed like three hours later, I was pitching for LSU in Omaha,” McDonald said.
Once he became a professional, the hype McDonald endured in college molded into pressure and expectations. By September 1989, three months after he was drafted, he was in the majors. He spent the start of the 1990 season in the minors, joined the Orioles bullpen in July, and by the end of that month made his first major league start, pitching a shutout. McDonald won each of his first five starts, posting a 1.72 ERA. Despite the occasional rough outing thereafter, he finished the year with a 2.43 ERA in 21 games (15 starts).
But McDonald had an ERA above 4.00 in four of the next five seasons, and right shoulder tendinitis caused him to miss two months in the middle of his 1995 campaign, his last as an Oriole. He signed a two-year contract with the Milwaukee Brewers, and when shoulder injuries flared up again in the form of a torn rotator cuff, he was forced to retire at 30 years old. McDonald finished his career with a 3.91 ERA in 211 appearances (198 starts).
“There was a lot of success in there,” McDonald said, “but there was also a lot of days in there where I went home at night and just banged my head against the wall wondering why I couldn't consistently get big league hitters out.
“It's a game that's built for failure, and I failed a lot."
Much of that sense of failure stemmed from the expectations and pressure of being the first overall pick. Manager Frank Robinson notably told him in spring training before the 1991 season that he’d have to win 20 games for the Orioles to be successful.
Increasing the difficulty was learning how to pitch in the majors rather than the minors. At LSU, McDonald’s pitching coach called his pitches; he simply threw what he was told to throw. But being a major league pitcher required more involvement on his part as a 21 year old.
In Ripken and Rick Sutcliffe, McDonald found veterans to rely on. As he approached the 200-inning mark with the Orioles, he developed a greater understanding of what it meant to be a big league pitcher. Even if the results didn’t always align with expectations placed upon a No. 1 overall pick, McDonald said he ended his career believing he took on the mental challenges of such a role head on.
“It was some rough patches and some disappointments and some depression in there,” he said. “At the end of the day, I felt like mentally, I could handle the ups and downs of it.”
McDonald didn’t realize it had been 30 years since he was drafted until he was at a Vanderbilt game last month as part of his broadcasting responsibilities for ESPN and the SEC Network. Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias, who was there scouting Commodores outfielder JJ Bleday to be a potential top pick, approached McDonald and asked if he would be interested in representing the organization at this year’s draft in Secaucus, N.J., mentioning this was the three-decade anniversary of McDonald’s selection.
“I went, 'Wow. It has been 30 years,’ ” McDonald said. “Where has time gone?”
McDonald had to pass on the opportunity because he’ll be broadcasting the NCAA baseball tournament’s Baton Rouge Regional for ESPN. He figures he could’ve been able to get out of the assignment had the draft been during Super Regional weekend, when there won’t be 16 sites to cover.
Instead, once the College World Series is over in late June, he’ll join MASN’s Orioles broadcasts on occasion over the final months for the fourth straight season. He always enjoys returning to Baltimore, a place where he has several fond memories despite the weight of expectations he carried in his time there.
“The fans, I think they realize it's where a young man became a man,” McDonald said. “I was in Baltimore, 21 years old, and I basically grew up, and I tell people all the time, ‘It's my home. It's my home away from home.’
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“Whoever it is, whether it's Adley or Bobby Witt [Jr.] or Bleday or the Vaughn kid out of Cal ... if you bust your butt every day, the folks in Baltimore will fall in love with you.”