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The M&M Boys: Plain and Peanut
Tom Verducci
July 18, 1994
Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald, a pair of young aces, deal for the Orioles in different ways
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July 18, 1994

The M&m Boys: Plain And Peanut

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

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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."

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