KANSAS CITY, Mo.—A series between the two teams with the worst records in baseball could mean a lot to Bobby Witt Jr. or Adley Rutchman. A series like this was also once meaningful to Orioles broadcaster Ben McDonald.
Witt, a Texas high school shortstop, and Rutchman, a catcher at Oregon State, are considered the top two prospects in the next June’s draft. The Orioles and Kansas City Royals are likely to look strongly at them.
Thirty years ago, McDonald, a hotshot pitcher at LSU, was Witt or Rutchman.
“I was just like a lot of kids,” McDonald said. “I knew I was going to be drafted. I thought I was going to be the first pick, but I didn’t know for sure.”
It was a different time. With no social media, fans weren’t debating the merits of McDonald, although he was the most hyped prospect of his time.
McDonald is now a full-time broadcaster, dividing his year between college baseball on the SEC Network and the Orioles. He’s fully versed on both college and major league ball. He wasn’t when he played.
“I didn’t even follow baseball that summer to see who was where,” McDonald said. “It was until, as it got closer to the draft, maybe a month before, that I started realizing who the Orioles were and what they were doing.”
McDonald was an avid watcher of baseball on television, but he was restricted to national weekly telecasts until he was a junior in high school. Then the McDonald household was wired for cable.
WGN, which showed Cubs games, and WTBS, which had the Braves, were watched by McDonald.
“Quite frankly, I wanted to be drafted by a National League team because I all ever followed were National League teams,” McDonald said. “I followed the Braves, and I followed the Cubs and everybody they would play. Of course, they didn’t have interleague play.”
McDonald is the only first overall pick in Orioles history, though they’ve had four others — Tim Beckham, Kris Benson, B.J. Surhoff and Delmon Young — play for the team.
McDonald thought about the Orioles and what he had in common, and it wasn’t much. “All right, I know Cal Ripken because everybody knows Cal Ripken [who] knows anything about baseball,” he said.
“And I know Gregg Olson because I played against him because he was in the SEC with Auburn. Other than that, I couldn’t name one other player on the Orioles’ team that year. It was a lot of nervousness for me to go to a team that I just didn’t know much of the history of the Orioles because I wasn’t an American League fan.”
As he watches the Orioles and Royals play this weekend, he knows the reality. “One of these two teams is going to have the No. 1 pick,” McDonald said. “There’s a couple of really good players out there. I think either way they can’t go wrong.”
In the pre-Twitter era, McDonald was more well known than any other amateur player had been. Drafted by a team that lost 107 games in 1988, the Orioles were stunningly in a torrid division race with the Toronto Blue Jays a year later.
McDonald was in the major leagues barely three months after he was drafted after just two games with Frederick.
“There was so much hoopla about me because I graded out higher than anybody,” he said. “I got the biggest contract ever, and then it brought a lot of attention, especially in a year where the Orioles were the worst the year before … It all manifested into a big whirlwind.”
In 1990, McDonald was in the big leagues after 10 minor league starts. He played with the Orioles until 1995, then moved on to Milwaukee for two more years before he couldn’t play any longer. He compiled a 78-70 record.
“It never really works out the way you want it to,” McDonald said. “Injuries slowed my career and cut my career short. I’m happy the way the career went. I knew there was going to be a learning process.
“I’m happy with the fact that I tried really hard … I just didn’t get the years in that I’d like to get in. I got parts of nine seasons. It wasn’t like it was horrible. I’m still thankful for that.”
McDonald talked about the differences between young players then and now.
“Are the kids more physical?” McDonald said. “Yes, some of them are more physically gifted, but I don’t know that they know the game of baseball any better than we did when we were coming up. I don’t think they spend their time in the backyard playing Wiffle Ball or tennis ball or tape ball. We didn’t have travel ball.
“Kids aren’t necessarily learning the game. They’re playing the game more, but they’re not learning the game more.”