Ben McDonald was 6’7”, weighed 213 pounds, could whip a fastball across the plate at 95 miles per hour. He signed his Orioles contract on August 19, 1989, and joined a pitching staff that included Jeff Ballard and Bob Milacki, winners of 18 and 14 games in the ’89 season, respectively. The ’89 Orioles had literally gone from worst to first, improving from a 1988 record that ranked them among the worst teams in Major League history to a contender for the American League East title, occupying first place for three months before losing the division by two games to the Toronto Blue Jays. It was during the miraculous ’89 “Why Not?” season that Ben McDonald made his Major League debut, entering a game against the Cleveland Indians in the third inning in relief of Curt Schilling, September 6. Ben pitched 2⅔ innings, struck out two, gave up one hit and one earned run, walked one batter; the Orioles lost the game 9-0. He appeared in five more games before the ’89 season ended, never as a starter, but he was the pitcher of record for the final game of the season, a 7-5 victory over the rival Blue Jays – his first Major League win.
He pitched his first game as a starter on July 21, 1990 against the Chicago White Sox. Ben threw a complete game shutout, surrendering 4 hits, walking one, striking out five, and led the Orioles to a 2-0 win. His next four starts were victories as well, making him the first Oriole rookie ever to win his first five starts. He was 22 years old, the shoe-in for Rookie of the Year, the man to carry Baltimore, a city that had not seen a World Series since 1983, back to greatness in the 1990s. But following those five thrilling victories, it took another five starts – including four straight losses – for Ben to record another win. He finished the 1990 season with a record of 8-5, an ERA of 2.44. He was eighth place in the Rookie of the Year voting, Sandy Alomar Jr. of the Cleveland Indians winning the award.
The years Ben McDonald pitched for the Orioles were not good ones. The mighty starting rotation of the 1989 season collapsed – neither Jeff Ballard nor Bob Milacki ever performed at that level again, and both eventually left the team and finished their careers in relative anonymity. Ben’s best year with the team was 1994, when he finished with a record of 14-7 and an ERA of 4.06; the Orioles wound up the season with a record of 63-49, 6½ games out of first place before the season was cut short by the player’s strike. Ben was a free agent in 1996. He left Baltimore and signed with the Milwaukee Brewers. He was not the next Jim Palmer.
His record the first season with the Brewers was 12-10, an ERA of 3.90; the Brewers finished up the season 65-79, 35 games back. The next year was a major improvement for the Brewers, who improved their record to 80-82, only 19 games out of first place, but a step backwards for Ben, who appeared in fewer games and managed an uninspiring 8-7 record and 4.06 ERA. It was his last season in the Majors.
Ben missed much of ’97 due to a shoulder injury. Following the season, the Brewers traded him to the Cleveland Indians. In February 1998, Ben underwent surgery to repair his damaged rotator cuff. Surgery was not enough. Ben retired, his career in baseball finished at age thirty. His final game had been July 16, 1997, a start vs. the Indians which he left after 6 innings, which the Brewers eventually lost 4-3. He left the Major Leagues with a record of 78 wins and 70 losses.
Remembering the hype that surrounded him at the time of his debut, it would be easy to call Ben McDonald a failure. His stats were never particularly impressive, he never pitched in the postseason, and injuries forced him out of the game during what should have been his prime. When the Orioles needed an ace, Ben proved unsuited to the role. Maybe his career peaked in college, in Seoul in 1988 when his mighty arm helped the Americans claim the gold medal. Maybe his Major League years, underwhelming as they were, should not be judged too harshly. Afterall, Ben McDonald hung in for seven seasons, notching 12 or more wins in four of those seasons, when dozens of other hot shit prospects were used up and callously discarded by a game that demands stamina and grit and cares nothing about potential, only about performance. Going by those standards, Ben’s career is still not the stuff of legend, but it cannot be called a failure.