I can't explain how I felt. Dead, I guess.
JUNE 5, 1987
There is a tendency in youth to view everything in apocalyptic terms. So it was with Ben McDonald when, as a freshman at LSU, he was called in to close out an elimination game against Stanford in the 1987 College World Series, in Omaha. It was the bottom of the 10th, and the Tigers had a comfortable 5-2 lead. With the bases loaded and one out, McDonald delivered a fastball up and away to Stanford's Paul Carey, and watched him drive it over the leftfield fence. As Carey rounded the bases in triumph, McDonald sank to his haunches in shock.
Minutes passed. McDonald walked in circles on the infield grass and absently pulled off his purple-and-gold cap. A teammate steered him into the dugout, where he sat, wringing his cap and then burying his face in the crook of his left elbow to hide the tears. Finally, he got up and called his parents back home in Denham Springs, La.
His dad, Larry, tried to console Ben by saying that it was the best thing that could have happened, because adversity would make him stronger. To which Ben replied, "How can you say that?"
"At that point," recalls Ben's mother, Rebecca, "I didn't know whether it would make him a better baseball player or a weaker one."
Fortunately for McDonald, his folks—along with a 95-mph fastball and a strange affection for mustard sardines—have helped him to overcome the lonely feeling he had that day in Omaha. Now 21, the righthanded McDonald is a 6'7", 212-pound junior and a playful down-homebody with an athlete's self-assurance and a hunter's instinct for the kill. Anyone with lingering doubts about McDonald's pulse these days is advised to contact the Baltimore Orioles before June 5, when they are expected to select him as the No. 1 pick in the free-agent draft. If the Orioles make him a good offer, he will probably skip his senior year at LSU and turn pro.
With a 13-2 record and a 2.35 ERA, McDonald leads the 13th-ranked Tigers as they head into the preliminary rounds of the College World Series this week. The Major League Scouting Bureau gave him its highest rating ever for a pitcher, and opposing coaches have compared him favorably with the Boston Red Sox' Roger Clemens and the Cleveland Indians' Greg Swindell during their college years. Oriole scout Ray Crone, who has watched McDonald pitch eight times, says, "There are so many things he does that you want to see as a scout: He throws strikes; he has good command of all his pitches; he uses his fastball well; he has a smooth delivery; and he explodes well. You don't have to say, If he did this and this, he might be this. He already is."
McDonald set out to dazzle the scouts early this season, and in his first eight appearances he put together a streak of 44? scoreless innings, a Southeastern Conference record. Particularly impressive was a 6-0 win over power-hitting Oklahoma State on Feb. 24. He fanned 14 and gave up no walks and only four hits. His curveball bit, his changeup baffled, and his first and last fastballs reached 98 mph on the JUGS gun. "The best-pitched college game I've ever seen," Kansas City Royals scout Glenn Balsamo called it. Scouts from teams with late picks looked on forlornly. "They just closed their books right there," says LSU coach Skip Bertman.
The way McDonald tells it. in his unhurried, thick-as-gumbo drawl, if it hadn't been for Carey's grand slam in '87, the books might never have been opened. "Now that I look back on it," he says, "it was the best thing." That moment was the darkest blot on an otherwise unblemished tale of success that had begun at Denham Springs High, where McDonald was selected to six all-state teams, twice each in baseball, basketball and football. He went to LSU on a basketball scholarship, passing up a $67,000 bonus offer from the Atlanta Braves as their 20th pick.
His skill also earned him a free ride of a different sort—in a burgundy Trans Am. When Ben was in the seventh grade, his father promised to give him a new car if he earned a college scholarship. The son remembered, and cashed in after signing his letter of intent. "Thank god he wouldn't fit into a Porsche," says Larry, an operations supervisor at Exxon Chemical in Baton Rouge.